The Dummy's Guide to Android Rooting: Everything You Need to Know

By Chris Mills on at

Although we do our best to write comprehensive guides to rooting various Android phones, there are more handsets out there than we ever thought humanly possible. So, to give you a good starting point, we've put together a more general guide and jargon-buster, so that when some dick insults you on a forum, at least you'll know what he's saying.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the matter, there are a few key terms to explain:

Rooting: To 'root' a device is to get total control over it. You might be thinking, "but hey, I already have control! I can delete my sexts and everything!", you don't have full control -- try deleting one of the stock bloatware apps, for example. You'll find you can't. Getting root also means you can grant other apps root access, which is necessary for some apps (like backup ones) to work properly.

Bootloader: The bootloader is the lowest line of code on your phone -- a little bit of software that's necessary to start the operating system proper. You're probably familiar with the BIOS on a computer -- that screen that flashes before the Windows (or OS X or Linux) logo comes on the screen -- it's like that. The bootloader normally comes 'locked' straight out of the box, so unlocking it is often the first thing to be done in the rooting procedure.

ROM: A ROM (Read-Only Memory) is a version of Android. Most often, when we're talking about rooting, we'll be talking about custom ROMs, namely 'stock' firmware versions that have been modified. These modifications vary massively -- some just provide you with root access, whereas others completely change the look and feel of the phone. ROMs are developed by developers as hobbies, and are generally posted over on XDA.

Kernel: A kernel is the base-level firmware that interacts with the phone's hardware. It sits between the operating system and the phone itself, interpreting commands, and controlling things like processors speeds and voltages. Flashing a custom kernel can give you access to processor voltages, to tinker with them to save battery life, or help the phone run faster.

Recovery: A recovery is a piece of software separate from Android, kind of like a very limited alternate operating system. You can normally boot into the recovery by holding some combination of buttons on a phone as you turn it on. Once in the recovery, you can make system-wide changes like flashing ROMs, deleting user data and more. The stock recovery that ships with phones is often very limited, so one of the steps in rooting a phone is normally to install a custom recovery. There are two particularly common custom recoveries, ClockwordMod and TWRP.

Flashing: Flashing something onto your device basically means installing it into read-only memory. Flashable things usually come in the form of a .zip file, which is placed on the phone and installed using either the recovery (as explained above), or over ADB (see below).

ADB: The Android Debug Bridge is a tool included in the Software Development Kit, a toolbox of things intended for developers. ADB allows you to access your phone from a computer and run all sorts of commands on the phone without ever having to lay a finger on it.

Bricking: Hacker-slang for buggering-up your phone's software so that it doesn't work. Normally, a bricked device can be rescued given enough time, perseverance and intelligence, but it's not always a given. Permanently bricking a device is a risk of tinkering with fundamental software bits and bobs on your phone; however, we've rooted a heck of a lot devices here at Giz Towers, and we've yet to put any of them out of commission (fingers crossed!).

 

The Basics of Rooting

Although every phone is different, there is a common pattern for rooting each and every device.

0.) Do a backup. If you're installing a custom ROM, all the data on your phone -- those over-emotional drunken texts and embarrassing selfies included -- will be wiped. That would suck, but luckily it's pretty easy to make a backup. There's a million apps on the Play Store that'll do it for you, but my favourite is Helium (previously called Carbon), which backs up to microSD, your computer, or the cloud (if you pay for the premium version, that is).

1.) Unlock the bootloader. If your phone comes with a locked bootloader, you'll have unlock it to get started. Normally, you'll have to go through the phone manufacturer to get the unlock code and the tools to do the unlocking. The method varies from device to device, but manufacturers normally have an exhaustive step-by-step guide. One thing that's common to every device, though, is that unlocking the bootloader will completely wipe the handset, so make doubly sure you've got a backup.

2.) Get root. Before you can do much else on the phone, you'll want to get root access on your phone, and put a custom recovery file on. With any luck, some kind person over at XDA will have made a root toolkit that'll walk you through step-by-painstaking-step. Essentially, you have to flash two .zips onto the device: the modified Android image, that allows you root access, and a custom recovery so you can install a custom ROM at a later date.

3.) Flash a custom ROM. Once you've managed to get root and a custom ROM installed, you're pretty much sorted. Flashing a custom ROM is just a matter of downloading the .zip, copying it onto your phone and flashing with the custom recovery.

 

A Few Notes

- The key with rooting an Android phone is to take your time, and look around. There's a lot of information on rooting out there, most of it complicated and sandwiched between scary-looking disclaimers. If you persevere and read through, though, you can almost always find a stable, relatively easy way to root.

- Sounds a little stupid, but make sure to read up on the regional differences between different versions of the same phone. Different variants normally exist for different carriers in the US; the one we get over here is usually the international version. However, even then there are 3G and 4G ones. It makes a massive difference which version you have, because a ROM that powers an AT&T device in the US will break your lovely UK handset. You can find your model number under the about section in settings.

- Don't panic. Even if your phone isn't turning on (or gets stuck in a 'bootloop', where the logo just stays on the screen for hours on end), all's not lost. Try booting into recovery or 'fastboot'; chances are, if you can boot your phone into fastboot and get it recognised by your computer, you can fix everything. (Again, the chances of this happening in the first place are quite limited).

- Give ROMs a few weeks from the first beta being released, to when you actually flash the ROM. Normally, first builds of ROMs are unusable, lacking major features like mobile data or camera support.

- If you can, donate to devs. The guys who make custom firmwares do so out of the goodness of their own hearts, often spending 20-30 hours a week toiling away for free. Bung a couple quid their way, say thank you, and the world will be a happier place.

 

A Word on ROMs

If you're flashing custom ROMs, take your time to shop around and find the best one. Some ROMs, like CyanogenMod, are just riffs on stock Android, giving you mostly a stock experience, with a few minor changes and improvements. Others, though, give a completely rethought user experience, with different lock screens, launchers and controls. Although the availability of ROMs varies massively by device, there are some that are always worth checking out: CyanogenMod, ParanoidAndroid and LiquidSmooth are probably my favourites right now. A Google search will throw up the available ones for your device.

Tweakmodo is Gizmodo’s new guide to getting the very best out of your electronics. Every week, we’ll be doing the magic to a different device. Got a bit of kit you want to see pimped up, or think we’ve missed a vital hack? Let us know in the comments!

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