Mobility

Rooting your Kindle Fire: A cautionary tale

It's possible to make a Kindle Fire even more powerful by rooting it and installing a full Android version, but there are some dangers involved.

 
kindle fire cnet.jpeg
Kindle Fire HD
Credit: Josh Miller/CNET
  
 

I recently wrote about my first generation Kindle Fire and some of the benefits it has provided me, such as web access, Dropbox usage and, of course, keeping up on my reading. While I've been happy with what the Kindle can do on its own, working in IT means you have to push onward and upward to check out new developments and techniques.

This version of the Kindle runs the older Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) by default; a special version customized specifically by Amazon called "Fire OS." I mentioned in my article that it is possible to install a full version of the Android operating system on the Kindle Fire to add even more capabilities. This takes place via a process called "rooting" which I decided to try out.

There's been some talk on TechRepublic recently about rooting Androids. My colleague Jack Wallen wrote an article and recorded an accompanying video titled "Best practices for rootingyour Android device" in early March, 2014. Wallen discussed using a product called "saferoot" on his Samsung Galaxy S4, cautioning that different methods will apply to different devices. He also covered the topic for the Verizon Samsung Galaxy S4 in February, 2014. It's not exactly a simple process and there are some risks, as we will see.

One of the commenters to my article, "inventor96," helpfully provided a link to an article by Brad Linder on liliputing.com discussing how to root a first generation Kindle Fire, so I took a look and got started on the process. In a nutshell, it involves using a utility called the "Kindle Fire Utility" to update the default "recovery console" – a partition in device memory that the Kindle can boot into to perform maintenance operations like factory resets. In this case, the updated recovery console is called "TWRP" which is short for "Team Win Recovery Project." It allows the installation of the custom Android 4.2 Jelly Bean OS (known as a "ROM" which stands for "Read Only Memory") which is downloaded separately then applied to the device.

I won't repost the entirety of the article here since the specific step-by-step instructions are already there, but rather will outline what I did, what I observed, and what happened next to give you a play-by-play description of the process as I experienced it.

The instructions provide options for upgrading a Kindle with a custom ROM already installed as well as performing a fresh Android 4.2 install. I went with the latter option since I was using the default Fire OS that came with the Kindle (version 6.3.2).

As a point of caution, Linder warns, "There are a few good reasons to stick with Amazon's software. You lose access to the Amazon Instant Video streaming app and the Amazon Kindle Owners' Lending Library if you install a custom ROM. You may also take a wrong move and end up with an unbootable Kindle (although it's tough to make an irreversible mistake with a first-generation Kindle Fire)." In a separate article devoted to rooting a Kindle Fire with software version 6.3.1, he also stated that "rooting the tablet and installing custom firmware may also void your warranty — and there's no official support, so if anything goes wrong you're on your own."

I was fairly warned. Now that we know the stakes, let's see how I fared.

I downloaded the Kindle Fire utility

The Kindle Fire utility is the key player in this story; it allows you to not only root your device but install ROMs or apps and manage settings.

It's not really an installable program so much as a folder containing the drivers, files, tools and commands needed to conduct the rooting/ROM installation. Launching "run.bat" in the root of the Kindle File folder brings up the following screen:

 

scott fig a kindle.png
 

Since the instructions stated to "install TWRP or ClockworkMod Recovery as well as the FireFireFire Bootloader" I hooked my Kindle up to my laptop computer using the USB cable and opted for option #3; "Install Latest TWRP Recovery." The process kicked off happily enough, but then I hit a snag:

 

scott fig b kindle.png
 

The process was stuck at "waiting for device." I unplugged and plugged the Kindle back in, but no dice. I noted that tip in the screenshot above to "check device manager for kindle." It seemed my Windows 7 system needed a driver for the Kindle. The root directory of the Kindle Fire utility includes a handy .bat file called "install_drivers.bat." I ran this and a wizard kicked off which helpfully installed the driver for me. The Kindle then appeared in Device Manager as an "Android ADB Interface":

 

scott fig c kindle.png
 

However, the Kindle Fire utility still could not install TWRP; I encountered the same "Waiting for Device" message.

While writing my original Kindle Fire article last month I needed to get screenshots from the device, so I followed some instructions I found online to complete this process. It entailed installing the Java Development Kit, the Android Software Development Kit, then a USB driver for the device so I could transfer the screenshots to my desktop.

Reasoning that since my desktop computer already had the correct driver installed, I hooked up my Kindle and fired up the Kindle Fire utility on that system. This time it recognized my device and I was able to start the TWRP Recovery installation:

 

scott fig d kindle.png
 

The Kindle rebooted as per that line "The Kindle has been told to reboot in Fastboot mode," but then the process hit a brick wall at that "MD5 did not match" error. Suddenly the device refused to boot up any further than displaying "Kindle Fire" on the screen.

Uh-oh.

So, what next?

Various efforts at powering off and on the Kindle produced nothing beyond the words "Kindle Fire" displaying on the screen. Oddly enough, Windows kept complaining about an unrecognized driver when the Kindle was connected to the PC – a symptom that the device was borked, as we call it. Installing the original driver and the driver that came with the Kindle Fire utility did not work.

Disconnecting and reconnecting it to the computer then launching the Kindle Fire Utility was also no help; I couldn't use any of the offered commands since the utility couldn't see the device:

 

scott fig e kindle.png
 

If the Kindle Fire Utility COULD see the device I could use the Bootmode Menu option to try to fix this, but apparently the Kindle didn't have enough of a pulse. Resetting it to factory defaults wasn't possible either since it has to be able to boot up in the first place to do that.

Various tips online yielded no progress; charging up the device, holding the power switch for 20, 30 or 60 seconds then releasing it, powering it up then connecting it to the USB cable and so forth. At present it seems the Kindle is bricked, sadly enough, but if the status changes I'll announce it in the comments section of this article along with what I did to fix it.

Post-mortem

I'll admit I was less than pleased by the outcome. However, I don't blame Linder or the developers of the Kindle Fire utility; I'm sure this process has worked for them but something was unique about my setup.

I reflected on a fourth-season episode of Breaking Bad whereby criminal kingpin Walter White buys a car wash as part of a money laundering scheme. As he tours the facility with the owner (his despised ex-boss), they find flaws in the establishment but the owner keeps reminding him the sale is "as is." Walter turns this around by taking the framed "First Dollar We Earned" from the owner and using it to buy a soda after reminding his adversary: "as is." That term describes the rooting process and any negative repercussions to a "T." I don't intend to appeal to Amazon for help since the Kindle is undoubtedly out of warranty and this is my responsibility to shoulder. If you want to play, you've got to be ready to pay.

I'm not entirely sure what went wrong, but suspect it had something to do either with the driver that was loaded on my desktop PC or the one that came with the Kindle Fire utility. The "MD5 did not match" error appears to have been the source of the problem but I have not found anything useful to explain it yet.

This is the danger with rooting a device; as previously stated support may be minimal or non-existent and you're left to the mercy of whatever online comments might provide guidance. I knew the risk and pursued it in the interest of science. The good news is that you can buy a first generation Kindle Fire on E-Bay for $55 or so, which I will do if I am unable to recover this device.

Is there anything I can recommend to you, the reader? Well, looking back I would say that if you attempt to root a device don't deviate one iota from the documented steps involved. In my case the Kindle Fire Utility driver didn't seem to work on my laptop so I introduced an unknown element into the process by using my desktop PC and the separate driver. Looking back I should have resolved the original driver issue or quit the experiment.

Do I plan to attempt the rooting process again? Well … in my capacity as a system administrator and tech writer I'm sure I will find myself involved in a similar experiment down the road, but in terms of rooting the next Kindle Fire, at the moment my answer is "I suspect not." Despite this experience (or perhaps now because of it) I am somewhat loss-averse which is why while I'm in Vegas I swim and go to restaurants instead of gamble. The original Amazon-based OS worked fine and met my needs, but I wouldn't rule out rooting another device with a different set of steps and utilities.

There's a Latin phrase called "Caveat Emptor" which means "Let the buyer beware." I wonder if there is a similar phrase for "Let the tinkerer beware?" According to the Latin dictionary the word for scientist is "physicus," which seems close enough, so my new motto is therefore "Caveat Physicus!"


About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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