The Complete Guide to Rooting Your Android Device

The ins and outs of rooting, flashing ROM and more

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Chances are, if you're an Android user, you've wondered about rooting your phone. It's a great way to get out from under carrier restrictions, access new versions of the operating system, and generally improve your device's performance. Rooting is complicated, but not difficult to do, and if you follow the instructions closely and properly prepare your device, there's very little downside. Here's how to root your phone safely and how to take full advantage of your newfound freedom.

Preparing Your Phone

As in major surgery, rooting requires some preparation before you go all in. Before you start the process, be sure to backup all of the data on your phone. You can either back up your stuff to Google's servers or use a third-party app like Helium. See my guide to backing up your Android device for more information.

The Rooting Process

Next, you need to choose what type of software you want to use to root your device. There are several programs you can use to root your phone, but each varies when it comes to device and operating system compatibility. The most popular are KingRoot, KingoRoot, and Towelroot. The XDA Developers Forum is a great resource for rooting help and instructions.

Alternatively, you can install a custom ROM such as CyanogenMod or Paranoid Android, which are alternate versions of the Android operating system. The actual process of rooting will vary depending on the software or custom ROM that you use.

This may involve unlocking the bootloader, which controls the applications that are running on your phone and installing a root management app for security and privacy protection. If you opt for an APK, you'll want to download a root checker to make sure the process has been successful. If you install a custom ROM, that isn't necessary.

Again, the XDA Developers Forum has a wealth of information based on the device and operating system version you have.

All About Custom ROMs

CyanogenMod and Paranoid Android are two of the most popular custom ROMs. CyanogenMod enables your device to access new features before unrooted devices can. In many cases, Google has integrated CyanogenMod's features into its operating system upgrades. This custom ROM also gives you a ton of customization options (we know Androids love that) for everything from your home screen, lock screen, and more. 

Paranoid Android also offers several extra features and customizations, including immersive mode, which hides distractions like system bars, date and time, and software buttons, so you can concentrate on the game, video, or other content that you're using.          

Many other custom ROMs are based on either CyanogenMod or Paranoid Android. This includes BlissROM, which has all of CyanogenMod's features, and adds audio and visual improvements, gesture controls, and other tweaks.

Since custom ROMs are open-source and updated regularly, you'll find several versions available for download. Generally, the releases are in one of four categories: nightly, milestone snapshot, release candidate, and stable.

Nightly releases, true to the name are released every evening and tend to be buggy and milestone snapshots are a bit more stable, but still prone to issues. The release candidate is self-explanatory: it's stable, but may have minor issues while stable releases are near-perfect. If you're not terribly technical or don't want to deal with bugs, you're best off with the stable or release candidate versions. On the other, if you like to tinker, the nightly or milestone snapshot versions are good options; you can even help by reporting any bugs that you encounter.

Benefits of Rooting

There are a lot of upsides to rooting, including better customization and more control over your device.

You can access features that may be restricted by your carrier such as tethering and upgrade your operating system on your timeline, rather than waiting for your carrier or manufacturer to send it over the air. There is also a myriad of powerful apps that you can use such as Titanium Backup, which offers scheduled backups, cloud storage integration, and more. Greenify helps you save battery and improve performance by using a hibernation mode on selected apps. 

Drawbacks of Rooting

Upsides definitely outweigh the downsides of rooting. That said, there are a few risks, including a very small chance of bricking your phone (aka rendering it useless.) If you follow the rooting directions carefully, though, this is unlikely to happen. It's also possible that rooting could break the warranty on your device, though if your phone is a year or two old, it may already be out of the warranty period anyway. Finally, your device could be prone to security issues, so it's worthwhile to download a robust security app, such as 360 Mobile Security or Avast! to stay on the safe side.

Unrooting Your Phone

What if you change your mind? Or you want to sell your device? No problem, rooting is reversible. If you've rooted your phone without flashing a custom ROM, you can use the SuperSU app to unroot. The app has a section called cleanup, which has a full unroot option. Tapping that will walk you through the unrooting process. If that doesn't work, you may have to unroot your device manually. If you did flash a custom ROM, you'll need to reset your device to factory settings. The methodology for this is different for every manufacturer. How-To Geek has a helpful guide that outlines where to find instructions based on the device's manufacturer and operating system that it's running. Unrooting is somewhat complicated, so again, be sure to backup all of your data before proceeding.