Not so long ago, the first thing many Android enthusiasts would do to a new phone was root it. It was essential.
You needed root to stop the battery from being dead by 4 PM. You needed it to remove the ridiculous bloatware added by carriers. And you needed it to replace the horrible user interface that the manufacturer had developed.
But with the improvements to Android in the last few years, and the less garish and bloated stock ROMs designed by the phone makers, do you still need to root your device?
Reasons to Root an Android Device
From performance enhancements to security updates, there are a lot of good reasons why rooting and modding Android is worthwhile.
Custom ROMs and OS Updates
The ability to install custom ROMs remains the biggest draw for modding and hacking Android. Technically, you don’t need root to do this — you just need an unlocked bootloader and custom recovery — but the two tend to go hand in hand. Being rooted enables you to use a flashing app like FlashFire or ROM Manager, and custom ROMs very often come pre-rooted themselves.
In the past, using a custom ROM was essential for enthusiasts to fill the gaps in the Android operating system and to replace the ugly, bloated interfaces that manufacturers would use on their devices. These days Android is very polished, and most stock ROMs are far less offensive than they were.
That said, a custom ROM still represents the best — and often the only — way many users will be able to use the latest version of Android. Smartphone manufacturers have a dreadful record for updating their devices, and it’s showing no sign of improvement. Six months after the launch of Nougat, less than 5 percent of devices are running it. One in five devices are still using KitKat from late-2013.
Even worse, many of these unsupported devices don’t get the latest security updates either, leaving them vulnerable to attack. The best ROMs, including the CyanogenMod replacement Lineage OS, include security updates in their builds.
No matter how much it bugs users, manufacturers and carriers continue to install extra apps onto their phones. You can’t uninstall this so-called bloatware, although Android does now have a Disable feature that removes them from the app launcher and prevents them from running.
Not every app has a Disable option, though, or maybe you’d just prefer to remove them entirely. In this case, a rooted phone with Titanium Backup installed would be able to do the job.
And then there’s the ultimate step in anti-bloat: ditching Google itself. Removing Google apps and disconnecting yourself from Google Play Services is a huge step, but if you want to take control of who gets to see your data, it’s one worth considering.
Taking Control of Your Phone
Taking control is one of the biggest benefits to rooting. It gives you the ability to deny permissions to certain apps, and prevent others from running in the background where they drain your battery and eat through your data allowance.
Full permissions controls were introduced in Nougat. For older devices, an app like XPrivacy, which runs on the Xposed Framework, is a must. It lets you allow and deny permissions to any app, both permanently and temporarily, and is a hugely powerful tool.
Rooting opens up your phone to a whole host of root apps. Some are small, geeky tools, but others perform essential functions that are still missing from the Android operating system. Something as simple as backing up your phone, for example, is still handled best by root apps.
The Xposed Framework is the best tool for modding Android. It uses small modules that plug into the operating system, giving you access to settings that are normally off limits.
Xposed modules can tweak your phone’s interface, remap buttons, hack individual apps, and a whole lot more. We’ve got a full guide to the best Xposed modules, so you can dive right in.
At the time of writing, Xposed is only available for Android versions up to Marshmallow.
Because We Can
Finally, we have to acknowledge that many of us root our phones just because we can. Maybe we like the extra control we get from it, want to test the limits of the hardware by installing a custom kernel, or just like to try something different. If this is you, and unlocking the bootloader is the first thing you do when you unbox a new phone, then the next section won’t matter at all.
Why You Shouldn’t Root an Android Device
Like it or not, there are risks associated with rooting. The process opens up access to parts of the system that are normally blocked for security reasons. As a result, a badly-coded app can brick your phone. A maliciously coded app can do even worse.
As good as custom ROMs, root apps, and Xposed modules are, you need to be sure you trust them before you let them loose on your rooted device.
It’s Getting Harder to Do
Perhaps as a result of the risks, a lot manufacturers and carriers are making efforts to lock down their devices.
There’s a trend for U.S. carriers to ship their devices with bootloaders that cannot be unlocked. The Galaxy S7 was an example of this. You could still root the phone, but you couldn’t use custom ROMs. It’s likely to be the same story for the S8, and the LG G6 is heading in the same direction.
You’ll Have App Problems
Equally, you can lose app compatibility. Android has a feature called SafetyNet that determines whether a device has been rooted or had its bootloader unlocked. Developers can use SafetyNet and decide whether to prevent their apps from working on devices they deem insecure.
Many banking and other financial apps won’t work on rooted phones, along with Pokemon Go and Mario Run. Android Pay doesn’t work where the bootloader has been unlocked. As always, there’s a workaround. The Magisk mod roots your phone and includes an app that allows you to hide it from SafetyNet.
As rooting and modding becomes more difficult, and you need to find more workarounds, the process becomes more complex. You could reach a point where the inconveniences of rooting start to outweigh the benefits. And you even risk a greater chance of bricking your phone.
How does rooting affect your warranty? The simple answer is that unrelated problems shouldn’t affect the warranty at all. So if your USB port comes loose, then your claim shouldn’t be rejected just because you’re running a custom ROM.
But the warranty won’t cover software problems. Brick your phone when trying to install or use a particular mod, and you’ll need to fix it yourself. And remember that mods can also cause hardware problems. If your phone reboots every time you launch the camera, it may be your custom kernel to blame.
Either way, it’s always a good idea to return to stock before making a warranty claim, although some devices permanently record when they’ve had their bootloader unlocked.
Is Android Good Enough Without Rooting?
We’ve looked at some of the pros and cons, and there are good reasons on both sides.
But perhaps the best reason to not root is that Android is now good enough without it. Android used to be very rough around the edges, and rooting felt like a necessity.
But in the last three years or so, the operating system has been refined in every way. The redesigned user interface, built around Material Design, gave Android a beautiful new look in Lollipop in 2014. The power management system called Doze debuted in Marshmallow in 2015 and brought improved battery life. Granular control over app permissions came with Nougat in 2016. And Android O will bring strict controls over apps running in the background.
Many of the best reasons to root are being systematically dealt with, except one: Android’s slow update process.
Because to take advantage of those new features without rooting, you need a phone that will receive updates to Nougat, O, and beyond. And that’s one problem that Google shows no sign of being able to solve.
Do you still root and use custom ROMs on your phone? Is an unlockable bootloader a priority when you buy a new device? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
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