Android geeks still often root their devices, and you can usually do it yourself in just a few minutes with one of these easy tools. After you root your Android phone or tablet, you’ll have full access to the entire system.
Rooting has become less necessary over the years, but it’s still necessary if you want to run certain types of apps. You get to choose which apps get root permissions and which don’t.
What is Root, Anyway?
Android is based on Linux. On Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems, the root user is equivalent to the Administrator user on Windows. The root user has access to the entire operating system and can do anything. By default, you don’t have root access to your own Android device, and certain apps won’t function without root access. Like other modern mobile operating systems, Android confines apps to restrictive security sandboxes for security purposes.
The root user account always exists in Android; there’s just no built-in way to access it. “Rooting” is the act of gaining access to this root user account. This is often compared to jailbreaking an iPhone or iPad, but rooting and jailbreaking are fairly different.
With root access, you can remove bloatware that came on your phone, use an app permissions manager, run a firewall, enabling tethering even if your carrier is blocking it, manually back up your installed app settings, and use a variety of other tweaks that require low-level system access.
Apps that require root aren’t hard to find — they’re available in Google Play, but they won’t work until you gain root access. Some apps have features that only work on a rooted device.
You only need to root your phone if you want to run a specific app that requires root access. If you don’t plan on actually doing anything with that root access, don’t bother. You’ll just lose that root access if your phone or tablet receives an operating system update, anyway.
Android devices don’t come rooted for a reason. In fact, Google and device manufacturers usually go out of their way to prevent you from rooting. Rooting either requires taking advantage of “exploits” in a device or unlocking its bootloader and modifying your system partition. It’s not officially supported. You could also install a custom ROM that comes rooted — again, this isn’t officially supported.
- Security – Rooting breaks apps out of Android’s normal security sandbox. Apps could abuse root privileges you’ve granted and snoop on other apps, something which isn’t normally possible. In the past, Google has recommended against using the Google Wallet mobile payments app on a rooted device for this reason.
- Warranty – Some manufacturers assert that rooting voids your device’s warranty. However, rooting will not actually damage your hardware. You can “unroot” your device and manufacturers won’t be able to tell if it’s been rooted.
- Bricking – As usual, you do this at your own risk. Rooting should generally be a very safe process, but you’re on your own here. If you mess something up, you can’t just expect free warranty service to fix it. If you’re worried, do a bit of research first and see if other people report success rooting your device with the tool you’re planning on using.
How to Root
Rooting is often a simple and quick process. However, there’s no single standard way to root every device. We’ll cover a few useful tools that will root a large majority of devices here. If your device isn’t supported, check out the XDA Developers forum and look at the subforum for your specific model of device. This is a good place to start finding out how other people have rooted your device.
Thankfully, there are some tools that make this process easy for the vast majority of Android phone and tablets out there. If one of these tools doesn’t work, you can likely find instructions specific to your individual device online. You’ll just have to do some searching. Bear in mind that you’ll need a root process that works on your device and its current version of the Android operating system. Rooting instructions for older versions of Android on that specific device may not work.
Kingo Root is a simple, easy way to root a large amount of Android devices. Here’s an incomplete list of the devices Kingo Root supports.
This is a Windows desktop app, so you’ll need to download Kingo Root and run it on your Windows PC. It will try to automatically root your phone or tablet using a variety of techniques. Before connecting your Android phone or tablet to your computer via a USB cable, be sure to enable USB debugging.
Kingo Root focuses on using “exploits” to root a device. For this reason, it shouldn’t require an unlocked boot loader — just enable USB debugging, connect it to a computer, and it will install the drivers automatically and walk you through the process. It seems to want to install additional apps on your device — we found an option labelled “Try the smallest fast browser for free” that we unchecked during this process.
Towelroot is another option you might want to try. Enable apps from “Unknown sources” under Settings > Security, download the Towelroot app, and install it. Android will warn you that this app will attempt to bypass Android’s security settings — that’s the whole point. Bypass the warning and install it anyway. Towelroot was developed by GeoHot, a well-known hacker in the iPhone jailbreaking community.
You then open the installed app and it uses an exploit in Android to root your device. Towelroot should support every Android phone or tablet with a kernel build date before June 3, 2014.
(You can find your device’s kernel build date by opening the Settings screen, scrolling down, and tapping About Phone or About Tablet. Look for a date under “Kernel version.”)
Updates to your device’s Android operating system — also known as OTA, or over-the-air, updates — will usually remove root access. Rooting modifies your device’s system partition, and the OTA update sets that system partition back to its default state. There are sometimes ways keep root access after performing an update, but they’re not guaranteed to work and depend on the device you’re using and the update you’re installing.
Managing Root Permissions With the SuperSU App
As part of the rooting process, your rooting tool of choice will generally install SuperSU, Superuser, or a similar app onto your phone or tablet. This app provides an interface where you can control which other apps on your phone get root permissions. Whenever an app wants to request root permissions, it has to ask your SuperSU app, which pops up a permission prompt.
Open SuperSU (or possibly a similarly named app) from your app drawer to and manage which apps get this root permission on your own. Apps that want root access use the “su”, or “superuser,” command to gain elevated permissions. SuperSU or a similar tool controls access to this command.
If something goes wrong, it’s possible that the app won’t be installed as part of the rooting process. You could just install the SuperSU app from Google Play, if so. However, this app won’t actually do anything unless you have a rooted device in the first place.
CyanogenMod and Other Custom ROMs Come With an Easy Root Toggle
If you’re already using a custom ROM, this may be integrated directly into your device’s settings. For example, the popular CyanogenMod — often used by many people to get an up-to-date Android operating system on devices no longer updated by their manufacturers — has this built in.
You can simply visit the device’s settings, find the Superuser setting page, and toggle “Superuser Access” on. It’s disabled by default for security reasons, but it’s just behind a quick, supported toggle.
There’s one big perk to doing it this way: You won’t lose root access when you upgrade CyanogenMod or your other custom ROM of choice.
How to Unroot a Rooted Device
Want to unroot? The tool you used to root may allow you to unroot a device, too. However, the easiest way to unroot is to use the SuperSU app that’s probably installed on your device. Open the SuperSU app, go to its Settings screen, and tap the “Full unroot” option. It will attempt to unroot your device. If it works for you, this is definitely the easiest way to do unroot.
You should now have a rooted Android device and be able to use apps that require access. If your device receives an OTA update, you’ll likely need to go through this process and root it again if you want to keep using those root-only apps and tweaks.
Image Credit: JD Hancock on Flickr