Faster Forward: Late-night experiment: Rooting an Android phone

By Rob Pegoraro
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 9:56 AM

I've been complaining lately about the increasing amounts of carrier-installed, un-removable junk apps on smartphones, and in particular those devices running Google's Android operating system. Last night I did something about it: I engaged in some entry-level hacking to remove some of this unwanted baggage from a Sprint HTC Hero Android phone.

My inspiration for this came from a recent tip on the Lifehacker blog about a simplified tool, Universal Androot, that unlocks Android phones for system-level tinkering.

The "root" in that name refers to "root access" to every file and program on the machine. You don't and shouldn't get those privileges in day-to-day use, not least because there's no limit to the havoc a virus can cause with root access. But you need root access to clean up an Android phone saddled with a wireless carrier's bloatware.

Androot was not the easiest program to download; a link suggested in the Lifehacker post didn't work, so I had to turn to the app developer's Japanese-language page. Installing it, as with all apps not provided through Google's Android Market, required changing a setting in Android's Applications preferences screen. Running Androot, however, only involved tapping a "Soft Root" checkbox (to ensure the phone would return to normal operation after a reboot) and then a "Go Root" button.

The next step was to figure out how to evict some of the bundled apps -- you can't just drag these things to the trash can on the screen. The free, widely recommended Titanium Backup yielded more puzzling moments: I had to select a weird option to reinstall a supporting file, change an obscure system setting and enable a "Chuck Norris" mode (really!) in Titanium's preferences. Only then could I select Sprint's NASCAR app under Titanium's "Backup/Restore" heading and tap an "Un-install" command. Goodbye, previously un-removable app!

(I couldn't repeat that trick with a Sprint football app; Titanium said it couldn't find the program's "APK" file. Any ideas?)

Things really get interesting with a rooted phone if you install an independently developed Android operating-system bundle. These so-called ROMs not only ditch carrier junkware but incorporate performance improvements, add new features and offer the only way to upgrade some older phones to a newer version of Android.

But that was well beyond one day's tinkering. Plus, while rooting an Android phone might void your warranty, replacing all its software is almost certain to do so.

Phrases like "void your warranty" usually translate to "don't try this at home." In this case, they should. The steps outlined here are not for the easily intimidated, those bugged by jargon or anybody uneasy about the risk of having to buy a used phone on eBay if they "brick" their own by mistake.

But they can work. And if the carriers don't stop treating the home screens of phones as billboards they can rent out at will, we might all need to learn these tricks.

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