You don’t have to root your Android phone.

You don’t have to flash a new ROM, either.

You can just sit there and enjoy your smartphone as it is right out of the box. Slap on some wallpaper, set up your home screen and away you go.


Come on, now. If you could make your car go faster, shine brighter and surprise you with new options every day, you’d do it right? If you could slap another story on your house, put in a pool and make the whole thing hover over the rest of the neighborhood, you wouldn’t hesitate at all. If you could make your wife a little taller and a lot less demanding . . .

But you get the idea. This is how you make your gadget yours and yours alone. This is how you transform your smartphone into a by-God-SMARTPHONE.

Just look at you quivering over there. If this whole business sounds too scary, consider what your friends and loved ones are doing in the quiet hours of the night. Geeks are everywhere. They look like normal people, but behind closed doors they’re getting all freaky with their phones. Rooting, flashing, booting into recovery like nobody’s business. That nice lady who sits in the cubicle next to yours and brings lemon squares to the office every Friday? Geek.

That dreamy fellow who fixes your car? Geek with a capital G.

That police detective who solves crimes by day and protects us all from bad guys? Oh, he’s a geek. Geek from way back.

His name is Jason Moore, and go ahead and ask him how he feels about the latest phone technology?

“I was always interested in the original Android phone, the G1, which my brother had. My first was the Droid Incredible, which I had for a month before I switched to the Droid X. I am now on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, unlocked, rooted and with a custom ROM.”

It sounds like dirty talk or just plain gibberish, depending which way you swing. To another geek, it’s a beautiful language. Moore has told us that, yes, he rooted his phone, giving his phone far more muscle and flexibility — think Olympic pole vaulter. And yes, he’s got a custom ROM, giving his phone a whole new operating system — think divorcing your wife and marrying Bill Gates’ daughter (if he has one). And yes, he regrets nothing.

“You have access to much cooler apps that stock phones don’t get (by rooting). But the biggie for me is the custom ROMs, which add another layer of functionality and customization,” the cop/geek tells us. “I also need to brag that my phone is equipped with an NFC chip, which, combined with Google Wallet, allows me to use it to make purchases, and it is awesome. I love blowing peoples minds when they see me use my phone to pay for a Red Bull.”

“I can use many apps I couldn’t use before,” says fellow geek KC Clark, who runs a computer repair business in Auburn. “I can use my phone as a wifi hot spot anytime, access any file I want on my Android and I also tweaked my Android to make it 10 times faster than it was when it left the factory.”

The choice is obvious. You have to root.

The root of the matter

I hate to see you looking so frightened and confused. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re what is known in nerd circles as a newbie. Or a noob, if you prefer. You have a smartphone but, beyond what you’ve read in your manual, you have no idea how it works. What it can do. How much you can do with the thing.

Brother, I’m only a few steps ahead of you. I can explain the process in simple terms because that’s as deep as my grasp of it goes.

Rooting? Simple. When you root your phone, you allow yourself – and various applications – access to the secret files and folders in the basement of your phone that offer a new world of smartphone possibilities. Rooting is not a heavy, potentially catastrophic procedure like “jailbreaking” — unlocking the potential of — an iPhone. Frankly, I can’t tell you much at all about jailbreaking. I spent a year with an iPod Touch and never grew to love it. But Android? Oh, yes. Deep, R-rated love from the get-go and the first thing I wanted to do with my Android phone was to root it.

Rooting will void your warranty, sure. But the Android people don’t actively frown on it and you can un-root any time you want. Not that you’ll want to. Trust me on this.

The process can be embarrassingly simple or more complex, depending on your phone.

“With the Droid X it was as simple as downloading an app and clicking a button,” says Moore. “The Nexus was just a bit more complicated, because it is so new. . . . Instead of an app I hooked the phone (is it really a phone?) to my laptop, installed a program and clicked a couple of buttons. Root is the easy part. Installing ROMs can get a bit hairy, as you could easily brick your phone if you miss a step.”

Ah, yes. The terror of bricking your phone (see definition) and ending up with a $200 paperweight. The truth is that bricking is rare with Android. As long as you can get to your backup, stored on your SD memory card, you can travel back to a time before you decided to get brave and muck things up.

Chances are good, your rooting process is going to be a breeze.

“I used Gingerbreak, which is an Android exploit,” said Clark, “and I used a batch file on my computer to activate it, thus rooting the phone. The binaries are updated automatically to keep it working. I backed up all my apps first and then I flashed my Android OS (operating system) after, which is general rooting practice.”

That’s fancy talk. I also used Gingerbreak and I would describe it like this: I downloaded a file and put it on my phone. I then clicked it and let it do whatever the hell it wanted. A few crazy messages across my screen, a reboot that seemed to take longer than human pregnancy, and then I was rooted. Empowered. One of the cool kids.

There’s plenty to do with a rooted phone. First the basics. Since you now have access to all the files on that beast, you can get rid of applications that previously eluded you. The junk that came bundled in with your phone, mostly. If you’ve taken even a cursory stroll through your app drawer, you’ll know what programs you want gone. Go to Google, your best friend in these matters, and type in “Android apps safe to remove” and you’ll find a comprehensive list of stuff you can yank from your phone without complication. If you’re feeling all big and bad, you can go in and remove them yourself. Me? I used a program called Titanium Backup – which I love more than I do most humans – to uninstall or freeze apps.

You can install an app called AdFree to keep ads off your phone. You should do this only after wrestling with your conscience. Most app developers, the people who bring you unbelievable programs for pennies or less, rely a great deal on ads for their income.

You can get a file manager that will let you peek at all the mystical folders in the aforementioned cellar of your phone.

You can clock your phone to a higher CPU (I don’t know what that means, either, but I know how to do it) so that it hums along faster than before.

You can get apps that will keep your phone clean, save your battery and provide Internet access for other gadgets.

Having a rooted phone sets you apart. It is the high-tech version of running with scissors and petting dogs even though you don’t know where they’ve been. All of that and the coolest part hasn’t even happened yet.

When in ROM . . .

I won’t lie to you. I had my Optimus V nearly six months before I looked into this ROM business. Rooting a phone is badass and all, but flashing a custom ROM, well . . . This is where you step out of those diapers for real and put on big-boy pants.

What does it mean? Also simple. When you flash a ROM, you are loading a new operating system into your phone, telling Android you like the way it works and all, but you think it could be better. Or if not better, just different. There are a lot of mad geniuses out there who agree and who happen to have the technical skills to make it so. They take out all the original stuff and replace it with other stuff you’d rather use. Features you’ve always wanted and a few you never thought of.

How about phone goggles, a program that will block you from drunk-calling your ex-girlfriend in the middle of the night? How about the ability to use finger gestures to open programs or play music? How about a camera that takes better pictures? How about doubling (or tripling) the free space inside your phone?

These geniuses customize everything; the way the phone looks, sounds and behaves. They put these things out there for anyone to grab, and ask for nothing in return. And all of this is possible because Android maintains an open-source philosophy, inviting us all in to share the wonder of its awesome technology. I just love them so much, I could cry.

But enough of that. I decided to flash a new ROM, not because of any performance problems, but because I felt the relationship with my phone was getting humdrum. Oh, we were still in love and all. But it was boring nights in front of the TV instead of dancing and walks on the beach. We needed something fresh. And so I did what everyone should do when they decide to take on ROM flashing. I went to Google and read all night about how to best go about it.

It would be irresponsible of me to try to provide a step-by-step guide to ROM flashing. I might get something wrong and you’d have no choice but to come over and beat me with your expensive brick. (For a general idea, check out the how-to accompanying this story and see what I did.)

The point is, after all the sweating, drinking, self-doubt and visits to the bathroom while you flash your new ROM, once installed, the new boot animation will provoke within you a cherry high like that chased forever by drug addicts. New home screen, new status bar, brand spanking new everything.

Reinstall your apps with Titanium Backup. Then spend the next six hours joyously fiddling with all those new settings, getting to know your phone all over again, taking that second honeymoon you’d always talked about. You and your new ROM will live happily ever after.

Either that or you’ll spend an hour or two with it and then wipe the sucker in favor of something new. That’s what I did. I found that the first new ROM I flashed was hell on my lock screen so I ditched it like a fickle gadabout who has his pick of all the ladies at the cotillion. Instead, I took up with a lesser-known beauty named Harmonia, with whom I’m still passionately in love.

There are a lot of ROMS out there, each with its own specialty, its own strengths. Their developers tweak them constantly, so that if you wanted to, you could try out a new build every night. With ROMS, you can be as promiscuous as you want to. Try a new one every day for a month and then go back to your one true love. Whatever, my geek friend. Nobody will judge you here.

“I haven’t made a backup of my Gummynex ROM,” Moore, the cop geek, told me the last time we chatted. “I need to get on that. My phone is so pimp.”

When we were kids, even the greatest toy had a short shelf life where our enthusiasm was concerned. You could only play with it so long before repetition wore you down. Those days – at least where smartphones are concerned – are long gone. Even without rooting or flashing a thing, you can keep your gadget fresh with new apps, new widgets, new launchers all the time. Rooted? The sky’s the limit, stud. And with all those ROMS out there and more coming every day, your love never has to grow bland and passionless. Take it from me. Get rooted and start flashing.

One of these days, I’m going to learn how to actually use the phone on this thing too.

High anxiety? Sure. But ROM flashing is worth it.

Here’s how I flashed my own ROM.

First, I downloaded the Rom Manager. It’s a very popular app, installed by something like 3 million Android users. “Make backups, flash ROMs and own your device. ROM Manager is THE MUST-HAVE APP for any Android root user!” goes the description in the Android Market.

Frankly, I think it’s overrated, and I only used it for one step (real geeks, I’m told, don’t use it at all). Specifically, I used the app to flash Clockworkmod Recovery. A recovery is a sort of safe place, an area of your phone where you can go to perform a variety of maintenance operations. Think of it as the big red button newspaper people use to stop the press in the movies. Or the eject button in a warplane. If you got yourself into some kind of Android jam, brother, you want to boot into recovery and restore your phone from a backup.

So, I flashed that recovery onto my phone and started feeling pretty confident. I downloaded the extremely popular Cyanogenmod 7 ROM from the CyanogenMod forums (or from the “Devices” link on the homepage) and installed it on my SD card. I downloaded a package of Google apps in a similar fashion. Nothing blew up. There was no “wah wah wah” sound to announce that I’d just become the proud owner of a shiny brick.

I installed both files to the root of my SD card. (This step can be confusing if you’re not familiar with rooting terms, even though you should be because you read a lot right? The “root” of your SD card is just the base of your card. No folders or subfolders, just right on the base.)

Easy stuff. But it gets scary after that. The first time you flash a ROM, you’ll feel like you’re defusing a bomb. Miss one step and it’s like pulling the blue wire instead of the red. You start to think of all the good times you’ve had with your beloved phone and there are second thoughts. Dismiss them. You’re really close to the fun stuff now.

You boot into recovery — again, you should know how to do this by now, but if you don’t, ROM Manager can help — and back up your current ROM. That should read, BACK UP YOUR CURRENT ROM! It’s a step known as Nandroid and it should be considered akin to putting on a parachute before jumping out of an airplane.

Take a deep breath and a shot of whatever you’re drinking because the next few steps are daunting. You have to wipe your cache partition. You have to wipe data. You may have to wipe your Dalvik cache. I have no idea what the Dalvik cache is. I only know it needs to be wiped.

There’s something about the word “wipe” that seems wrong. You’ll go back to look at the directions 10 times before you can make yourself do it. Trust me. It says “wipe” and it has to be done.

So everything is wiped. Your phone as you knew it no longer exists. It’s in transition, a beautiful creation becoming one that’s sublime.

Click to install the ROM file that exists in zipped form on your SD card. If your instructions call for it, install the Google package in the same fashion. Watch while a thousand words and numbers zip by on your screen, a beautiful, terrifying blur of alien text. Wait. Wait some more. Bounce between giddy expectation and absolute certainty that you’ve made a horrible mistake. Take another shot of whatever you’re drinking.

Reboot your phone once more. It will take forever and that nagging feeling of failure will return. Totally worth it, though. Sooner or later, your phone will come alive again in glorious fashion and the love affair can begin, all over again.

Know the lingo

Brick: What your phone becomes if something goes horribly wrong while you’re tampering with its innards. Your phone will be unable to receive user input, display information, make sounds, etc. It will be able to hold down sheets of paper, prop open a door, be hurled through a window. If you can boot into recovery mode, your phone is not bricked. Bricking is very, very unlikely with an Android phone. The author of this definition has never heard of anyone actually doing it.


Android: Google’s open-source mobile operating system. It’s used primarily in smartphones, but also can be found on tablets, Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) or even in kitchen appliances and automobile navigation.

Android Market: Google’s repository for Android applications. Features thousands. Many of the apps are free.

Bloat(ware): Applications — usually unwanted — that are preloaded onto a device. It’s a bit subjective as to what constitutes bloatware, and the flip side is that these applications are what allow carriers to sell phones and tablets at subsidized prices.

Bootloader: An internal mode on a phone that helps in the flashing of ROMs and other behind-the-scenes actions.

Clockwork: Developer of the ClockworkMod custom recovery mode for Android.

Cyanogen: The online handle of one Steve Kondik, relatively famous in the hacking and modding community and the creator of the CyanogenMod series of ROMs.

Dalvik Cache: Writable cache that contains the optimized bytecode of all apk files (apps) on your Android device. Having the information in its own cache makes applications load faster and perform better.

Fastboot: Another mode akin to the bootloader, from which you can manually flash low-level components onto a phone.

Hard reset: The act of resetting your phone to its “factory” state. Erases all user data, logins and passwords. May or may not erase what’s on the internal storage or microSD card, too. (Also see soft reset.)

Kernel: The basic Linux building block of Android. It’s what lets your phone do its thing.

Launcher: Collectively, the part of the Android user interface on home screens that lets you launch apps, make phone calls, etc. Is built into Android, or can be purchased in the Android Market.

LTE: Stands for “Long-Term Evolution.” Is considered to be one of the “true” methods of 4G data (even if it technically isn’t). First rolled out by Verizon in late 2010, and then by AT&T in late 2011, and Sprint will begin using it in mid-2012.

OEM: Stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer. Usually a company that produces a component or entire device for another company. (Example: HTC was the OEM for the Google Nexus One.)

Reset (hard, soft): The rebooting of the phone. A soft reset is turning your phone off and on, or pulling the battery. A hard reset also is referred to as a factory reset, and wipes your personal information from the device.

ROM: Literally “Read Only Memory.” In Android, it’s what you load for a major software update. “Custom ROMs” are just that — developed outside the control of a manufacturer or carrier.

Recovery Mode: A small separate operating mode you can boot your device into, used for device administration. Two popular custom recovery modes are Amon Ra and Clockwork.

Root: A method of unlocking the Android operating system to allow programs deeper access than is allowed out of the box. (For more on root, click here.)

Root (SD card): The base folder (or top level) of the card. Often referred to as /sdcard in a file structure.

SD card (or microSD card): A small plastic “card” that expands the available storage memory on your phone. Used by applications to store data, and you can store ringtones, pictures, etc., on it.

Sideload: The act of installing an app outside of the Android Market. AT&T (tries to) prohibits its phones from doing this.

SIM card: The little card used in GSM phones (AT&T, T-Mobile, Rogers, etc.) that connects the phone to the network.

Soft reset: The act of rebooting your phone, whether intentionally or otherwise. Same effect as when you remove and replace the battery. (Also see hard reset.)

Tethering: The act of using your smartphone’s data to provide Internet access to another device, such as a laptop. Can be done wirelessly, or via a USB cable.

USB: Stands for Universal Serial Bus. A method of connecting devices to a computer. Most smartphones now use microUSB cables to charge and sync.

Wipe: To completely erase a device. See hard-reset.

Source: Android Central

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