Many features that once required root have been added to Android over the years. However, many advanced tricks still require rooting your Android smartphone or tablet.
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to root — rooting reduces your device’s security. That’s part of why CyanogenMod’s founder is looking at adding additional features to Cyanogenmod that would eliminate the need for root.
Back Up and Restore App Data
The popular Titanium Backup app, which allows you to back up an app’s data and then restore it later, requires root access. Android apps aren’t supposed to be able to read other apps’ data — that’s a security vulnerability — so this still requires root access. Much Android data is automatically backed up, but Titanium Backup allows users to back up everything and easily restore it, even data that wouldn’t normally be backed up.
Android includes some built-in backup features, but they’re hidden — you have to access them by plugging your device into a computer and running a special command. While the built-in backup features are so hidden and not all app data is backed up to the cloud, Titanium Backup is still very useful.
Change Your DNS Server
Want to change your Android phone’s DNS server and use a third-party DNS server like Google Public DNS for possibly improved speed, OpenDNS for web filtering, or Tunlr for easy access to geoblocked online media services?
Android doesn’t make this easy. You can change the DNS server for each individual Wi-Fi network you connect to, but you can’t set a preferred DNS server system-wide. This requires a third-party app like SetDNS. Sure, you could just change the DNS server on your router and you’d be okay when you were at home, but this wouldn’t help you when you were out and about. Android make this possible without rooting, but it’s extremely tedious.
Remove Bloatware Completely
Android now provides a way to disable apps that were preinstalled by the carrier or device’s manufacturer. However, they’ll just be disabled — so they’ll still take up space on the device’s storage. With root access, you can delete the applications from the system partition, recovering the wasted storage and gaining the ability to use it for other things.
This isn’t necessarily recommended, as it can cause problems if you remove apps that the device needs. That’s why disabling bloatware apps is generally a better idea — but that’s little comfort if you don’t have much storage space left and you want to recover space wasted by bloatware.
Gain Low-Level Hardware Access
After rooting your device, you can install a custom Linux kernel on it. This enables you to access features that require kernel-level changes. For example, Nexus 4 users can install the Touch Control app to wake their smartphones with a simple swipe on the display rather than a press often power button. This is implemented as a kernel module because it requires that low-level access.
Other commonly used features that often require custom kernels include display calibration, CPU downclocking (for more battery life), and CPU overclocking (for more performance.)
Manage App Permissions
When you install an app, Android shows you the permissions the app requires. This is a take-it-or-leave-it offer — if you want to install a game but that game requires an obscene level of permissions, you can’t just deny individual permissions.
Root access allows you more control over app permissions on your phone, as this feature isn’t available to typical users. The good news is that Android 4.3 includes a hidden permissions manager named “App ops.” This feature likely isn’t stable and shouldn’t be relied on yet, but it’s hopefully a sign of things to come — with any luck, we’ll see a stable permission manager introduced in Android 4.4.
Mount USB Sticks
It’s possible to connect a USB stick to your Android tablet using a standard USB OTG cable. However, Android doesn’t support USB sticks natively. If you’d like to connect a USB stick to your tablet so you can watch videos without wasting all your tablet’s storage, you’ll need root access and something like the StickMount app. This utility makes files on USB sticks available on the Android device’s file system so other apps can access them, but it requires low-level access available only to root users.
Get Full File System Access
Root gives you full access to the system by definition, so it’s no coincidence that people who want full read/write access to the entire file system will require root. Root allows you to use file managers that can access the entire file system and even edit Android’s configuration files by hand in text editors — something hardcore Android tweakers may find useful.
Automate More Things
We’ve previously covered Tasker, an advanced application that lets you automate your Android device. Tasker allows you to make things automatically happen when certain conditions are met. However, some features you can change yourself require root access when controlled by an application. If you want to enable or disable airplane mode, connect or disconnect VPNs, or do other advanced things that Android doesn’t allow apps to do, you’ll need to give Tasker root access.
Stream To Apple AirPlay Devices
The AirAudio app makes Android devices AirPlay-compatible, allowing you to stream audio from your device to an AirPlay-enabled receiver like an Apple TV. AirAudio does this by capturing the audio data coming from an application and sending it over the network. Android doesn’t normally allow apps to listen to other app’s audio signals, so AirAudio requires root access to do its thing.
This is an example of the sort of unforeseen app that’s only possible because root allows the app to break out of Android’s security model.
We’re obviously an ad-supported website, so we generally don’t jump up and down telling everyone how to disable ads. However, it’s impossible to deny — one big reason many people root their devices is to block ads at the system level.
Many Android apps are free specifically because they contain ads, so using a trick to disable advertisements in the app when you could just spend $0.99 for the full, ad-free app isn’t very nice to developers. Don’t expect Google to make this feature stop requiring root anytime soon.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea of some of the most common reasons for rooting. Wi-Fi tethering doesn’t necessarily require rooting anymore, either — even if the carrier has disabled the built-in tethering features, most devices can use Wi-Fi tethering via the FoxFi app.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 09/10/13