Smartphones

Rooting your Android phone: Balancing risk with freedom

Ask about rooting Android phones and opinions abound. So it shouldn't be a surprise that this Android Investigative Team has a few of their own.

I have no interest in rooting my Android phone. It works fine. But, that may change. Apparently, AT&T is messing around with the ability to side-load applications.

Android Central has a slew of posts about this. It seems AT&T removed the setting to "Allow installation of non-Market applications" from many of the Android phones they offer. My Samsung Infuse happens to be one of the exceptions.

Why? I don't know. I am curious if this is the case with other carriers. Does your Android phone have the setting (Settings/Applications) encircled in red?

If not, you're unable to take advantage of offers like this one from Amazon.

Well, that's not entirely true. You could root your Android phone to allow side-loading.

Is rooting a good idea?

As I said earlier, I don't have a dog in this fight. But, I know plenty who do. And they're asking me, "Is rooting my phone a good idea...or not?" My response, "I'll get back with you."

Our opinions

That's code for, I need to consult my Android Investigative partner and fellow TechRepublic writer, William Francis. I've been around long enough to know it's harder to point a finger at two people if something goes wrong. Here's what we came up with.

Kassner: A good starting point might be to define "rooting an Android phone". As an ex-iPhone user, I considered it jailbreaking. Is there a difference? Francis: Rooting and jailbreaking are phone-specific terminology for the same thing -- getting access to the underlying operating system on the phone. Kassner: What do you see as the advantages of rooting Android phones? Francis: In my opinion, the biggest reason to root an Android phone is to install a custom Read Only Memory (ROM). If you ask 20 different Android users with rooted devices why they did it, you're going to get 20 different answers.

Some of those reasons are legitimate and advantageous, such as removing carrier-added software which the user doesn't want sitting there eating up space, or worse, CPU and battery resources. Other reasons may fall into more gray areas, like circumventing carrier restrictions on Wi-Fi hotspots, or turn-by-turn navigation.

Finally, you'll run into people -- gadget nuts --  who root their phones for the hell of it. I have a friend who went through the process of rooting and installing a custom ROM on his phone so he could change the image his phone displays when booting up.

Kassner: You knew this was coming: What are the disadvantages of rooting Android phones? Francis: Of course, with power comes responsibility; once you have super-user status -- goal of rooting -- there is nothing preventing you from deleting or altering a setting that bricks the phone.

For example, did you know that the dialer portion of your Android phone is an application? Once you've rooted the phone, you can delete it just like any other application. I know; first hand, I'm embarrassed to say. By the time I realized what I had done, I had a "smart" phone that couldn't make phone calls. Luckily, I was able to restore the original ROM.

Kassner: Answers are all over the map when I ask if rooting voids the phone's warranty. The most interesting answer was. "It only matters if you return the phone in a rooted condition." William, I need you to set me straight. What's the deal with warranties? Francis: To my knowledge, it is completely up to the carrier and or manufacturer (depending on where you got your phone and if you have insurance on it). Most carrier-warranty policies have a vague clause concerning the loading of "unauthorized" software which gives them wiggle room on the subject.

It's best to get your specific phone carrier to answer that question in writing.

Kassner: A coworker sent me the following quote, but not the source:

"Verizon and other major carriers are working to develop ways to track rooted phones and phones running custom kernels. Once a phone is identified, new firmware currently being developed will disable the phone."

Have you heard anything about this?

Francis: I have heard this type of rumor before, but I don't put much stock in it. Here's why. Two popular reasons for rooting a device are to disable carrier-pushed Over-The-Air (OTA) updates and load your own firmware.

First, if you disable the carrier's link to send firmware updates, it is unlikely the carrier can re-enable the link remotely. Without the link, the carrier has no way to send an update.

Second, as long as you aren't using your phone to violate your contract with the carrier -- I can't imagine why the carrier would bother. You are paying to send and receive voice and data over their network. Turning off the phone of a paying customer just seems like bad business.

Kassner: You mention that the updating process is disabled when the phone is rooted. I read that people are purposely rooting their phones, just so they can get the latest version of firmware and updates. I'm confused. Francis: The confusion comes because the term "rooted" is often used to refer to a device that has been jailbroken and modded -- another term for installing a custom ROM. To be precise, the term "rooting" only refers to giving yourself root privileges (super user), to the operating system.

As for updates being disabled, if you only root your phone, the phone will still receive OTA updates. But in a "catch 22", when you get an OTA, it will revoke your super-user privileges - forcing you to re-root after the update.

Custom ROMs are a different beast entirely. Android is an open-source project, meaning there are people actively engaged in development of the operating system outside of what Google is doing. Some of the features and improvements the developers come up with are pretty sweet. But, most of these features will never be incorporated into the operating system.

So development companies -- like CynogenMod --  offer new and or experimental features by compiling alternate versions of Android. Updating to one of these custom ROMs will likely prevent you from getting future OTA updates from your carrier, especially if the update is a newer kernel build.

Kassner: One thing still confuses me. How can companies like Cynogenmod offer the newest version of Android faster than the phone manufacturer or the carrier? Francis: Good question. Remember, once Google releases a new version of Android and open sources it, you -- as a user -- still have to wait for the phone manufacturer and carrier to make their modifications, test them on the devices, and then finally send the update to you.

Everyone gets their hands on the code at roughly the same time. But without financial motivation: Why should a manufacturer spend time tweaking a newer version of Android for a phone purchased a year ago?

Also, more times than not, you can get the newest version of Android sooner via the custom ROM route. This is why I and most other developers root phones -- to load a custom ROM and preview a new version of Android.

Kassner: It appears that AT&T is now preventing side-loading of apps or loading from online app stores like Amazon Apps. Why do you think that is? Isn't that policy going to force more people to root their phones? Francis: In my mind, carriers preventing someone from side-loading apps is just downright dirty. There are very few legitimate reasons for doing this.

On the other hand, I can think of many reasons why a carrier might engage in this -- all motivated by greed. Remember, the carrier has last contact with the operating system before it goes to your phone. It doesn't take much imagination to realize the power that gives them.

Kassner: Let's say I am brave enough to root my phone. Before I do, is there anything I should save or do, in order to get back to a pre-rooted phone if need be? Maybe I should first ask if that's even possible. Francis: Absolutely. You just need to remember the procedure for backing up, rooting, and installing custom ROM's is different for every phone.

CynogenMod has a comprehensive guide for each phone it supports. It's important to read it and follow the steps carefully. Otherwise, it is possible to brick your phone.

In two-plus years of rooting and loading custom ROMs, I've done it once. I had to go to my local phone store (Sprint) and hope for the best. The woman at the store was very nice, replacing the rooted phone without any hassle.

Kassner: In our article, "Mobile malware: A clear and present danger", Adrienne Porter Felt proposed the following:

"Currently, smartphone manufacturers and network providers are indirectly (and accidentally) aiding malware authors by selling "locked" phones. There's strong demand among certain segments of the market for unlocked phones, so expert users are motivated to find exploits.

We think manufacturers and network providers should sell phones that can be easily unlocked by their owners -- without using exploits. This would remove the incentive for tech-savvy individuals to find and publish exploits."

At the time, I didn't have a chance to ask what you thought about Adrienne's idea, I would like to now, though.

Francis: It's certainly an interesting idea. I, myself, would certainly consider a phone that granted me superuser rights out of the box, ideal. At the same time, I'm not sure I want my mom having a phone that will allow her to delete critical system files, particularly the dialer app. Final thoughts

There you have it, our take on rooting Android phones.

I want to thank William. He is dedicated, getting his final revisions to me while boarding a plane bound for San Francisco where he will be attending AnDevCon.  Also, thanks Google, for allowing me to use the cool Android icon.

About

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

63 comments
SeeSeeRockett
SeeSeeRockett

I want to root my phone because I was attending a funeral service and realized my phone was on. My phone makes the most annoying very loud noise when turning on and off. I researched how to disable this or turn it down. Nothing built-in, and one app that will handle it but needs to run constantly. I never cared to root my phone before the funeral incident. There are some apps installed that I don't care for, but I don't use them. All phones, all [i]devices[/i], should come standard with some form of management mode.

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

By rooting my phone (an LG Ally that Verizon seemed to forget that they were supporting because I never got OTA updates), I was able to uninstall Verizon crapware, update to a more recent Android build than VZ had released for the phone, and then replace that with an even more custom-designed ROM tailored to best use the Ally's hardware and which came with what the ROM dev team considered the best-of-breed apps for daily functionality. Plus, I was able to install a theme set that implemented the new design elements for Android 4.0. It went from being a good-but-aging phone to a great phone that has improved battery life, more storage, no-cost tethering, easy system mods (I can overclock using scripts through a terminal interface now), and it's supported not by VZ call center drones but by a few real-world experts who know all of the ins and outs of the ROM and the device. I've sent beer money their way as my personal thanks, but this is work that they're doing because it's there and they want to excel. Was there risk involved? Yes, but the install guide walked me through the process and I learned details about how Android works while I was at it.

T3CHN0M4NC3R
T3CHN0M4NC3R

I root my phone to install a custom Recovery + custom HBOOT + custom ROM. With custom recovery, I get to make a backup image of my phone similar to Norton Ghost/VSS which is really great in case I decide to fall back. Custom HBoot give me access to change my partition table giving me more space on where I need them and less where I don need them. Custom ROM gives me better usability, better customizations, better stability and whatever the OEMers fail to provide.

terry.floyd
terry.floyd

I rooted my Droid 2 within the first month I had it. I was annoyed with all the bloatware Verizion installed by default, and while I could remove some applications on my own, several others (BlockBuster, CityID, etc.) could not be removed without having root access. Once the phone was rooted, I felt it really was MY Phone, and I immediately removed the bloatware, installed a tethering app, better video apps and modified the features I wanted to control. I also appreciated the option to un-Root the phone as necessary. Unfortunately, now that Verizon has tried to push a Gingerbread update to me (many months after all other phones from my devices' generation were updated), the update fails to load. I have tried to un-root, but this did not work. Haven't yet bricked my device, but may try the Cyanogen Mod as an alternative (I have not yet tried installing any custom ROMS). Still, I am happy I rooted the device because I learned so much in the process.

chadpendley
chadpendley

I have multiple android devices - 2 tablets and 2 phones. All are rooted. I find pleasure in tinkering with stuff. Rooting Android is one of those pleasures. That said, I agree that rooting is for those that want to (with the technical prowess), not for the masses. I did find it interesting that carriers will remove or hide standard functions (installation of software from Unknown Sources). And BTW, my Motorola Milestone/Droid did have the option available but I'm in an area where there are very few big name carriers (ATT is the only non-local here). So I doubt my local carrier is putting in much effort to customize the phones other than leaving the same old OS on it for years. That was the main reason for me to root - get Gingerbread. Did you happen to see the iPhone/Android comparison in regards to support & updates? http://theunderstatement.com/post/11982112928/android-orphans-visualizing-a-sad-history-of-support

elangomatt
elangomatt

I have started reading things online on rooting my phone in the last couple days, so it is funny this came up on TR. My reason for wanting to root my phone and install a new ROM is mostly for battery power. People have reported getting more than double the time out of my phone's battery. Right now, without much use, I get less than 16 hours on a full charge. My carrier hasn't expressed any interest in updating the phone to anything above FroYo either, so if I want Gingerbread, I'll have to root it.

nobeelmasri
nobeelmasri

I had many reasons to root my phone, the main one was to remove the bloatware that existed in the carriers ROM. I found that apps were running in the background and could not disable them. Another reason was so I could load a custom ROM and use the latest versions of the software and the features that were not included when the phone was released. To a certain extent I wanted to have full control over what ran on my phone as well as removing things I know I wouldn't need to free up space and better manage my own apps and performance and remove ads. The risks are well known, but isn't that what freedom is all about? I am aware of the risks and know what goes on on my handset. I personally feel safer knowing that I have control, not the carrier. We all know that their tactics are financially motivated and who can blame them for that, but we should be able to decide if we want to have a different experience. I am all for the idea that we should have am 'Administrator' ID that will allow everyone to customize if they want to. The carriers would no doubt add a caveat to their T's and C's to alleviate them of all responsibility if anything goes wrong anyway, so why should they worry.

mike
mike

Root or rooting has totally different connotations in Australia. The term in Australia is not unrelated to the word 'rut' which refers to the mating habits of the camel. So if you are rooting someone in Australia it means you are engaged in sexual activities with them. If you are rooting something then it means you are damaging it so that it will never function again. Of course Australians are not the most classically trained when it comes to language, and therefore the term rut is now commonly spelt root.

JTONLY
JTONLY

"On the other hand, I can think of many reasons why a carrier might engage in this ??? all motivated by greed. Remember, the carrier has last contact with the operating system before it goes to your phone. It doesn???t take much imagination to realize the power that gives them QUOTE Francis. Mmm. The word "greed" again; back to the "Occupy" park for you! (After having quit your day job of course!)

gjm123
gjm123

Naive question: would a rooted phone give the (super)user the opportunity to install a later version of an OS? For instance, Ice Cream sandwich won't be made available on some phones - could they be upgraded in a similar (conceptual) way that Windows7 can be installed on many PCs running WXP?

kingkong88
kingkong88

I have spent 30 years writing software, having written many many lines of code. I have done assembler on Intel, Motorola and the IBM S/370 CPUs. I have modified a boot BIOS on a network card, re-burned it and successfully loaded Windows off a network server for a diskless PC. But I have some trouble understanding what exactly this rooting for Android is. Android is open source. So isn't everything naked and available? Is the design of Android that unconventional? You don't have to root a PC to take total control. You don't have to root a server to take total control. You don't have to root a mainframe to take total control. What you need is just an administrator's password. Why is Android so special? Perhaps an article to solve this puzzle for me and the few other posters here would be useful. Thanks.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

If the phone is rooted, does this mean that I-the-user have the option of using it with root privileges, or does it mean that presto, my phone is now always in superuser mode? Are privilege escalation a concern with mobile OSes as with desktop OSes? Would it make sense to de-root oneself after modding the phone?

ozchorlton
ozchorlton

In Australia, rooting, is a slang word, for having sex How do you have sex, with a phone :-)

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I remember reading about that and I believe that is what most rooting apps do. Perchance did you check to see if you have that setting I mentioned?

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

To get root access on my phone I copied one file to the device. It's the "su" binary. At this point the phone is "rooted" although nothing has changed. There is no harm in the existence of this SuperUser command but how it's used that is dangerous. I don't recommend installing a custom ROM because it will surely void your warranty and some features may no longer work. My phone will not be able to operate in 4G mode without the stock ROM. I originally installed the super user powers because there was an annoying sound that I could not stop. I looked through all the menus and did some research only to find that there is no way to turn the sound off. So I went in with my SuperUser powers and I deleted the sound file itself. The phone still tries to play it but there is nothing to play. I think that a savvy user should have full rights to change all parts of their device. This is a big factor in my choice to buy in to the Android platform. If it wasn't so free and open I might not be interested anymore.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Interesting about the ability to image the phone OS. I was not too concerned about that, until you mentioned it.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

You have the setting, but I was not quite sure who your carrier is. Thanks for the link, also.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

It was something I considered. I am glad the batteries are replaceable, otherwise I'd be in trouble most days.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

There should be a switch that allows the user to move to full rights.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Thanks for letting us know. What is the term used in Australia for what we are talking about?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Are we to feel that greed is good, now? Consumer exploitation a boon? Are we to bend over and ask for more? You are a good example of how grungy grass roots movements get backers...the alternative is just so scary.

gjm123
gjm123

Thanks to everyone who replied to my enquiry.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

William will be able to go into more detail. But, that is one of the major reasons to root the phone. Carriers are slow in pushing updates as there is no financial incentive.

kingkong88
kingkong88

@gjm123 Yes and no. You have the ability to install a new OS. But who is writing that new OS? Every phone manufacturer takes the stock Android from Google and then make modifications. The drivers definitely need to be customized. But phone makers want to put in other fanciful stuff to differentiate their phones. Without these, they would be fighting on price alone. But all these customized stuff have a very serious penalty, fatal most of the time. Every port will require big time testing, hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of man-days, each time when Google releases each new version. So, unless a model is sold by the tens of millions, forget about getting upgrades. The cost is just prohibitive. The primary factor for choosing any phone: safety in numbers. Don't go near any phone that you don't see selling like hot cakes.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

If you have the means to change its ROM, then that would mean being able to change its OS... to any degree that ROM space allows. Making it work... that's a different matter. But since it's open-source, odds aren't completely hopeless.

Muttz
Muttz

Android is open-source, but the devices themselves are restricted by the carriers. I have the original Samsung Galaxy Tab. I got it basically free with a data plan when the new model came out. I wasn't going to root it until I found out exactly how much my carrier had crippled the thing. I ordered a bluetooth keyboard case for it. I couldn't connect. After some research, I found out that certain carriers had removed part of the bluetooth profile. I could connect to my Motorola bluetooth hands-free device in my vehicle, but not to the keyboard. I also found out that this tablet can also be used for a phone in Europe. It's disabled in North America. I ended up rooting and installing a custom firmware called The Overcome Experience. I can now connect with my keyboard and my tablet is also a big goofy phone. Apparently, you can make phone calls on it. I'm not going to since I shouldn't have the ability to do that and I don't want to draw attention to myself. That's why people root their devices. And, that's what happens if you end up off of work. :) Everything in the house becomes fair game on the days when you're not feeling too bad.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Android is Linux and Linux "is" Unix. For unix, to have superuser access is to have root access... i.e. have read/write access to the heart of the OS, the /root directory. You need to have /root access to change core settings. Think of it as a Windows login. You log in as Administrator to change certain settings. Similarly, a *nix user can log in as root or as a regular user. Now, Android doesn't give users /root access by default (that's as unsound as giving windows users Admin rights by default - they don't need them most of the time). But there are times when /root access might be called for, especially when the carrier gets involved, so phones that don't already have a /root option can have it added, that's what "rooting" is.

ricstc
ricstc

In fact, the unroot a phone button is right beside the ROOT IT button. So there you go, it does make sense what you say and does work like desktop privilege escalation.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I have to ask, what is "it" called in Australia? Is jailbreaking used?

seanferd
seanferd

phone sex is what you pay $6.95 a minute for. :0

seanferd
seanferd

So, thank you for providing one answer. My original question was: When you root a phone, is it always operating in a root/admin/superuser mode? Because that does seem a little, erm, risky. I certainly would tend to use your method for a phone for which the SU binary or a similar method was available. (But, for the love of tech, not sudo. :-& .)

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

After rooting, you can also install an app called Titanium Backup that you can use to backup various permutations of apps+data to your SD card.

Sixball
Sixball

Completely agree... In your PC, you can open a command line with "Administrator" access when you need it, so why lock out the phones - which are just small computers? Granted most users, even "Admins", dont ALWAYS conduct "admin-level" operations - doesnt take admin rights to open a browser or check email - but those of us who DO want or need it from time to time really should have the option to do so right out of the box. God Bless Steve Jobs, but to hell with the whole "lets lock the devices because users are idiots" attitude - give us unlocked bootloaders / stock Root privileges on our own devices...

elangomatt
elangomatt

You could actually make a case that carriers might even have a financial disincentive to update their phones. Some users might be more likely to update to a new phone if their old phone still has older software. That is precisely what Apple does to their users. They upgrade older phones with some of the newer features, but if you want everything, you have to buy a new phone. Many people say that the iPhone 4 could handle all of the new features of the iPhone 4s (including Siri) but Apple doesn't it give it to older phones so that you'll buy a new phone.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I replied to your earlier comment with much the same information. Sorry, I see it was not needed.

kingkong88
kingkong88

@AnsuGisalas Exactly. I don't have to conduct a risky surreptitious operation in order to gain root access to a Unix server. All I need is the root password. And if I want to do anything that the original Unix cannot do, I ADD those features, even if I don't have the source code to the original version. I definitely don't have to wipe out the original version just to be able to add telnet to my server. Android is open source. I have not seen the source, but it should be there.

Sixball
Sixball

Some applications - like z4root - DO have an unroot option. Some dont...

sgriffithsnz
sgriffithsnz

it's the same as in NZ - we call it rooting, as that's what the rest of the world calls it. Ozchorlton is just "pulling your leg". :) Incidentally, I am hesitant about rooting my Optimus 2x from LG, but fear that the promised Gingerbread update might never arrive (it's been delayed for months now) and that rooting may be my only option. While I'm sure many would recommend rooting the phone and installing a mod, are there enough benefits to do so in reality?

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I tried to come up with something pithy, but as you can see, failed miserably.

ricstc
ricstc

With a rooted phone, apps that are going to run with root rights, will prompt a dialogue first and only after an OK will the apps install or run. But I stand corrected when the apps themselves are insecure (unknown sources) and hence no dialogue will appear and there - you've a malware infected phone that may perhaps 'do anything' the hacker wanted it to do.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I mean, it'd be easier to fit a phone into a sudo wrestler, than the other way around... and in either case, that's just too icky. Wait... that's not how it's spelled...

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

One wonders why the telcos aren't following the model developed by the PC world. But, you may have hit upon the reason.

seanferd
seanferd

As Spitfire_Sysop noted above, all you really need to do on an Android device is to get su installed. (Assuming one can side-load the su binary easily on any Android device.) Other phone OSes may require a lot more work. You have to root the phone as there is no normal method by which a user can take system privileges.

Sixball
Sixball

Rooting is a sinch, thanks to the dev's that pump countless hours into letting us be able to administar our devices as we see fit Once rooted, you can remove any application you like, and you do not HAVE to have a custom ROM to remove bloatware, just some Linux know-how (or be able to read and follow instructions) And you have to have root access to put on a custom mod, but you dont have to have a custom ROM to root...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

It's the root+mod that can brick the phone... flashing ROMs is never done lightly, on desktop computers either. If the bloatware you want to get rid of is part of the ROM, that can mean you have to mod it to get it out of there. But it's like the William and Michael uncovered in the article, the vocabulary root VS root+mod is mixed up.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Android at it's base is open source, but there are multiple variations used by downstream sources such as manufacturers and even carriers if I understand correctly. That fragmentation is not always open.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"X is a good root", if I recall correctly is translatable with "X is a good lay" ;)

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

You are technically proficient. There are many that have proficiency in other fields and do not wish to explore phone technology, just use it. We have to be equally aware of their needs.

Sixball
Sixball

I have had a rooted Moto Droid from day 1 (warranty scares are just lame), am currently running CM7 for the Android 2.3.7 I was told wouldnt install on my device. All applications that require root access - from market or otherwise - prompt you for SU permission unless you select teh "remember this answer" check box. Even then, like with the wired tether app - it STILL produces a notification that the application was granted SU rights when it loads AND unloads And as far as rooting - I love it. Not rooting is like owning a car that you cant pop the hood on. Also, If you dont know what you're doing "under the hood" stay out or get someone that does...