Having the freedom to tweak your operating system has been and will always be of great importance for any open source enthusiast. With Google backing the porting of Linux-based operating systems to handheld and portable devices, this freedom has increased manifold. Companies manufacturing mobile phones and handheld devices have had to give in to Android’s growing popularity as it’s competing head-to-head for space with other popular mobile operating systems such as the iOS, Blackberry OS and other proprietary operating systems. A number of tweaks and functionalities have been added to the most recent version, Android KitKat, which was released at the end of October 2013. However, a number of users continue to be on earlier Android versions such as Jelly Bean (on devices with low hardware configurations).
As with other open source desktop operating systems, it is possible for Android users to tweak or change any part of the system within the limitations set by the open source community and by the licences. Although there are several apps available on the famous Google Play store, Android primarily doesn’t allow its users to make any changes to the system. This can, however, be achieved by using a method commonly referred to as the rooting of an Android device. A device that has undergone this procedure is referred to as a rooted phone or tablet. The name is derived from the term ‘root access’, which is actually the ability to attain permissions only restricted to super-users or administrators. Rooting allows you to perform a number of operations that would have been otherwise impossible because of the limitations set by the carriers or phone manufacturers.
Although rooting your device might sound like a great idea, there are several disadvantages that negate its advantages. Before I go ahead with the procedure for rooting an Android device, let us look at the factors that will affect your decision on rooting.
What you might lose
Bricking your phone
When you’re tampering with your phone’s operating system, you should be aware that one wrong move could damage the device’s software, turning the phone into a useless brick. So if you are wary of taking risks, please refrain from trying this procedure. Although the risk is minimal, rooting your device is still quite a risky business. So, you need to be absolutely sure of what you do.
The process of rooting in almost all cases challenges several clauses in the agreement with the hardware manufacturer and results in the warranty becoming invalid.
Rooting a phone is allowed legally almost everywhere in the world. In fact, in some European countries, replacing the original operating system with another does not void the statutory warranty that covers the hardware of the device.
Rooting essentially allows applications to perform actions that require administrative privileges. The real reason for disallowing all applications from obtaining these privileges is to ensure air-tight security in this amazing operating system. Although Android has not been plagued by viruses, Trojans, spyware, malware and other members of the digital disease-causing pathogens, it is only a matter of time before anti-social elements try to exploit the innocent. Rooting your device is like giving ammunition to these elements on a silver platter.
What do you gain?
Despite these drawbacks, a number of users continue to root their phones or tabs. The gains are listed below.
Delete those pesky apps
Did your manufacturer bundle your phone with promotional applications and games that cannot be deleted? Geeks refer to these apps as bloatware, as they usually take too much space on the device’s memory. So, it is always advisable to remove all that you are never likely to use. However, you have to be especially careful not to delete any system app that can affect the basic functionality of your device. What you can safely remove are games and apps that have the manufacturer’s brand name.
Take essential back-ups
Rooting your device takes the performance of system and data back-ups to a completely new level. In addition to backing up user data, you can also back up applications and settings. Also, rooting allows you to take Nandroid back-ups, which is essentially a back-up of the complete operating system. The name Nandroid is a portmanteau of NAND, which is the widely used Flash memory on these devices, and Android.
If you think that 1,000,000 (a million) apps and 50,000,000 downloads would be enough for open source enthusiasts, you are sorely mistaken. In addition to Google Play, there are several app distributors and stores available online. The most famous among these is F-Droid, an alternative software repository comprising only free, open source software. A quick search would reveal that most of the apps available on these stores require super-user permissions.
Almost every hardware manufacturer bundles Android devices with tones, themes and skins that are specific to their organisation. However, you are not allowed customisation beyond a certain level. By rooting the device, not only can you change the way your system sounds or looks, you can also use the customisation options provided by other companies.
As manufacturers come up with newer devices, it is customary for them to stop providing updates for the older ones. Also, there are several devices that possess the hardware specifications to run newer versions of the Android operating system but are stuck without any updates because of the business gimmicks of these manufacturers. Rooting allows you to install not only the new features but a tweaked kernel or a new operating system altogether.
Almost all phone and tablet manufacturers modify the Android operating system and bundle the device with a custom made OS with their own branding. The basic Android version specific to a device is known as a stock ROM. Most stock ROMs are also bundled with useful software, specific to the device’s manufacturer. Custom ROMs are modified versions of the Android operating system, created for a specific device by a third-party developer. Several developers have taken great pains to make it possible for users with low-end phones to enjoy the benefits of the latest developments in the Android world. Several companies such as Cyanogenmod sprang up to cater to people facing such limitations with their own fork of the Android operating system. Although rooting is strictly not essential in order to install a stock or custom ROM, it provides you the ability to take customisation and personalisation to a whole new level.
With automation touching every aspect of life, it would be natural to also want our phones to think and act as per our wishes. There are several apps available on Google Play and other app stores that allow you to automate devices. One of the best applications for this is Tasker, which helps you create tasks for greater automation. With such apps, you can have your phone switch from data to Wi-Fi, based on location. You can combine task killer apps and ensure that your tablet consumes the least possible battery, especially when you’re not using it. Rooting lifts the software restrictions and renders anything that’s within the limitations of the hardware possible.
Before you actually go ahead with rooting your device, there are several steps to be followed. The most important is to ensure that you install the latest drivers for your device on the computer to be used in this process. You must also download and install the latest Android SDK from the https://developer.android.com/sdk/index.html website. In addition, you need to put your phone into the USB debugging mode. To do so, enter the Developer Options in the system settings. You will be required to enable Developer Options and then enable USB debugging. A USB cable will also be required.
The real deal
I recommend you take a back-up of all your personal information on the memory card or a computer before you move forward with the actual rooting procedure. The process for rooting a phone or tablet varies greatly, depending on the device and the operating system of the computer used in the process.
There are several third-party applications, especially for the Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems, which allow you to connect the device and root without much intervention. Some of the popular applications for this process are Once Click Root, CF-Auto-Root and Super One Click. Most of these applications provide step-by-step instructions (sometimes with images) on how to root your device. Based on your device, the process will require you to press several buttons and reboot. As the steps vary from device to device, you need to search the Internet to find the best application-one that has had the most success with your device. Almost all these applications install the Superuser app that helps in granting super-user permissions or root access to other apps. There are also several ways to root a device using terminal commands from a Linux distribution. However, this procedure is only for experts. To verify if you have gained root access of your device, you can use apps such as Root Checker by joeykrim and Check Root by Avarna Software.
What happens next?
Once the rooting procedure is complete, you will see an app named Superuser, SuperSU or something similar among other installed apps on your device. Open the Superuser app and update it to obtain the latest version.
Superuser and SuperSU
As and when another app requests for super user permissions, the SuperSU app gives you a pop-up to ask whether or not you want to grant such access. Based on the option you choose, you can have SuperSU prompt you at a later time or not prompt you for access till the app is updated. Ensure that you provide root access only to trusted apps and revoke permissions for those you are unsure of. In addition, it is a good practice to have an app ask for permissions every time. This allows you to keep track of the apps yourself, in addition to the logs maintained by SuperSU. Superuser, SuperSU and other similar apps also allow you to unlock additional paid features and improve the functionality further. However, for a basic user, the free features would suffice.
Called the Swiss army knife of embedded Linux operating systems, Busybox is actually a stripped down version of powerful Linux tools made available for the Android operating system. You can visit http://www.busybox.net/ for more information on this project. If you’re into tweaking the device even further, you will need to make use of the several tools provided in this bundle. Some custom ROMs provide Busybox just as they do with SuperSU or Superuser. If not, there are several Busybox installers available on the Google Play app store, the most popular one being the BusyBox app by Stephen (Stericson). Most of the commands are the same as their counterparts on other operating systems.
If you’re into heavy duty tinkering, you will require specialised tools. SQLite is a relational database management system that is used by several apps running on Android. There are several apps available on the Google Play store and on F-Droid that allow you to install the SQLite3 binary application on your device. Once this is installed, you can use database viewers and editors as per your convenience. I would like to recommend the ‘SQLite Installer for Root’ app by Ptsoft in case you plan to use a stable and secure installer.
People with knowledge of the Linux command line will feel right at home in the terminal emulators available for Android. The Google Play app store showcases several terminal emulator apps that allow you to run shell level commands in Android. Some of the best terminal emulators are available on F-Droid, an open source repository of Android apps. Terminal emulators are also useful for running Busybox commands.
Several file explorers, such as Root Explorer, allow users to view and edit Android system files if you grant them super-user permissions. You can also change file and folder permissions with the help of such applications. Most of these apps also allow you to connect to cloud storage and seamlessly work with archives and other such files.
Bye bye bloatware!
As discussed before, rooting allows you to remove the bloatware provided by your hardware manufacturer that you couldn’t get rid of previously. Apps such as Root App Delete are available on the Google Play store and help you free up space. However, you are advised not to remove or disable system apps as they may hamper the functionality of your device. Similar to bloatware, unwanted ads is another problem that most people face. To block ads, these apps require root access to write into the hosts’ folder in the Android system.
In addition to the above mentioned entities, there are many more avenues to be explored. Rooting, if done responsibly, opens new doors and adds tons of functionality to your devices.