What Is Rooting? What Are Custom ROMs? Learn Android Lingo
Every profession or hobby develops its own very specific lingo for dealing with complicated ideas in a simple way, and the Android world is no different.
If you’ve googled a problem with your Android smartphone or tablet and come across words or phrases that you didn’t understand, like rooted, flash a custom ROM, unlock the SIM, or anything like that, then this article is for you.
Android pros probably already know what these mean, so this is a guide for the beginner who wants to learn about all the words behind our Android nerdiness.
What Is Rooting?
First of all, the big question: What is rooting? What does it mean to have a rooted or unrooted device?
By default, no Android device ships rooted . If you’ve just bought and Android device and done nothing to it, the answer is that it is not rooted. You do not have root access.
Manufacturers do this because granting everyone root access (by shipping rooted phones) would result in a lot of problems. Having root access allows you to access files on your device that — if removed or edited in the wrong way — could break your device. Uh oh. So, that’s generally not something your manufacturer wants you to have access to.
But, rooting your device allows you to make a lot of really cool changes if you know what you’re doing, so lots of people choose to root their devices anyway.
How you root your device is different for every single model. For some devices, this can prove to be a difficult process that involves circumventing safety precautions set by the manufacturer. For others, it can be as simple as plugging your phone into your computer and pressing a button. You can always check out the XDA-Developers forums for instructions for your specific device.
Once your device is rooted, you won’t notice any major changes immediately. The fun comes in what you can do after your device is rooted. You can then make use of apps that require root access, flash custom ROMs, tweak certain aspects of your phone, and more — which we’ll examine more later.
What Is Jailbreaking?
Ah, wrong territory, my friend. This is an article about Android lingo, and jailbreaking is for iPhones and iPads . Jailbreaking is essentially the iOS equivalent of rooting on Android — it gives you access to sensitive parts of your phone, allowing you to customize (or break!) your phone.
Since Apple really doesn’t want you jailbreaking your phone, the process is a cat and mouse game and can leave your phone open to security vulnerabilities that get patched in newer versions of iOS.
Oh, and of course, rooting or jailbreaking your device is completely legal . But you can learn more about jailbreaking iPhones elsewhere — let’s get back to Android.
What Is Unlocking?
Unlocking is a confusing term because there are multiple things you could unlock.
Unlocking the Network/SIM is the first. A device that is network/SIM locked is a generally one that was bought from a carrier or for a specific carrier at a subsidized price. The carrier then puts a lock on that phone so that you can only use it with them.
But, if you pay off the phone and want to switch carriers, the carrier is legally required to give you the unlock code (at least in the US and the EU), so you simply contact your carrier for the code.
Sometimes, unlocking your device gets more complicated than that, so we have a guide to SIM unlocking . Other times, you buy your phone unsubsidized and unlocked, meaning it can already be used with any carrier.
Unlocking the bootloader is the other kind of unlocking. This is done on the path to rooting and is generally one of the first steps. Manufacturers generally lock the bootloader on their devices, and with a locked bootloader, you can’t root your device. Instructions for unlocking your bootloader are generally found within the instructions for rooting your device.
What Are Custom ROMs?
ROM stands for Read-Only Memory, but that name is a bit misleading nowadays since it has nothing to do with that anymore. A ROM (at least in the Android world) is basically the software that your device runs.
So, when you pick up an HTC smartphone, it looks and behaves differently than a Samsung smartphone. That’s because HTC and Samsung both took the original Android code, tweaked it, and developed their own ROMs. HTC’s ROM is different from Samsung’s ROM, even though they’re both Android.
A custom ROM, then, is a ROM that was built not by the manufacturer, but by someone else. Sometimes it’s just a lone programmer with some time on their hands and a passion for making ROMs — other times it’s a company (like CyanogenMod) that has a team and intentionally makes a certain type of ROM.
Once you’re rooted, you can flash a custom ROM. Flash in this case basically means to load or install. Flashing a custom ROM means you are installing a new ROM on your device, and completely wiping the old ROM.
When looking for custom ROMs for your device, there are some names you’re likely to run into:
AOKP: Stands for the Android Open Kang Project. It’s an open-source ROM which means that you might see people make variations of it that have slight changes and say they were based on AOKP.
CM: Stands for CyanogenMod. What used to be a tiny but popular ROM has blossomed into a full-blown company that produces software. CyanogenMod even came preloaded on the original OnePlus One. They have an awesome theme engine with tons of free themes .
AOSP: This is the version of Android that Google gives to the world, often called stock or stock Android. You might see people say that their ROMs are “AOSP-based” or “based on stock Android”, which just means they took the AOSP code and altered it to their liking.
Paranoid Android: A generally simpler ROM with less clutter and nicer aesthetics.
PAC-man: Get it? Like the little yellow guy from the video game? PAC-man is actually packed to the brim with features since it is a combination of three popular ROMs: CyanogenMod, AOKP, and Paranoid Android.
But, don’t be afraid to try ROMs with other names from lesser known folks. These aren’t the only trustworthy ones, they’re just generally the most widely known. We compared a few of them a while back.
Other Useful Android Terms
If you like to tinker with your Android device, you might end up spending a lot of time in the recovery. It’s where you can flash ROMs, make backups, and generally do the heavy lifting.
However, the stock recovery on your device can’t do any of that stuff, so you need a custom one. There are two major players here: TWRP and CWM .
TWRP stands for Team Win Recovery Project, and CWM stands for ClockworkMod. It generally doesn’t matter which you use, unless the specific ROM that you want requires one recovery or the other.
There are of course ways to backup your Android device without rooting it, but a Nandroid backup is the most complete backup you can have. It essentially makes a full copy of everything on your device and saves it.
That way, if you screw up anything (since you have root access and that is possible), you can always just flash your Nandroid backup and return to where you were.
The name is just NAND (a type of flash memory) and Android mashed together.
Want to make significant changes to your device but don’t really want to flash a custom ROM? That’s where Xposed comes in handy .
Xposed is a framework that allows you to install modules that can alter your device far more than any app. It’s extremely useful for making just a few tweaks without changing absolutely everything.
The kernel is like the engine of your operating system — you don’t really see it, but it’s in the background doing all the hard work.
If you want, you can flash a custom kernel . Sometimes these kernels are optimized for performance or battery life — sometimes they’re just necessary to get something to work right (like Double Tap To Wake).
Either way, you can be okay just sticking with your stock kernel unless you really want to change it.
To brick your phone is essentially to break it. If your phone isn’t working anymore, you’ve bricked it. This is generally not a phrase you’re going to be happy to run into.
A soft brick generally means it’s fixable. Maybe you’re stuck in a bootloop (your phone just continually reboots) or you boot it up but it only displays half the screen properly. That’s generally fixable.
A hard brick is when the device is toast. You messed with something at a system level that can’t be fixed, and your device is out of commission. Sorry. This is a rare thing to happen, but it can happen — and you’ll see warnings everywhere that no one but yourself is responsible for your device being bricked.
Fortunately, if you follow these steps to avoid bricking , you probably won’t end up with a ruined device.
Superuser and SuperSU are two different apps that basically do the same thing. If you have a rooted device, you need only one of them.
They are in control of which apps are granted root permission or not. When an app requests root access, they will ask you if you would like to grant that app root access. This way, random apps can’t just get root access without your permission.
How Do I Get Started?
Anyone who’s going to tinker with their Android device should head to the XDA-Developers forums and look under their specific device. Everything you need is going to be tailored to your specific device (which is why it’s difficult to make a full-fledged rooting guide ), and maybe even your carrier’s version of that device.
And there are downsides. Some apps won’t work if they sense that your device is rooted (though there are ways around that ), and you could potentially ruin your phone if you’re not careful.
But it can be totally worth it. Having a rooted device gives you complete freedom over how it works, and sometimes just the process of rooting and flashing ROMs can be a lot of fun.
Are there any other terms you would add to this list? What confused (or still confuses) you most about Android lingo? Let us know in the comments!