Dear Lifehacker, I made the switch to a smartphone a few months ago (namely the HTC Legend running Android 2.1, a decision I have never looked back on). Being the gadget geek I am, there hasn't been a day spent since when I haven't configured or reconfigured part of my phone to better suit my user experience. But now I need to make a bigger decision: is it time to root the phone so I can match it even more closely to my needs?
With HTC (and many other manufacturers) still yet to give any firm announcement of when Froyo is to be released for their devices, and hearing various whispers around the web of the promised land of a rooted phone, I'm intrigued to know if it's worth it. What are the benefits of a rooted Android device? How will this change the way I use my phone, and what are some of the better "rooted only" apps to look out for?
On the other side of the coin, there's lot of warnings of a voided warranty or worse yet, a bricked device. What current functionality will I lose from leaving legit software? How easy is it to brick my phone? And if I make the decision, what are the best and/or easiest techniques to root my device, and which custom firmware are best? Thanks, Sam
There's a lot of ground to cover here, but we've visited most of it before at Lifehacker, so we'll try and point you in the right direction. Firstly, a note for anyone who thinks of the word "root" in the Australian vernacular sense of "shag" or "ruin": "rooting" refers to gaining root access to the device, which allows you to install additional software, access more system features and update your Android software to newer versions.
Anyway, with that linguistic point covered, let's look at each of those issues:
Why would I root my phone?
Android comes in many versions, but while the most recent release is 2.2, many phones that go on sale in Australia run older releases (2.1 or 1.6). These lack handy features found in 2.2 such as support for installing apps on an SD card and an enhanced Android market.
In theory manufacturers and telcos will make updates to newer versions of Android available regularly to existing customers. In practice that fails to happen far too often, even on devices where the upgrade is made available in other markets. At that point, "rooting" the phone and then installing a custom ROM is often the only alternative. (Technically those are separate steps, but they're frequently conflated.) As well as offering features from newer versions of Android, such ROMs often incorporate extra features, or are tuned to offer better performance or battery life.
In short: for many people the ability to install run their choice of Android build is the primary reason for rooting the device, rather than wanting to install particular apps. However, there are some great apps such as SetCPU which require root access on the phone to run.
Will I void my warranty?
This is a tricky question with no really clear absolute answer. Most warranties are filled with stern legal language that discourages altering the standard phone software, and any manufacturer trying to dodge their repair responsibilities might well try and use that as a get-out clause. On the other hand, a phone which refuses to start because of a failed "rooting" attempt isn't necessarily going to be distinguished from one which fails to start because of some other software issue. And consumer law requires that goods be fit for purpose, a requirement which isn't necessarily going to be dismissed simply because you attempted to install software on your phone.
As Lifehacker reader Harvz pointed out recently, standard practice in some phone repair scenarios is to restore the factory software image, in which case the fact that you've tried to root the phone really won't be an issue. The choice is yours, but it doesn't seem a major risk.
Will I lose any features by not using "legit" software?
The short answer: you will lose any manufacturer and telco-specific updates that are part of your standard install. However, for the most part, these are no great loss. (One of the possible exceptions is the Swype keyboard system which is now only included as part of phone-specific custom ROMs under licence, though there are free alternatives available).
It's also worth noting that the custom ROMs themselves aren't "illegitimate". Android is released as open source software, so there's nothing illegal about building ROMs based on that code.
How easy is it to brick my phone?
We're not going to say it never happens, but the vast majority of people root and deploy new ROMs to their phones without incident. (In this respect, Australia being a lagging market is an advantage -- by the time devices appear here, any kinks involved with tweaking them have generally been identified and fixed.)
Which tools should I use to root the phone?
For sheer simplicity, Universal Androot is great and covers a large percentage of current handsets. If that doesn't work, Google the name of your phone model plus the term "root access" to identify other possible techniques. (Make sure you've backed up any unique data from the phone, though given Android's Google-centric approach, this often isn't a major drama.)
What are the best custom ROMS?
Hope that helps. I know many Lifehacker readers are enthusiastic and experienced Android tinkerers, and I'm sure they'll share extra thoughts in the comments.
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