In rooting your Android phone you can unlock your handset's full potential--an increase in speed, battery life, and customizability are just a few of the benefits. You also gain access to free wireless tethering, options for making far more comprehensive backups (of your applications and your settings within them), some killer themes, and all kinds of wonderful interface tweaks that are so good you can't believe they're not included in Android out of the box. Real information on rooting can be hard to sort through, however, and you can find a lot of misinformation out there. Let's dispel some of the myths surrounding rooting.
Q. Is rooting my Android phone worth the trouble?
In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes. My phone is faster than it has ever been, the battery lasts longer, and I have all kinds of new features, including free wireless tethering and notification-bar widgets. Rooting your phone is generally a fairly quick process, though the complexity depends on your specific situation. Once you're rooted your handset, you can begin installing apps (many directly from Android Market) that will take advantage of your handset's new capabilities. Installing custom ROMs--replacement operating systems built by hackers--is a longer, more involved process (which we'll cover in an upcoming article), and generally involves your wiping all the data from your phone, but even that is worthwhile.
Q. Won't rooting my phone be complex and difficult?
Yes and no. It really depends on what model of phone you have. On many phones (such as the Nexus One, Motorola Defy, or EVO 4G) the process is incredibly easy: You can download an app such as Simple Root, Universal 1-Click, or Z4root that will safely root your phone with a single click. Those apps are no longer available from the Android Market, but you can find them online with a simple search and install them onto an SD Card.
It is important to note that different approaches will work for different phones. For example, Z4root will work on many Android phones, but it won't work on most HTC models. Some rooting apps will work on an early build of Android 2.2 (Froyo), but will not work on later builds (though more and more apps are being released for that now). Rooting is phone/OS specific, so make sure to check that the root tool you're considering is compatible with your phone. For other models, rooting may take much more work. You might be required to connect the phone to your computer and enter some lines of code in a terminal utility.
Fortunately, more and more root apps do not require you to hook up your computer and get in that deep. Do some research as to what is required for your setup, read some step-by-step guides, and be honest with yourself about how comfortable you would be trying to follow the directions. If it feels like you'd be in over your head, it's probably best to avoid rooting.
Note that generally rooting is even tougher to do if you use a Mac, as most of the software for doing this sort of thing is written for Windows or Linux.
Q. Do I run the risk of bricking my phone?
This is one of the Internet's favorite bogeymen. "Bricking" is the idea that if you try to tinker with root access, you'll mess something up so it becomes completely unusable, and you'll essentially turn your phone into a paperweight. While that's certainly not outside the realm of possibility, the good news is that Android phones are generally very hard to brick. Yes, even the Droid X, which was purported to be the "unrootable" phone, has been safely rooted for quite some time (Z4root reportedly works with the Droid X).
If you do get caught in a boot loop, you may have to connect your phone to your computer and rewrite some code, but if you are patient and willing to do some more reading, you will almost always be able to find a way to at least restore your phone to its original state (read more on where that help comes from in the next section).
A common mistake that actually will lead to a bricked phone is running out of battery power in the middle of trying to install a custom ROM. The operating system only half installs, and that really is tough to fix. So always make sure that your battery is full before you install a new OS or ROM.
Also, just because a phone is rootable does not mean you can install any custom ROM you want. Differerent ROMs will work for different phones. Even the extremely popular CyanogenMod works for many phones, but certainly not all, so do plenty of research to make sure your phone is supported before trying to install a custom ROM.
Q. If I root my phone, will I have any customer support?
Rooting can be daunting because there is no toll-free number you can call for help, and no governing body to which you can turn for definitive answers. But the collective process of rooting phones and creating custom ROMs has engendered cool and supportive communities. The user-generated forums out there contain a staggering amount of information; the CyanogenMod forum has offered answers to almost all of my questions, as has the XDA Developers forum, but you can find many more. No matter your question, the forums most likely already have threads that can answer it. If you really can't find anything, you can always start a new thread to ask your question. If you think you've really mucked things up and you need immediate help, many IRC chat channels specialize in support for rooters. (Download an IRC client on your computer and head to irc.freenode.net, where the channels #android and #android-root are particularly helpful.)
Q. Isn't rooting my phone illegal?
Nope. You bought the phone, it's your equipment, you own it, and you can do what you want with it. No one is going to come and get you, and your service provider will not cancel your contract. In fact, the U.S. federal government recognized the legality of rooting a phone in July 2010.
What you will do, however, is void the warranty on your device. If you don't want to live without a warranty, rooting isn't for you. Personally, I finally decided to take the plunge when I realized that the potential benefits outweighed the potential consequences. My phone was becoming slow and buggy, with lots of force-closes, and I was just about eligible for an upgrade anyway.
Q. Could my phone overheat and explode?
One of the major incentives to root your phone is the ability to overclock your processor to gain more speed (or underclock it to extend battery life). My phone has gotten considerably faster because of overclocking. When you overclock your processor, though, it will get hotter. If you try to push your phone too far and you don't set any fail-safes (a maximum allowable temperature in the overclocking utility), then you could burn out your processor. However, it is very easy to set safety thresholds to ensure that you don't do that.
SetCPU, the most popular app for overclocking or underclocking, allows you to set up various profiles. I have a profile that slows my processor considerably if the processor temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius; it works perfectly.
Reading the rooting forums will give you plenty of advice on how far you can push your specific device and maintain stability. For example, I found that I can overclock my Motorola Droid up to 1100MHz (twice as fast as the 550MHz speed of the stock kernel) and have it remain very stable and fast, while also getting great battery life. Push it past 1100MHz, and things start getting buggy, and the processor will really start heating up. It pays to do some experimentation: Different phones behave differently, even if they're the same model.