Android root – the lowdown and pitfalls of the super user

JC Torres - Jun 28, 2016, 7:25 am CDT
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Android root – the lowdown and pitfalls of the super user

Our smartphones and tablets today have become powerful computers, almost matching the cheapest “netbook” grade laptops. We feel they can almost do anything and everything. In theory, they can. In reality, however, they are limited by the boundaries that platform makers like Google and Apple impose on them. Some of those limitations are inherent in the platform itself or the hardware it runs on. Others, however, can be unlocked by the process now known as rooting (for Android) or jailbreaking (for iOS). In the past, rooting was not only something for power users to play with but somewhat even recommended for more adventurous ones to squeeze out the best functionality from their smartphones. But does rooting still have that sway today? What do we gain and what do we lose when we set our smartphones free? Read on the find out.

The root of rooting

Before we get into the pros and cons of rooting, it is advisable to understand the context of its birth, why there are imposed limits in the first place, which necessitated rooting.

Ever since computing became a multi-user activity, that is, a single computer used by more than one person, different classes of users with different levels of access have been formed. A long-held principle in computing dictates that you only give enough permissions for a program or a user to do its task and nothing more. As such, there is usually a single user or class of users that has full access to the system, while everyone else are limited to varying degrees. That user is traditionally called the “super user” or root. That convention has carried on even to modern operating systems, though these usually hide them or soften their distinctions. macOS (formerly OS X) has it, and so does Windows. Unix, the forebear of Android (Linux) and iOS (BSD), is even more stringent in this aspect.

The purpose of such a distinction between user privileges is to keep unauthorized users from wreaking havoc on the computer, whether intentionally or by accident. Even knowledgeable users are not immune to accidentally deleting important system files (just Google “rm -rf /”), how much more less adept ones. That is true even for highly personal, single user devices like smartphones.

For some users, especially more advanced ones, that limitation is rather suffocating. Especially when you really want to do something, know how to do it, and understand the consequences. But unlike desktop operating systems, gaining such administrator privileges on mobile platforms has been made extremely difficult in order to discourage it. Whereas on macOS, Windows, or Linux, you only need to supply the super user password, on Android and iOS that isn’t as straightforward. Thus, rooting, or getting root/super user access, was born.

The power of su

supersu-logo

“Normal” users, a.k.a. the default user on Android, are naturally limited in what they can do and see. Even the usual file system hierarchy (the arrangement of folders) is usually hidden from the user. The user also has very limited options in what they can do, in the programs they can run, and the files that they can access. Rooting the device blows those limitations away, which opens a new world of possibilities to users. Here are just some of the still popular uses of rooting on Android.

Xposed

Ever got jealous of a feature found only on another OEM’s device? Ever wanted that feature but didn’t want to lose the features of your OEM’s own software? Previously, to get any sort of advanced customization or features, you’d have to install custom ROMs. The Xposed framework, however, offered a middle ground, bringing in piecemeal features and add-ons to an existing Android installation.

The catch? Yep, the device has to be rooted, no questions asked. Xposed works by diggin deep into system internals and, therefore, requires a rooted device to even be possible.

Tasker and automation

Far less drastic is the need for additional functionality not provided by a stock Android experience. One of those is in the area of automation. Tasker is one of the champions of that space and, for a time, only worked with rooted phones. Today, it and many others offer some reprieve, but the solution is not complete.

Things like automatically toggling system settings or tuning hardware performance still requires root access. The bottom line for apps like Tasker is that if you want the full power of automation, you’ll need full access to your device.

Performance tweaking

Not everyone is satisfied with how their hardware runs, as dictated by manufacturers and operating system writers. Some believe they should be able to decide how much they want to push the hardware. For this class of power users, rooting is really the only way to have that choice.

It does come at a price, however. Pumping up performance in one will take away from another. A higher clocked CPU will drain the battery faster, not to mention generate more heat. Prolonging battery life, on the other hand, requires tuning down the rests of the system. For the overclocker, those are the decisions they love to make, and rooting gives them the freedom to make those decisions.

Removing bloat, adding new ones

Let’s face it, bloatware has become an unavoidable fact of computing life. It is, of course, not ideal, and some users will have none of that. Sadly, these pieces of unwanted software are baked into the system, so the only way to excise them would be to attain the power of root.

Rooting also works the other way. It lets users install apps that have been declared unfit for their device or market. Want a tablet only app on your phone or vice versa? Go for it. Want an app available only in a certain country? Take it for a spin! Of course, it’s not a guarantee those will work as intended, if at all, but at least you’ll get to find that out for yourself.

Low-level backups

It is good practice to always back up your data, whether it be on your computer or on your phone. While there are numerous backup sofware available, not all of them are convenient. And almost all of them don’t fully back up your device. And by “fully”, we mean down to the last system file. Normal backup apps usually just back up photos, user data, and such. But when it comes to restoring a device after it was been wiped or flashed, you still have to undergo reinstalling those apps and then restoring that data.

Apps like Titanium Backup back up everything and anything. It’s like taking a snapshot of the whole system and then restoring it instantly. Plus, it can automate the backup process to make it even less painful for the user. Of course, you’ll need to be rooted to enjoy all those.

Kryptonite

If rooting were all good, then everyone would be rooting their devices left and right. But there is a reason why those limitations have been put in place and why Google continues to block rooting, though some do not agree with those reasons. As the oft-quoted saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So to keep the universe in balance, here are the reasons why you should NOT root your device.

Security disaster waiting to happen

android-security

Having an exposed user that can do anything and everything on your device is considered to be a security liability, which is why Google (and Apple) is working so hard to close those doors. As such, rooting on Android is technically done by finding a security hole to exploit in order to gain access to the root user. That is also why with each and every new Android release, rooting becomes more difficult, because Google continually plugs up those holes in the name of security.

While fans of rooting do have a legitimate claim to having unfettered access to their devices, there are many who don’t. Yes, we are talking about hackers and crackers and all sorts of miscreants seeking to wreak havoc for fun or profit. Those same security exploits used to root Android could be used by these people, but they don’t even have to go that far. A rooted device is pretty much a sitting duck and a favorite target of hackers, because those devices are arguably easier to get into, security wise. By rooting a device, the onus of guarding against malware and such transfers from Google to the user.

Locked out functionality

Just as rooting introduces new functionality and abilities to apps and users, it also potentially locks some out. There are apps that, for one reason or another, don’t work or crash on rooted devices. There might be modified versions of those apps floating around the net that do work for rooted devices, but given the above, that might not be a good idea.

And those are just apps. There are other OEM or platform features that may be held back from rooted devices. The most common culprit would be features that depend on the integrity of the system, like mobile payment systems. As a safety precaution, these would naturally require a secured device. At the moment, the likes of Android Pay and Samsung Pay are still quite new to be of consequence and there are still ways to get the best of both worlds. Sooner or later, however, Google and Samsung might set their foot down and block access to such functionality on rooted smartphones.

Voiding warranty

As rooting is tantamount to tampering with the software on a product supplied by Google, manufacturers, and carriers, there is a chance that it will no longer as any of those sources intended. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on the user. But as far as these companies are concerned, it isn’t. That is why most of the time, rooting is considered to be an act that automatically voids your warranty.

That said, not all manufacturers see it that way. There are more developer friendly ones like Sony and OnePlus that don’t mind users tampering with their devices. Within limits, of course. The one caveat is that they do wash their hands of any responsibility if you do so and happen to brick your device in the process.

Optimizations always work as advertised

Part of getting access to the lower level parts of the system is being able to tweak performance to your heart’s content. If PC users have overclocking, so do Android users. Somewhat. These days, however, most of such performance tweaks and optimizations are not really that necessary anymore. As hardware makers and platform developers get better at their craft, they themselves are able to squeeze out as much performance as they can from the device. And some app developers and integrators have even come up with tools that let you clean up system resources, as much as is allowed.

There are, however, times when users won’t agree with a vendor’s implementation or policies that limit how the hardware performs (OnePlus 3, anyone?). Yes, in those cases, rooting will be needed to tweak those, but the question is whether the benefits will outweigh the risks and the trouble. In most cases, it might not.

No longer that critical

In the early days of Android, or even of iOS, much of the functionality that users wanted and needed just weren’t there yet. Worse, some of those imposed by the powers that be are the ones they didn’t want. At that time, tweaks like Xposed, automation like Tasker, and custom ROMs flourished to respond to the needs, and most of them required users to root their devices to work. Nowadays, the landscape has shifted a bit.

Tasker and other automation apps no longer need root to function, although more advanced functionality is indeed available only on rooted systems. Battery and task optimizers no longer need root. And as of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, you also don’t need root or a custom ROM to do tasks like switching of specific permissions.

While there are still legit reasons to root, the list has significantly become shorter.

Wrap-up

Rooting isn’t as big a fad as it was in the early days of Android. Much of the reasons for rooting a device have been addressed or are now available normally. In truth, rooting was never really necessary back then, though it was strongly advised. Of course, there still exists reasons and apps worth rooting devices for, including simply the right to have full access to the computer that you bought, and smartphones are computers after all. The choice will always be there and there will always be developers ardently working to root the next Android release. Of course, in the end, the choice is yours.


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