"Rooting" your Android phone, or slipping past standard security barriers to gain greater control, doesn't necessarily mean installing a Super-Crazy AwesomeWidget firmware, or wantonly taunting your cell carrier. It can be a modest affair that nets you some simple, helpful tweaks and new features. Here are the best reasons to commit some light software treason.
[ For screenshots of some of the features mentioned in this article, see Image gallery: 5 reasons to root your Android phone ]
Here lies the standard disclaimer: rooting your phone's firmware is probably a violation of your warranty, and using that rooted phone in unauthorized fashion -- like, say, tethering your Android data connection to a laptop -- is almost certainly a breach of contract. You can usually return your phone to factory-like condition, and you don't have to do anything tricky with your device. In any case, though, you're taking the risk of voiding your warranty, and if something happened to go wrong, it's up to you and some clever Google queries to fix it.
But the rooting process on most phones isn't too hard, and it's up to you how far you go with your anything-goes phone after it's unlocked. Get started by checking out Lifehacker's regularly updated guide to rooting nearly every Android device out there, which explains the process for using the SuperOneClick and Unrevoked software tools, as well as a few special phone cases. Alternately, you can search out your device on the CyanogenMod Wiki and follow the rooting instructions there. Some phones will offer more than token resistance -- certain Motorola models actively block new firmwares, for example, and others just happen to require tricky steps. If you're ever unsure of just what you're doing to your device, back away and start over.
With that stern talking-to out of the way, here are 5 good reasons to take a few tentative steps into the Mos Eisley Cantina of the Android world:
Total phone backup and recovery
After unlocking your firmware, the next step most guides will ask you to take is installing a new recovery image -- the low-level space, just after boot-up, where your data and OS can be added or removed. By installing a custom recovery image, like the popular ClockworkMod, you can make comprehensive backups of your entire phone. If you're going to try out a custom Android remix on your phone, this is absolutely crucial, so that mess-ups don't leave you with a non-booting phone.
But this total backup is a great idea in any case. The backups are saved to your SD card or accessible storage, so you can back them up further off the device, and they back up everything -- apps, data, contacts, SMS, you name it. When you restore them, it's essentially a time machine for your Android.
Far less hassle for screenshots
On an iPhone, a screenshot involves holding the home button and clicking the power switch. On an Android phone, you normally install USB drives on a computer, then install Java and the Android Software Development Kit, then run a debugging tool. With your phone rooted, you can simply head to the Android Market and grab an app. Two of the best are PicMe and ShootMe. PicMe sets up a small web server on your device, so you can grab instant images in a browser over a shared Wi-Fi network. ShootMe simply saves an image to your SD card whenever you activate the app and give your phone a good shake.
Upgrade your phone when your carrier doesn't care
New versions of Android are typically launched by Google as an exclusive on a new device. A month or so after, Google (usually) releases the new OS code into the open, and manufacturers and carriers ship updates to their modern phones. That's the ideal, anyway; in reality, proud phone owners, even those with phones less than a year old, can feel entirely abandoned by their eager-to-sign providers.
Enter the open source Android enthusiasts, who take Google's open source code and roll their own up-to-date Android builds for great-but-overlooked phones. Popular projects like CyanogenMod actually can grant phones entirely new powers and features, including tethering or hotspot abilities, "flashlights" powered by the camera flash, and, on some phones, even an FM radio receiver. But what really matters is that you get a more modern, compatible, and generally faster Android experience on your capable phone. Don't want the extra bits and bleeding-edge stuff? Look to the Blandroid project, which is just as close to standard source as it sounds.
Better battery life and performance through automation
When you take the kid gloves off your Android ROM, you also give clever apps access to your CPU and other deep functions on your phone. Once rooted, apps like battery-saving JuiceDefender, total if-this-then-that tool Tasker, and a bevy of hardware-specific apps that allow for conditional CPU scaling can do their thing without interference. Search out your phone model and "root," and you'll likely discover some impressive power tools for tuning your phone, whether casually or in detail.
Remove pre-installed crapware and free up space
Android has significantly improved its automatic memory management powers since its first release. Then again, with Android's growing popularity, device makers and carriers have seen an opportunity to grow new revenue streams by pre-installing games and other apps from their "partners," and those apps chip away at your available memory. On some phones, that leaves little space for the apps you actually want, and reduces your active task-switching memory.
When you're rooted, you have complete access to your system, and that definitely covers your installed apps. Before you start clicking around and deleting things, of course, it's a great idea to run one of those full system backups mentioned earlier here.
Market apps like Root Explorer allow you to browse and selectively wipe out apps you absolutely don't need. If you'd rather work your magic the old-school command line way, grab a Terminal Emulator and follow the commands to mount and navigate your system apps -- the Javox blog has a good summary.
When your phone is truly your own, you can pull off some pretty nifty tricks, but you can also make it simply a better, more efficient communication tool.