In computer terminology the word “root” has a few possible definitions. “Root” can refer to the highest-level directory in a file system. The root of the file system is sometimes called the root directory. On a PC “C:” represents the root directory of the C drive. On Mac, Unix, and Linux systems, the root directory is represented by a forward slash (“/”). The root directory of a website is the domain name, followed by a forward slash (i.e. http://pocketnow.com/).
That’s not what we mean here, not entirely anyway. In this context “root” is a user who has administrative privileges. Most users only have access to data within their own directory (i.e. “/users/~joe-the-android-guy/”). The root user can access any folder from the root directory down (there’s the tie in). Having this level of access lets root users install system updates, install and remove applications, and modify what other users can access. This is the context that most discussions about “rooting” falls into.
In the Android world rooting is similar to jailbreaking an iOS device.
On Android, to take advantage of root access you also need “Super User”, which is traditionally a set of user permissions just below “administrator”, but in our context it’s a collection of utilities and command line tools that you can use in conjunction with root access.
Enough with the definitions already! Let’s get to the why!
Why Shouldn’t You Root Your Device?
I know it’s counter-intuitive, but let’s talk about why you wouldn’t want to root your Android-powered phone, tablet, or TV first.
The main reason is your warranty. Simply attempting to root your device will likely void any warranties you have. If you ever want support, service, repair work, or anything where you have to call someone for help, you’re probably out of luck if you’ve even tried to root.
Next, you could literally melt your device — no, not by rooting, but by overclocking (we’ll get to that in a minute). Even if you don’t melt your phone or tablet, you could “brick” it… which is a polite way to say “hey! What a cool looking paper-weight!”
Last, depending on the method to unlock and root your device, you may end up wiping everything in the process. This is especially true for Google’s own phones that let you simply “oem unlock” and kiss your data, apps, and configurations goodbye.
Is it worth it?
Why Should You Root Your Device?
The most important reason why you should root your device is because you can! I have one of my Androids rooted, not because it’s running a custom ROM or doing anything fancy (in fact it’s still running the stock ROM). Rather, I did it because I can! It’s liberating to say I know enough about this stuff to do it, and to live with the consequences of doing so.
One of the most common reasons for wanting to root a phone or tablet is also one of the most frustrating and shouldn’t be necessary: removing bloatware and other “customizations”. Apparantly carriers and manufacturers think they know you and what you like better than you do, so they load up their devices with a whole bunch of stuff that you may never use — and cannot remove! If the carriers and OEMs would you let you uninstall these items, it would be a start. If they let you OPTIONALLY install them when you boot your device for the first time, that’d be even better. They don’t do this (probably) because they know users will chose not to install them which might rob them of some extra revenue. How dare you! Don’t you know they have hungry mouths to feed?
Next is backups. If you want to back-up your device, for some strange reason, you’ve got to have root. It’s not that strange from a technical standpoint, but it seems that way from an end-user point of view. Backing up using Nandroid or through a custom recovery requires root. No, really!
Running “unsanctioned” apps is up next. There are some apps that your carrier says you just can’t run. Why? Because they say so. Their justification usually boils down to preventing the “overloading” of their network, or being users of that app being “unfair” to others on the network. Whatever their reasons, if I want to run Doom 3 on my Dell, I should be able to do so, even if they don’t want me to. When I bought it, it became my computer to do with as I please. Why are phones and tablets any different? Before you say “to save the network”, remember these devices have WiFi in them, so I can use whatever app via my home, school, or work network rather than their “4G” network.
Overclocking ranks somewhat high on the list of reasons to root. Overclocking is running your processor faster than it was designed. It’ll run hotter and gobble up more power, but it might give you an extra year of use out of a phone that’s already past its warranty but running slower than you’d like, so why not?
Under-clocking and under-volting are ways of slowing down your processor so it runs cooler and uses less power. If 950MHz is plenty fast for you, why run your Galaxy Nexus at 1.2Ghz? You can save power and extend your run-time simply by under-clocking your processor. It’s really up to you and how you use your device.
The last topic we’ll cover is OS updates. Carriers want to keep their customers. One the ways they do is by roping users into contracts. They lure them in with “free” or “cheap” phones. After a year or so, these users want the latest version of the OS because it’s got more features, is faster, looks better, etc. (Ironically, their “old” phones would be faster if they didn’t have so much bloatware on them, but I digress.) Rather than putting more time and money into “qualifying” OS upgrades for “old” phones, they’d like to sell you a new phone — and extend your contract another couple years min the process. How nice of them!
In their defense, from their perspective, it makes sense. For users, however, we want to get as much use out of our devices as we can — and upgrade when we want. What’s more, each person is different in this respect.
Rooting a phone and flashing a custom ROM, especially when you’re mid-contract and the warranty has expired, is an EXCELLENT way to get the latest and greatest features, add utility, and send a message to the carriers and OEMs: if you’re not going to give me what I want, I’ll do it myself.
Why? Because I can.