The modding and jailbreaking community is not as vibrant as it once was, as the tech giants lock down their code with increasing efficiency, and amateur tinkerers are left wondering if the benefits outweigh the time and effort when it comes to unlocking a device’s default operating system. Is it still worth it in 2019?
We’re going to take a look at some of the most popular and well-known mods from years gone past and see if they’re still worth your consideration—we’ll outline what you’re going to need to do, and what you get out of it, so you can make your own decisions.
Nintendo Switch modding
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
You may have heard: Android runs on the Switch now. As a popular, relatively simple gadget, the Switch has attracted a new army of modders to it, and by jumping through a few hoops you can get LineageOS 15.1 and apps like Netflix running on it. Even better, you can run Android off a microSD card, and just reboot to get back to normal operations on the Switch, games and all.
As mods go, it’s quite a straightforward one. Select a few files from the web, write them to a microSD card, and then boot from that card. Apps like Netflix, Spotify and YouTube work, as does the Nintendo DS emulator DraStic and plenty of games. Android thinks it’s running on a standard Android tablet.
Of course, there are limitations and bugs (remember it’s early days for this particular mod)—even supported apps can crash and glitch out. Fortnite doesn’t work, and in the absence of a microphone and camera, you can’t use the likes of Google Duo or Snapchat, or games like Pokémon Go either.
Is it worth it? It’s actually one of the easier and more fun mods around at the moment, especially as you don’t have to alter anything on the actual Switch itself. Though you’re on your own if something breaks. More importantly there’s always the chance Nintendo will suddenly decide to lock out Switches that it detects have been running Android which means you could lose access to any digital library of games or Nintendo accounts linked to your Switch.
Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo)
iPhone jailbreaking has come a long way down the years. Nowadays, with Apple’s tighter control over its devices, and indeed the way iOS has adopted many of the features people used to run a jailbreak for, it’s not as popular as it once was—in particular in terms of the risks versus the benefits.
It is still possible: iOS 12 has now been cracked by the jailbreaking community, which means you can use a tool like Chimera or unc0ver to unlock most iPhones. It’s simply a question of copying a few files across and tapping a few buttons on your phone—thanks to the efforts of the jailbreaking community, it’s simple to do.
Jailbreaking and accessing an alternative app store like Cydia certainly gives you a lot more flexibility when it comes to what you can do with your iPhone. From retheming the look of iOS to running a fully-fledged file manager, or from adding more icons to the dock to disabling the passcode when you’re at home, all kinds of options that iOS normally locks down become open to you.
So, to jailbreak or not to jailbreak? Well, it is the wild west out there—you don’t get the security of future Apple updates, you run the risk of installing dangerous code, you’ll void your warranty, and to be honest the extra utilities and apps you get aren’t particularly compelling (although this is cool). Still, it’s easily done, and relatively easily undone as well, so you might consider giving it a try.
Building a Hackintosh
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
Sticking with the Apple theme: Hackintoshes. If you’re a fan of Windows, you get to pick from computers made by Dell, HP, Microsoft, and many others; if you’re a fan of macOS, you can only choose from the laptop and desktop designs Apple offers you. That is, in part, how the idea of a Hackintosh was born—a non-Apple computer running Mac software.
This is a more involved process than jailbreaking iOS, and you need to be familiar with the basics of building a PC or modding code on an existing one (or at least willing to learn either skill)—head to tonymacx86 for some inspiration. You need to download the macOS software via a genuine Mac, and then transfer it over to your machine via a USB drive. You can hack a pre-built Windows PC to run macOS, but it needs a second hard drive or partition that has never had Windows on it.
There’s just one major benefit: You get to run macOS on a computer that’s designed and configured by you. That could mean some extra power that the current Mac line doesn’t offer, for example, and it’ll certainly mean saving some money if you’re prepared to do the research and pull together the components you need from scratch.
On the flip side, there’s no guarantee macOS will work perfectly on your custom set-up. You’ll be breaking the terms and conditions of macOS. And if something goes wrong, you’ll need to turn to the (friendly) Hackintosh community rather than an Apple Store. It’s perhaps easier than it’s ever been to put macOS on a non-Apple machine, but it’s still not worth it for all but the most curious.
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
Console modding, or jailbreaking, or whatever you want to call it remains popular—essentially unlocking your console so you can install pretty much anything you like, from retro game emulators to mods for specific modern-day titles. Some consoles can be modded just by visiting a specific webpage, but it varies between devices (the Xbox One has thus far proven resistant to any kind of unlocking).
It’s easy to see why it’s tempting, with the ability to patch existing games with new code, and to change hidden console configurations options, or to apply cheat codes en masse, or to run older games (PS2 games on the PS4, for example). It also opens up the ability to easily pirate games—which we wouldn’t recommend.
The downsides are that you often need to be on older firmware to mod your console, which automatically prevents you from getting involved with any online gaming. You’re obviously breaking the terms and conditions set down by Sony, Microsoft and whoever else too, which means no technical help if something goes wrong.
Console jailbreaking offers perhaps the most benefits in terms of freedom and flexibility, but it’s also one of the most costly in terms of time, effort, and risk. Most gamers are going to prefer the experience of just sitting down and playing, without any mods or customisations (and those that aren’t usually pick PCs anyway).
Modding and jailbreaking in 2019
Image: Raspberry Pi Foundation
That’s a whistle stop tour of how the land lies at the moment across a whole range of devices. With a few exceptions, most of the sophisticated gadgets and gizmos on the market today are moddable, and the good news is that these mods are typically easier to apply than ever.
The bad news is that jailbreaks are stamped out more quickly than ever before too. You still run the risk of attracting malware, or penalties from the companies whose software and hardware you’re not using, in return for all that freedom you’re getting. Which is why a lot of tinkerers now prefer something like the Raspberry Pi.
Typically, you do need to be on older firmware for a mod or jailbreak to work, and you do need to be on your toes while updating software and connecting to the web. Mods and jailbreaks might be easier to install than ever before, but that doesn’t mean they’re easier than just using your device as normal—some legwork is required (or a lot, in certain cases).
If it’s something that you’re considering, make sure there’s a real benefit that you know you’re going to make use of before taking the plunge—most of the time it’s not worth the hack or the jailbreak just for the fun of it, or to see what’s out there. You may waste a significant chunk of time or even an entire device that you’ll never get back.