Ultimate Guide to Android Rooting, Custom Roms & Apps
Android and iOS are the most popular smartphone operating systems on the market. Both offer a variety of apps and settings but reach their limits at a certain point. Rooting or Jailbreaking your phone (or tablet) will offer you thousands of tweaks, skins and new apps that you should not miss out on. This guide is divided in several parts: First I’ll explain a few rooting terms you should know, show you how to root your Android device and give you an overview of apps out there.
If you just want give your Android UI a new look, check out our article on Android Launchers. Android Launchers are a great tool to customize your Android experience without rooting your device or in addition to custom roms and rooting! If you’re interested in buying a new Android phone, I’ve recently published a buyer’s guide that focuses on always having the latest and best Android experience with stock Android and custom ROMs.
Android Rooting Terms You Should Know
Before we get started, I would like to explain a few things because the terminology can get really complicated and confusing. But trust me, it sometimes sounds harder than it actually is. I’ll try to keep it short and not go into (technical) details, but I want you to be aware of a few things before we actually get started.
The Bootloader is your phone’s software foundation. It’s basically what runs before your operating system starts. As many manufactures don’t want you to modify your phone’s OS, it needs to be unlocked before you are able to root your phone or install custom roms (explained later).
This is something you don’t want to happen to your Android device. Like the name already implies, a bricked phone (or tablet) can only be used as a paper-weight or nice decoration for your apartment. Bricked devices are irreversible damaged and won’t work anymore. This can, for instance, happen if damaged roms are installed or wrong firmware is flashed. Always make sure to read instructions and verify checksums (a set of numbers that identify the file) to make sure nothing goes wrong.
Android – which is based on Linux/Unix – offers a limited amount of UNIX commands (which most users won’t need anyways). BusyBox will implement more commands that are necessary for some root apps to work properly.
A custom rom is a modified version of the Android operating system. Tweaks, additional features, different themes or an enhanced performance are usually included. Custom roms also offer the possibility to use a newer, unreleased, version of Android on your phone that might usually not be available for your device because of its manufacturer.
Fastboot is a diagnostic and engineering tool which offers you several features such as launching the recovery mode or flashing image files.
The kernel is the brain of your phone that controls how the system and hardware interact.
A NANDroid backup is a complete system backup of your Android device. This backup can be restored later and might save your phone after flashing a faulty rom or theme.
The radio is responsible for sending and receiving voice and data. It can therefore improve your phone’s reception or increase battery life.
Recovery mode offers you the possibility to perform system-level tasks (like formatting, defragmenting, etc.), backup your devices or install custom roms. Android offers a limited stock recovery, but you are able to flash popular recoveries like ClockworkMod Recovery, 4EXT Recovery and TWRP Recovery which will provide more advanced features.
Rooting will give you full administrator access of your device. It will also void your warranty, so make sure to handle your device with care after rooting it. You are always able to revert this process by simply flashing a stock-rom (the original rom installed by your phone’s manufacturer). Doing this, your warranty will be restored as well.
When rooting your phone you will get superuser access, a special account for system administration.
How to Root Your Android Device
The rooting process differs from device to device which makes it impossible to give general instructions on rooting here. I’ve linked guides for some of the most popular devices below. Using the terms described earlier should make the rooting process easier for you. If your phone or tablet is not on the list, you most certainly can find a guide on the XDA-Developers forums.
Always make sure to perform NANDroid backups of your devices to be able to restore your phone or tablet to a working state. I would also recommend to validate checksums and carefully read through the instructions to avoid bricking your device.
Custom Roms offer you a variety of new features, tweaks and visual enhancements. The best source to find custom roms for your Android device are the XDA-Developers forums. Many custom roms are based on the three big releases: CyanogenMod, AOKP and Paranoid Android. The easiest way to find the best custom rom for you is to compare their features or simply test them for a few days. In the end it often boils down to personal preferences. To make your start easier, I’ve written a few words about the major custom roms below.
CyanogenMod looks very similar to stock Android, but offers several enhancements and tweaks. Besides increased system performance and reliability, it includes many interface enhancements and integrated features such as
- OpenVPN integration
- Lockscreen Gestures
- DSP Equalizer
- Themes Support
- Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB tethering
- CPU Over- & Underclocking
It’s available for the majority of popular Android devices. You can find a list of supported devices on the CyanogenMod website
AOKP stands for Android Open Kang Project. It’s fairly similar to CyanogenMod and offers improved system stability and performance as well as visual tweaks. One of the biggest differences to CyanogenMod is a improved menu structure for custom features. Unfortunately, the list of supported devices is not as extensive as CyanogenMod’s list.
Paranoid Android is completely different to AOKP and CyanogenMod. Its main feature is integrating a true hybrid user interface to supported devices. You are able to scale every app and part of the interface on your devices, choosing from PhoneUI, Phablet/Nexus7UI, and TabletUI. A list of supported devices can be found on XDA-Developers
To install a custom rom, you can either use the app Rom Manager or flash a zip archive in recovery mode. Some custom roms also have independent apps on Google Play which will keep you updated on the latest version and will help you to install it. Always make sure to backup your device doing a NANDroid backup before flashing a new custom rom. Most custom roms require a wiped device to work properly, so don’t forget to backup your apps and settings using Titanium Backup.
Flashing Custom Kernels
Kernels are the brain of your Android device and communicate between software and hardware. Therefore, they are responsible for managing things like CPU / GPU clocking speed, screen sensitivity / colors or voltage. By using a custom kernel you can not only improve battery life, but also increase system performance.
Many custom roms already come with their own kernels, mainly to implement software communication of the custom rom with the hardware of the device, but also to ensure a better performance. Nevertheless, you are often able to flash custom kernels to custom roms, but also to improve stock Android running on your device. Always make sure to check compatibility of the kernel with your rom and device, as flashing a wrong kernel can brick your phone!
There are different ways to flash a custom kernel to your device such as flashing in recovery mode or using an app. I personally use franco.Kernel in combination with CyanogenMod on my Nexus 4 and couldn’t be happier. I’m able to check my kernel for updates using an app as well as downloading and auto-flashing the latest version to my phone. My experience with franco.Kernel so far is great: Heat-issues are fixed, the display colors look more like the AMOLED display of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and I have roughly 50% more battery life.
Rooting your Android device will offer you many benefits. Some of them include great apps that require to go deep into the system so using them with an un-rooted device would be impossible. Below I’ve listed a few apps that I like and use on an everyday basis. Feel free to share other apps in the comments section below!
Titanium Backup is a great backup tool for Android devices that offers tons of features. It provides the possibility to backup your data, settings and apps. Scheduled backups are also available and the paid pro version offers lots of great features such as syncing backups with cloud-based storage providers like Dropbox, Google Drive or Box.
When you constantly switch between custom roms, ClockworkMod’s ROM Manager is one of the essential apps to get. Besides flashing ClockworkMod recovery, it will help you to organise and install your custom roms and backing-up your Android device. The paid premium version offers additional features like automatic backups, web connect and incremental rom downloads.
I struggled a little bit when deciding to either include AdAway or not, because it’s great for users but bad for app publishers and marketers. Like AdBlock Plus on your computer, the app modifies your Android devices hosts file to prevent apps and browsers to display advertisements. This will not only improve your app usage experience, but also increase battery life and decrease mobile traffic. Be fair and purchase paid versions of apps or donate a small amount to developers to make sure they will keep on programming great apps!
Update: Google has recently begun to remove certain apps that violate their distribution agreements from Google Play. If you’re still interested in installing AdAway, please refer to the AdAway website.
Cerberus anti theft
Cerberus anti theft is a great app that brings many security features to your phone. You can, for instance, control your phone remotely from the Cerberus website, locate and track it as well as display messages on the screen. Remote wiping and taking pictures of the thief are also on the huge list of features.
This app will work on non-rooted devices, although the root version implements and essential feature: Cerberus can be installed wipe-proof which means that a thief won’t be able to simply uninstall the app or notice that it’s running in the background.
I love my Nexus 4, but sometimes it’s really annoying that I have to hit the physical buttons to unlock the screen. Touch Control allows you to wake up and lock your device by using gestures: Simply double-tapping the display will wake up the display. A swipe from right to left will lock the screen when the device is running. A great app that increased my Nexus 4 user experience big time.
Do you have any questions about the rooting process, custom roms, tweaks or apps? Do you maybe want to share other great apps that I might have forgotten? Feel free to do so in the comments below! Interested in giving your Android UI a new look and add other features? Android launchers are a great way to do so, even without rooting and custom roms! If you’re in for a new phone, check out our always up-to-date Android phone buyer’s guide!
About Philipp Greitsch
Philipp Greitsch is a mobile enthusiast with great interest in the latest trends and developments in mobile, technology and things that make our everyday life awesome.