To root or not to root? This is a question that obsesses many Android phone owners. Un-rooted Android phone owners may feel excluded from some of life's greater technical, gaming or social pleasures. But before jumping from a stock Android phone to one that has been customized, here are a few considerations.
The term "root" traces to Linux and Unix. It means to have the privilege to access all commands and all files in the Android operating system, or in other words, to have super-user capability.
BACKGROUND: Tips and tricks for upgrading your Android phone
Android phones ship with a limited set of user privileges, including the ability to install apps and change settings, but restricts the ability to replace or change system files. Mobile phone companies and Android phone manufacturers do this in self-defense to avoid intensive and expensive support and warranty requests. But whenever a line is drawn there are those who, for rational or debatable reasons, want to cross it.
A commonly stated reason for rooting is "to be in control of my own phone." Implied in this reason is the phone owner's intention to enhance the Android phone as an application, gaming or Web access computing device. Here some of the most frequently observed uses of rooted phones:
* A user of a rooted phone is able to make a complete backup of his phone and restore it to a prior customized state. Recovery tools supplied by the phone manufacturer restore the phones to a pre-customized stock state. A rooted phone with apps such as Titanium can be completely restored to an earlier state, including apps, data, configuration tweaks and the score and status of games like Angry Birds and Smurf Village that are otherwise lost with a stock recovery.
* Cellphone carriers levy extra charges when users access the Internet from devices such as tablets, PCs and game stations by connecting through their mobile phones to networks such as LTE (Verizon) or HSPA (AT&T). Aptly named tethering, a user can install an app that provides this same mobile broadband access for other devices through a rooted phone for free, though this violates the carrier's terms of service because they want to preserve tethering as an a la carte feature. [Also see: "6 ways to make mobile networks perform better"]
* Reflashing an Android phone means replacing the stock version of Android with another version compiled independently from the phone manufacturer. The installation of independent Android versions referred to as ROMs was declared "legal" by the U.S. copyright office on April 10, 2011. Although the reason rooted phone users do this varies, the most common reason is that phones are anticipated to have a short useful life, so most manufacturers and carriers infrequently make bug fixes and new versions of Android available. Rooted users can update to a more current or feature-rich version of Android with one of these ROMs. Common user goals for reflashing are access to custom ROMs like Cyanogenmod, which provide such additional features as lockscreen gestures and browser incognito mode, and support for themes and ROMS like OpenDesire, which deliver features such as greater stability and increased battery life. [Also see: "9 Android devices getting an unofficial Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade"]
* With a rooted phone the user can tweak the CPU clock to improve performance or increase battery life and tweak the GPU to decrease graphics depth to improve game performance. Another big tweak is to remove carrier-installed apps generally referred to as "bloatware" that the user is uninterested in running.
* Users concerned about privacy can limit the amount of personal information exposed to carriers and Web services companies, and can install apps that block ads.
Of course, rooting voids the carrier/manufacturer warranty. If the phone can't be reverted to the stock version of Android that it shipped with, the carrier or manufacturer will often deny a warranty claim. The greatest hazard of flashing a custom ROM is that a novice might "brick' the phone so that it won't bootup.
A greater concern might be security. An app designed to exploit an Android phone, if written to take advantage of the root privileges, can cause greater harm because it can execute any command and can overwrite any file.
A concluding consideration supported by few facts but often speculated about is that some custom ROMs may be freemium tactics to intercept existing mobile ad networks such as Admob and replace them with alternative ad networks in which the custom ROM developer shares in the profits.
Whether to root or not is really a question of the user's interests. If the phone user is a super-user, developer or hacker on other devices, he/she is likely to find rooting interesting and rewarding. If the user is the more typical phone owner wanting to browse, message, use Facebook, play games and make an occasional phone call, he/she will most likely reject rooting when the complexity and risks of rooting and reflashing are understood.
Steve Patterson is a freelance tech journalist and new business strategy consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.