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to root or not to root

Tough question. We’re talking about Android, by the way. I’ll start with a case against rooting: Well, first off, what is rooting? If you asked yourself that question before I threw it at you just there, I’d advise against rooting, unless you are looking for a hobby more than you are looking for a phone. Root is the superuser account on Linux, UNIX and UNIX-derivatives. Lets you modify and execute any file however you want basically, regardless of the permissions set on the filesystem and bind to any network port. And Android is Linux, more or less, the Linux mascot is a penguin (pic related); so there you go, rooting.

Your Android phone was badass the moment you hit the power button the first time. There’s a ton of software on the market, a lot of which is both good and free (and some good ones that cost a buck or two). If you come across an application not on the market for some reason, you don’t need root to install it, usually. Good chance you won’t feel the urge to root unless it’s an old habit from your WinMo days (well, that was called hardspl, not rooting, but similar idea).

On the other hand, there are some things that might tip the scale of your decision to root over the edge. Some examples include wifi tethering, manipulating the trackball or LED or your phone’s equivalent to give you differently-colored notifications depending on the notification, going crazy with skinning, VPNing, screen capturing, remote wiping, making backup images, tweaking the YouTube client to use HQ by default and adblocking. Among other things. Maybe the biggest reason is plain old curiosity, the type that brought you to this article in the first place.

Taking rooting a step further, you can also flash custom roms with root. Why do that? Well, you can find some roms that make the phone feel a bit faster, one with HTC Sense if you don’t already have it but just gotta have your HTC Sense, or something simple like one that gives you fifteen recent apps instead of five on a long home press. I will say this, when you flash a custom rom for the first time, you will get a wow factor far greater than when you did it with WinMo, no doubt. Same story for when you flash from the custom rom you already flashed to a subsequent release or another by some other guy. The differences are significant, whereas they were insignificant with WinMo, generally speaking. Most of the time the only difference I could spot was the build number. Man winmo sucks…

Maybe when you heard wifi tethering you thought wow, I’m sold, time to google how to root my phone. I was in that frame of mind once, but because my phone is so God-like, I have yet to even test it out with my laptop because I don’t use that laptop anymore now that I’ve got this bad boy. But I can tether if I want to, and I guess that’s sort of comforting. If you’re thinking that, just reconsider a little more whether that’s a compelling enough reason if it’s the only one you’ve got.

Taking rooting one more step further, you can flash kernels. The kernel of your phone is like the carburetor of an engine or whatever chips they’ve got in cars that make decisions on when to spark those spark plugs or when to downshift based on the current RPM and wheel speed and how hard you’re pushing down the peddle (though stick shift, parenthetically, is far more badass than automatic — but let’s stay focused on the topic). Just as you can mess with this on your rice burner, you can do the poetic equivalent on your phone.

All the excitement on kernel flashing seems to be about overclocking and undervolting. I just flashed a kernel that gives me a little more speed and battery life, and as a perk, the camera application used in the Desire (I have a Nexus One), which is definitely a better camera application. Once you’ve installed such a kernel, you can configure the phone to ramp down your processor speed at various battery thresholds, temperatures and on/off or charging states you may define. For me on this kernel I flashed, I can swing from 1.113GHz down to 245MHz.

Am I noticing any huge difference from the overclocking? Not really, but on the other hand, I didn’t have any complaints in the first place about battery and speed. I just wanted to see what life was like in the overclocking zone, wanted to tempt fate perhaps with this undervolting notion, whatever that means exactly. I’d be surprised if this comes as a surprise to you but rooting will probably void any warranty you have. In terms of bricking your phone for custom rom flashing, not much to worry about if you do a backup first. But, like the warnings you’ll find if you search for such kernels try to convey, there is some risk, mostly theoretical I think, to your hardware when manipulating things such as clock speed and voltage. Based on what I’ve read in the forums, including a lack of people venting about damaging their phone from having flashed the wrong kernel, it sounds pretty remote to me.

So you see, it can become an obsession if you go down this road, adding a bunch of rom forums onto your Google Reader (of course you use Google Reader, right?), eagerly anticipating another release and when one finally hits to drop everything to flash it. So consider that when contemplating whether or not this is worth doing. Hang in there for the Android 2.2 Froyo update, that should make a much bigger difference than any of these other tricks and it’s coming pretty soon.

Sorry but I’m not going to go into how to root or hit you with a bunch of hyperlinks. The article’s long enough as it is and if you don’t know how to google this stuff, too google google subjects, maybe you’re better off without this. I will note, however, that Google supplies the OEM unlocking capability right in the SDK, a refreshing thing to discover after having defected from WinMo, a place where you’re left wondering if custom roms are even legal. Man Microsoft sucks. It’s almost as if they go out of their way to suck.

Interesting footnote from BRYAN B: “Soon you may be able to dual boot two different Android Roms at the same time.” Follow up footnote from me: You can also, with custom roms, install applications to the SD chip, but that’s also another thing you’ll be able to do soon, no root needed. And you can install Ubuntu, Gentoo and Debian Linux. Please keep the footnotes coming people. Articles on how to do root-related things, daily tips or whatever, to follow.

Doug Simmons