By Joe Levi | April 12, 2013 10:50 AM
“Rooting” could mean causing a plant or cutting to grow roots, or when an animal turns up the ground with its snout in search of food. In this context, however, “rooting” is the process of allowing apps to attain “privileged control” or “root access” within the Android subsystem. Almost all smartphones and tablets come with root access disabled — at least to you, the end-user. Ironically, the desktop or laptop computer that you use probably already has root access.
When we’re talking smartphones and tablets, “rooting” in Android is often compared to Jailbreaking in iOS. Though there are significant distinctions between the two, the end result is the same: being able to use your device how and where you want without your OEM, Carrier, or anyone else getting in your way.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? It is! It’s why I’ve advocated that users unlock their devices and root them right away! I still do. But let’s pause for a moment and look at some legitimate reasons why you might want to avoid rooting your phone.
Current Versions Do A Lot
In the “olden days” of Android — you know, two or three years ago — there were a lot of things you couldn’t do with your stock device. Some people had NFC inside their smartphones — but were unable to use it because the OS didn’t let them. A lot of us wanted to take screen captures so we could include images of apps or settings in our articles — but that wasn’t easy to do, and usually required a 3rd-party app and root-level permissions. Tethering another device to your smartphone’s data plan used to be a no-no, but with a rooted device, you could do it with ease. If you wanted to use your camera’s flash as a flashlight, you had to have root! The list goes on.
Today, however, NFC is a featured component of many smartphones — no root required. Tethering comes built into the operating system (though some carriers take it back out again). The ability to take screen shots is built-in to the OS, and generally speaking, you can get an app that will let you turn your LED flash on and off without having to do any fancy unlocking. In short, many of the reasons that used to require rooting our phones to accomplish are now baked in to the operating system itself.
Do you remember my tragic “gravity event” with my last Nexus 4? When my replacement arrived I didn’t root it. I’ve had it for two months now and am still running entirely stock. In “Joe the Android Guy” time-frames, that’s an eternity — and almost unheard of. In the past I’d run a week, maybe two before I’d unlock, root, and flash a custom ROM. Today, however, both my Nexus 4 and my Nexus 7 — the devices I use the most — are unrooted and running stock versions of Android.
Android has progressed so much that I simply don’t “need” root anymore.
Might Let the “Bad Guys” in
Once your device has been rooted you’re always just a button-press away from letting some “bad” program do some “bad” thing on your device. On unrooted versions of Android, if a piece of software somehow ends up on your phone it usually just sends texts or make phone calls to “premium numbers” so the bad guys can drain your account. Without being able to attain root permissions, the extent of what they can do is severely limited — as it should be.
I’ve pointed out in the past that malicious software could theoretically exploit a vulnerability and obtain root on its own, but to my knowledge no apps have done this yet — excluding the apps that are specifically designed to obtain root for you.
Keeping your device un-rooted will likely keep the “bad guys” at bay, forcing them to prey on those who don’t read app reviews, and don’t pay attention to the permissions screen when they install an app.
Of course, if you have rooted your device you’re probably running an app like SuperUser or SuperSU. Both apps will warn you when an app is requesting elevated permissions. While that’s good to know, it’s all too easy for an unsuspecting user to tap the “Allow” button without fully understanding what they just permitted the app to do.
May Keep You From Getting Wanted Updates
Depending on how you go about rooting your device, you might end up preventing yourself from getting updates from your OEM or carrier in the future. To some this is a “feature” rather than a “detractor”. To others, they could be missing out on new features and enhancements — not to mention critical security patches.
Root, on its own, won’t likely block updates. Replacing your Recovery Image or flashing a custom ROM, however, will most assuredly interfere with the typical upgrade cycle.
May Void Your Warranty
Some carriers and some OEMs won’t even talk to you if you go to them with troubles and they discover that your device is rooted. Not even I have been immune from this. I know, shocking, isn’t it?
Back in December 2011 I was playing with a new ROM, and loving the fact that I’d been able to hack Google Wallet onto my phone. Long story short: I locked my Secure Element and have been unable to use Google Wallet on that device ever since. I called Google to see what could be done to fix the problem. They were happy and helpful, until it came up that I had rooted my phone. At that point they were done. It was broken and they weren’t going to do anything to even try to fix it. To this day they still haven’t.
That’s not too much of a problem for me. I was still able to use my device — just not Google Wallet. Ultimately I got a new device, and learned my lesson about the Secure Element.
May Brick Your Phone
“Bricking” your phone is any process by which you turn a perfectly good smartphone into a perfectly good “brick”. “Bricking” your phone essentially means that you’ve ruined it and are unable to use it as a phone — so you have to get creative and try and find some use for it. Once your phone has been “bricked” it makes a good conversation piece, sometimes even a decent paper-weight. They’re so small and light today that a bricked smartphone doesn’t work well as a door-stop.
There are several levels of “brick”. Some can be recovered from fairly easily. Some need custom hardware to allow their resurrection. “Hard bricking” is usually terminal.
Why am I going into such detail about “bricking”? I’ve done it. Twice. In the process of trying to root two separate T-Mobile G1′s, I bricked them. Don’t think poorly of me though! Back in the day, rooting wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today, and the risk was much higher then than it is now. However, the risk remains. Rooting your device could brick it.
What About You?
When you get a new device do you root it right away, or do you wait a while? Maybe you don’t root it at all! We want to hear from you! Head down to the comments and tell us why you root, or why you don’t. Also, be sure to include any stories of things that you were able to accomplish because you had a rooted device — and of course, share with us any horror stories of trying to root, but failing or bricking!