Android offers a wide variety of advanced customization options, but that’s only scratching the surface of everything you can do with Google’s open source operating system. With root access you can get down to the system level and tweak things to your liking, even going so far as completely replacing the OS.
This is not an operation for the faint of heart, though. Rooting your device will probably void the warranty and could potentially leave your device in a nonfunctional state. Take extreme care before proceeding. If you need help deciding what to do, let’s go over the benefits of rooting.
Gaining root access on Android is basically running your phone or tablet as an administrator. Android is based on Linux, but it does not include the superuser support a desktop OS running the Linux kernel might. If you want to make changes to the fundamentals of the system or install unapproved components, root access is needed.
There is a whole subset of root-only apps in Google Play that allow some really interesting advanced options. Everything from UI tweaks to ad blocking, to system partition file explorers are possible with a quick app install as long as you have root.
With root access you can also make complete backups of your device so it can be restored in the event of a mishap, or so you can restore application data to a new phone or tablet.
Another reason many users decide to get root is that it opens the door to installing custom operating systems, or ROMs. Installing a ROM is a bit more involved than simply gaining root access, but rooting is the first step. ROMs like CyanogenMod and Paranoid Android offer extra features and a cleaned up collection of apps.
Installing a third-party ROM will also allow you to break free of the sluggish update cycle likely imposed upon you by the carrier (Nexus devices being the exception). As soon as a new version of Android is out, ROM makers start building on it. You’re looking at a few weeks for a beta build, and just a bit longer for stable ones.
The rooting process will vary from one device to the next, but the first step is usually to either unlock, or bypass the bootloader. A bootloader is a piece of software that loads before anything else on the device. It verifies the authenticity of all the software running on the phone. So if you want to install something like a root package, that needs to be blocked.
Let’s go over the Nexus devices first, as they offer a good and straightforward introduction to rooting. Before you get started with any root procedure, backup EVERYTHING. Unlocking bootloaders wipes everything on the device as a security measure.
1 - Download and install the Android SDK from Google and install the USB drivers package and Android tools.
2 - If it is not present, download the fastboot.exe file (available on various places online, like here) and place it in the SDK/Tools (or Platform-Tools) folder. This will be the same folder with adb.exe in it.
3 - On your phone or tablet, go into the settings and open the About Phone/Tablet menu. Tap the Build Number seven times. This will enable Developer Options in the main settings menu.
4 - Turn on USB Debugging in the Developer Options, and plug the device into your PC via the USB cable.
5 - Back on the PC, go to the folder where you placed the fastboot.exe file and open a command prompt window there. We’re going to use a tool called Android Debug Bridge (ADB). This is a way to issue commands to a device from your PC.
6 - In the command prompt, type adb devices, then hit enter. The window should show a device ID.
7 - Type adb reboot bootloader in the command prompt and hit enter. Your device will reboot into bootloader mode.
8 - Now type fastboot oem unlock and hit enter. The device will pop up a warning as seen below. Select yes, but be aware this is the step that wipes the phone or tablet.
9 - On your PC download the TWRP recovery or ClockWorkMod (varies by device) and SuperSU root package. The versions change as new OS updates come out, but a quick search on XDA will get you the most recent version. Put the recovery file in the folder with ADB. Get your device back into Android and transfer the SuperSU zip to the internal storage.
10 - With your phone or tablet in bootloader mode again, type the following into the command prompt: fastboot flash recovery twrp.img, then hit enter. Substitute the MWN file name if you used that. This installs a new recovery over your old one so you can flash unsigned zip files.
11 - Finally, disconnect the device from your PC and use the volume rocker to navigate through the list of options in the bootloader. Choose the Recovery option and select it using the power button. Once in the recovery, find the option to Install a zip from the SD card, then select the SuperSU zip. And that’s it. You’re rooted.
A word about the toolkits: This is a separate program that can be used to automate the process above. It’s best that you know how to use ADB anyway, so we recommend that route. Sometimes things go wrong, and ADB might be the best way to fix it. However, you are welcome to try the Nexus Root Toolkit from WugFresh. It’s the best one by far.
Just plug in the device, click Unlock, wait, click Root, wait some more, and you’re done. If something goes wrong, it’s not easy to figure out exactly what it was.
Click the next page to learn how to root the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S4, and what to do once you have rooted your phone.
The new HTC flagship device is pretty hot right now, and it serves as an interesting middle ground between a Nexus-style root, and the more hackery ones. Like the Nexus, we need to unlock the bootloader, but it’s encrypted on this phone. To unlock, you need to register as an HTC developer on the HTC Dev site (it’s free).
Just like above, you’ll need the Android SDK, USB drivers, and fastboot drivers. Installing the HTC Sync Manager will get you the drivers you need, but the HTC Dev site will provide you with Fastboot and a few other files. Backup the phone, as unlocking the bootloader will reset everything.
1 - Go to the HTC Dev site and follow the instructions to get into bootloader mode. You will disconnect the device from PC, turn it off, press and hold Volume Down and the Power button to access the Bootloader.
2 - Use the volume keys to select fastboot mode, and select it with power. When the device does its thing, connect it to the PC again.
3 - On your PC, go to the folder with all the ADB and Fastboot files and open a command prompt. Type fastboot devices and hit enter. The HTC One should show up as a device ID.
4 - Enter fastboot oem get_identifier_token. This will spit out a big block of text, which you will then copy and paste into the HTC Dev site when it asks for it. Wait a bit, and HTC will send you the unlock token. Place it in the Fastboot folder.
5 - With the HTC One still in Fastboot mode, type fastboot flash unlocktoken Unlock_code.bin. Now you’re unlocked, so it’s time to root. Reboot the phone normally and download the SuperUser zip file from Koush. Transfer it to the device.
6 - Download TWRP recovery for the HTC One and place it in the directory with your Fastboot and ADB files.
7 - Open another command prompt and get your device back into Fastboot mode just like above. Type fastboot flash recovery twrp.img and hit enter.
8 - Turn off the HTC One and turn it on in Bootloader mode by holding the Volume Down + Power button. Select Recovery and wait for the device to load.
9 - In Recovery, go to install and select the SuperUser zip. The zip will flash, and that’s it. You’re rooted.
The Galaxy S4 is an interesting device as it’s simultaneously easier and more difficult to root. Unlike the HTC and Nexus devices, Samsung doesn’t offer an official bootloader unlock system for the carrier-locked phones. These are the overwhelming majority of GS4s, so that’s what we’re going over here.
Some carriers have more bootloader security than others, and just like the previously detailed phones, we need to get around that. Instead of using ADB, we need a tool called ODIN, which allows efficient communication with Samsung devices over a PC connection.
1 - Install ODIN and run it. Click on the PDA button.
2 - ODIN will ask you to select the root file, which it came with.
3 - On your phone, power it completely off, then hold power and volume up to enter download mode.
4 - Connect the Galaxy S4 to the PC and click the Start button in ODIN.
5 - ODIN will churn for a moment and tell if your phone is supported for automatic root. Most are, and it will push the file over. Once you’ve seen the SuperUser Android logo, you’ve got root installed.
6 - Reboot the phone, and you’re (hopefully) done.
Note: None of this replaced the recovery or unlocked the bootloader. The device is still more restricted than other rooted Android phones. A different method that replaces the recovery will give you more control and helps get around some of the roadblocks that stop ODIN from running the process automatically.
The process is the same as above, except you will point ODIN toward ClockWorkMod recovery, which you can find over here. Then use ClockWorkMod to flash the SuperUser zip (reboot with power, volume down, and home pressed). Depending on your model, you may need to use the Loki tool instead of ODIN. A quick search on XDA will tell you which version of the device needs which tool.
Samsung changes the security settings frequently, but as long as you know which version of the phone you have, you can probably gain root. Just remember: i9500 is the international variant, and i9505 is the Snapdragon US version. Carrier locked models have their own models sometimes, like the SCH-i545 for Verizon. There are a few versions of GS4 software that don’t have active roots yet, so you may have to be patient.
For other devices, you’re going to be doing the same basic things outlined above, or some variation of them. Check XDA for the most up-to-date root files for your device, and get ADB ready. Most devices don’t have encrypted bootloaders, so it’s easy to get a custom recovery installed. From there, it’s clear sailing.
So now that you’re rooted, what can you do with it? Before you do anything else, do a full device backup. You will probably have a custom recovery after rooting, but if not, you can flash one manually with ROM Manager in the Play Store (it’s easy if you have root access). Boot into recovery, and find the backup option. In some recoveries, it’s called Nandroid. This is essentially a full backup that makes an image of the device. That way, if you break anything the phone can be restored to a working state. These backups can be big, so you might want to store it elsewhere.
Making use of root-only apps is one of the main goals of this endeavor, so dive in. Root Explorer is one of the first apps you’ll want to grab. This is a no-frills file manager that lets you manage permissions and access files in the system directory.
Quick Boot is a very useful app that can replicate some of those ADB commands we were using up above. This root app can reboot the phone, boot into recovery, bootloader, and power off in one step. This one is essential.
OTA RootKeeper is always a good idea. This app backs up your root files so that an OTA update can’t wipe them out. Just back up, and restore after the update through the app. Should work on most devices.
Greenify lets you designate apps that you don’t much care for, but don’t want to uninstall to be silenced. If, for example, you don’t want Facebook running in the background because it’s a buggy, terrible app that often wastes battery (it is), then you can add it to Greenify. Greenify will wait a minute after you leave the app, then force it into hibernation mode. It won’t be allowed to carry out any operations until you open it, but you can still use it when you want. This is a great app, but use it wisely.
You should also grab Helium or Titanium Backup to save your app data and sync it to other devices. This lets you transfer saved games and settings between old and new phones/tablets. Helium is a bit more streamlined and user-friendly, but Titanium is more powerful. Helium also works without root, but its functionality is better with it.
Finally, pick up Cerberus. This is a security app that can track, lock, and wipe your phone if it is stolen. It can even take pictures with the camera and email them to you in hopes of catching the thief in the act. This app has a root capability allowing it to be installed to the system partition so it can survive device resets. The standard functions work on non-rooted devices, though.
Okay, this is the ultimate endgame in rooting. If you want to completely change how your device works, installing a custom ROM is how you do it. There are several big names in Android ROMs, and that’s probably where you should start. CynaogenMod supports a huge number of devices, and its very stable. Recent developments include a secure messaging platform and inproved data security. Visit the CM site for instructions on flashing this ROM.
Paranoid Android is also quite popular, and it includes some unique features like Halo floating app multitasking. This ROM has a very fast update cycle, but it’s a bit more buggy than CyanogenMod. This ROM is more distributed, so there's not a main site. The developers run a Google+ page, linked above. Keep up with news there, and grab the latest builds on XDA or in ROM Manager.
In general, all the ROMs you want to install can be flashed through recovery. Just transfer the zip file over, then use recovery to install it just like we installed root up above.
For a slightly easier time, grab ROM Manager from Google Play. It can do much more than install a custom recovery. This app lists a ton of ROMs and can download them, then install in one step. You should only do this if you’re familiar with ADB, though. Rom Manager won’t give you any feedback if something goes wrong, and that might mean a real pain to fix your device.
You can get more out of your Android device by rooting, but it’s not for everyone. There is always risk in doing this. It’s possible the device could be damaged beyond repair, or that you’ll simply want to take advantage of the warranty in the future only to find you’ve voided it by rooting.