Why Do People Root Android Phones?

Sony Xperia Z2
Sony Corporation

Rooting an Android phone means giving yourself superuser access. A superuser is an administrator who has access to more features and functions of a system and can make changes to it beyond its standard behavior. This grants more access to the operating system, which means more power over how the device works, but it also brings with it a greater potential to do damage to the device's proper operation. Essentially, rooting your device puts you in full control over it, for better or worse.

Android logo

One of the best features of the Android phone is that it has an open source operating system. Because the core of Android is open source, anyone can build on and modify it. Most of the time, its device manufacturers doing the modification, creating custom Android versions for their new phones, adding features, and trying to create a polished experience for their users. Part of that include imposing their own rules and restrictions on their custom Android builds.

Phone service carriers and device manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Huawei, Xiaomi, and others, put quite a few modifications and restrictions on their phone products. Even Google puts some restrictions into its own operating system for safety and security reasons, but also at the request of carriers and phone manufacturers.

Preventing Rooting for Security

Over the years, tech companies have uncovered a basic truth. There's one thing that people are better at than anything else when it concerns their devices, messing them up. If you've ever been a family member's tech support, you know exactly what this is all about. Phone manufacturers lock down their devices to prevent people for unintentionally damaging them or opening themselves up to all sorts of security risks.

Locked code

Unfortunately, their motives aren't all that pure. Nearly every device you get from a major carrier comes pre-loaded with junk, and lots of it. That's because your carrier or the phone manufacturer made a deal with the people who made that software to install it on your phone and not let you remove it. Locking down phones also helps to prevent people from switching carriers and can even decrease the lifespan of your device by preventing you from getting new updates.

As a result of all of this, your user account isn't logged in as root, so all your apps have the usual limited permissions and access. Your phone's manufacturer and carrier have set the limits on what you can and can't do, both for your own protection and their business interests.

Why Override Security to Root a Phone?

Rooting your device puts the power back in your hands. It allows you to perform tasks and make changes that require more control and go beyond the usual functionality of the device. You're not limited to what your phone's manufacturer says you can do with your device. You can do just about anything your device's hardware will allow instead.

One of the biggest selling points for rooting an Android device is the world of custom ROMs that it opens up. Remember how the phone manufacturers make their own versions of Android? Well, anyone can do that too, and they do. There's an active community of developers making their own spins of Android and releasing them for free online. This community has even given rise to major Android distributions like LineageOS. With custom ROMs, you can unlock even more features and functionality on your device and receive updated versions of Android long after your phone's manufacturer stops supporting it.

Android root functionality

Rooting a phone also allows a user to install non-standard apps that allow you to do things that the manufacturers, phone carriers, and phone makers don't ordinarily permit. These apps let you remove that bloatware that came with your device, take full control over storage, and modify settings you didn't even know your phone had. Many root only apps also work by taking control of your device at a hardware level, enabling new power saving options and other similar capabilities.

Google, the creator of the Android operating system, is not completely opposed to rooting. They could make rooting harder on Android devices, but they choose not to. In fact, Google's Nexus devices are geared toward developers and allow you to easily unlock the bootloader and root them.

Root only app on the Play Store

You can also find apps designed to run on rooted Android devices in the Google Play store. If Google were out to quash rooting, this would not be the case. If you're going to install root access apps, sticking to the Google Play store is a way to limit the possibility of installing a malicious app that could take advantage of your phone's rooted status — but it isn't a guarantee of safety.

Consequences of Rooting

With great power comes great... You know the rest. Rooting your phone puts all the responsibility on you. It will void your device's warranty, and your carrier will be much less likely to help you if anything goes wrong. Plus, if you don't own your device outright, you're probably in violation of your service contract too.

Flashing custom ROMs is a tricky process. It involves booting your device into a custom recovery manager and installing the ROM directly onto your phone's hardware. If something goes wrong, you run the risk of "bricking" your device. That's exactly what it sounds like; your new phone is as useful as a brick. It won't boot, and you definitely can't make calls or browse the Web.

Broken phone

Rooting also opens up the possibility for apps to run with admin privileges. Running anything with admin privileges gives it free reign to do just about anything on your device. So, if you accidentally install a malicious app, it can do some serious damage.

Updates are on you now too. Your phone will also no longer be able to install updates released by Google in the familiar way. You will have to manage maintenance and updates. If you choose a ROM like LineageOS, you will be able to get updates directly from them, but with most, that's not the case.

Rooting, jailbreaking, and unlocking your phone has gone through legal gray periods. Unlocking your phone allows you to use it on other carriers, and is different from rooting and jailbreaking. For a time, it was illegal to unlock your phone to use on another carrier — even if you had purchased it and were no longer under contract with a carrier. That changed in 2014 when the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama. This law permits any cell phone or smartphone user to unlock their phone and move to another carrier if they have fulfilled all their phone contract requirements.

Rooting and jailbreaking are different from unlocking. Though the Library of Congress Copyright Office, which has regulatory jurisdiction over the area, ruled in 2010 that jailbreaking a phone is a legal action, phone manufacturers generally do not want their customers "hacking" their devices, and doing so will void the device's warranty.

So, Should You Root?

That choice is entirely up to you. If you're not a technical person, rooting is probably a bad idea. You need to be comfortable digging around under the hood to make it work. Is your device near the end of its life, and you want to extend its run? Rooting might be worth a shot. Ultimately, you need to figure out who you trust more to have control over your device, you or the manufacturer.