What to Know About Rooting and Jailbreaking Your Phone

Free your Android phone or iPhone by jailbreaking or rooting it

Free Your Phone
Free Your Phone. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) / Flickr

You may have heard at least one of these mobile terms before--jailbreaking and rooting--when it comes to mobile phones and tablets. Although they're often used interchangeably, there's a slight difference between them. Here's a basic introduction to these methods and the reasons why you might want to jailbreak or root your mobile device. ~ January 28, 2013

What Are Jailbreaking and Rooting?

Both jailbreaking and rooting are methods that will give you unrestricted or administrative access to your mobile device's entire file system.

The difference between jailbreaking and rooting is jailbreaks refer to Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch), while rooting refers to Android devices. It's basically the same thing, but different terms for the two mobile operating systems.

For Android devices, you can think of a tree metaphor: rooting gets you to the bottom or root of your system. For iOS devices, you can think of the "jailed garden" metaphor often used when talking about Apple products: jailbreaking gets you past Apple's restrictions on your device.

Why you might want to jailbreak your iPhone/iPad or root your Android device:

By rooting or jailbreaking your mobile device, you have greater control over it and can "mod" it to your wishes. After a jailbreak or root, for example, you can install apps blocked in the App Store or Google Play, such as tethering apps to turn your phone into a modem for your computer. Jailbreaking and rooting get you access to a greater range of third-party apps and tools, e.g., with Cydia, an alternate apps manager for iOS devices.

Other reasons to jailbreak or root include: upgrading your mobile operating system version before it's available through an over-the-air-update, loading a custom ROM (Read Only Memory) on your phone (replacing the preloaded OS and apps on the phone with a customized one), and completely changing the overall look of the device with custom themes/ROMs.

Rooted and jailbroken devices also often have better performance and battery life.

Cons of rooting and jailbreaking: There are risks involved with jailbreaking and rooting. For one thing, these technically void your warranty, so if something's wrong with your phone after you jailbreak or root it, the manufacturer won't honor the warranty to fix it. Another issue is that your device can be more vulnerable to malicious apps and you can possibly harm your device during the rooting or jailbreaking process. The solutions to those two issues is to be very careful about what you install on your phone (something you should be doing anyway) and only use rooting and jailbreaking methods that have been thoroughly tested for your device and operating system.

Note: Jailbreaking and rooting, while they void your warranty, are not illegal. They also are different from unlocking your phone.

How to root or jailbreak your device: Although they might seem like scary, complicated methods, jailbreaking and rooting are fairly easy to do, with tools like JailbreakMe and SuperOneClick. For Android phones/tablets in particular, you'll want to make sure the rooting method is compatible with your particular device (check the XDA Developers forum for SuperOneClick or Lifehacker's guide to rooting Android phones).

Also, before doing any of these methods, make sure you've backed up your device or at least saved all the important data on it, and have it fully charged and plugged in.