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Late-night experiment: Rooting an Android phone

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.

androot.png

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?)

Rooting an Android phone also allows some tricks not possible with normal apps, such as taking the picture of the screen you see above.

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.

Have you rooted your Android phone or thought about doing the same? How did that go?

By Rob Pegoraro  | September 22, 2010; 9:26 AM ET
Categories:  Linux, Mobile, Tips  
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Comments

Can't find sfl-prod-release.apk?
You could also trying using adb to remove it.

Posted by: Hemisphire | September 22, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for this. My Droid is provided by my work so I can't make these changes, but it's nice to see it can be done. People have killed the iphone for not having multitasking, but guess what- multitasking kills the battery. My Droid can't go 1.5 days without recharging. The response from Verizon is "why don't you install one of those task killers?". Here's a thought- why don't you sell a phone that needs to download more software just to survive a long phone call? And even with the task killers, the stupid phone keeps loading programs I've never used (especially Amazon MP3 and Skype). My old iphone was vastly superior- I'll take slow downloads over can't-do-anything-because-it's-almost-dead any day.

Posted by: echovector | September 22, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I don't understand why mine keeps loading amazon mp3 and skype either (and others). I was hoping I could just uninstall them rather than rooting.

Posted by: HardyW | September 22, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Although I intend to keep skype, I just don't see myself needing to run it until I'm you know connected to wifi and out of range of any cdma tower...

Posted by: HardyW | September 22, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I haven't rooted yet and have never done it. However, since HTC and Verizon let down us Droid Eris users by not upgrading to Froyo (aka Android 2.2), I am starting to give rooting some consideration. My only concerns are any risks to my Verizon account, stability and chance for hacker access, and the risk of erasing all of the apps already on my phone. Thanks.

Posted by: huoduengr | September 22, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Does the rooting tool provide a TTY? If so, go to /bin or /usr/bin and look for the binary of the football app.

Posted by: wiredog | September 22, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

App doesn't work with latest Froyo from Verizon. Too bad.

Posted by: sstackwick | September 22, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The various android communities like phandroid.com are really the best place to get tips on rooting. There are some real rooting experts at those sites.

Posted by: Solnoir | September 22, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

@huoduengr Root it and install Cyanogen Mod 6.0.0 Final. It's FroYo and it runs awesome on the Hero. Your Eris which is basically the same phone. There might be an offshoot directly made for the Eris so do some research. It runs like a million times smoother and you customize every single aspect of your phone. Seriously, once you do it, you are going to love your phone again.

Posted by: Stocklone | September 22, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

I have an Eris, rooted since late May. To @huoduengr and @Stocklone, there is no direct Cyanogen mod for the Eris, but there are several available for the Eris at xda-developers.com based on Cyanogen (namely, they are Kaos Froyo, Tazz, CELB and Nonsensikal.) All are fine, slightly buggy, not quite "there" (though I have been running Kaos for weeks now.)

For a first time rooter on the Eris, I would suggest xtrSENSE.

As for Sprint's football app, you may have more success with an app in the market called Root Explorer. I'm not sure where the file is, but I'd look in /system/data. Tap the button the on the top to open the directory read/write, then long-press the file and rename it from name.apk to name.bak (hopefully the "name" should be obvious when you find it.)

Posted by: doog | September 22, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

One of the major reasons I rooted my Evo was to install roms which do not include the Sprint software (NASCAR, football, etc). Rooting is amazingly easy, although not quite as easy as what Rob showed.

Posted by: slackermom | September 23, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

A reader e-mailed that he wanted to leave a comment but couldn't post it and e-mailed me instead. He wrote at length, but he shared some good tips in that message. Here it is:

I also own a Sprint Hero so I think I can be of great assistance. I rooted it and switched it to Cyanogenmod 6.0 Final. It's kind of a complex process if you are completely new to the scene. Just keep reading the forums and you will understand what's going on. I also suggest Android Police. They have a lot of tutorials. So I just want to give you a tip so you aren't stumped like I was. You need to get a file called flash_image so you can flash a new loader onto your phone. It's not on the Sprint Hero unlike other android phones. You have to download off the internet. It is available because that's how I got it. The custom loader is what allows you to backup your current phone then install the new ROM. You have to put in system/bin but you won't have rights to do that because the folder is marked as read only so you have to temporarily switch it to read and write access. This can be done through adb or a terminal program on your phone. There are instructions on forums for what your have to type in the terminal to make this happen. Then you switch it back to read only. Then you can call flash_image from adb to load up the new boot loader to your phone. After that it is pretty much a cake walk backing up your phone with nandroid and loading a custom ROM which you do from your new boot loader after booting into it which is done by holding down a certain key while the phone starts up. Also, read on how to screw up Sprint's certificate so they can't force updates on you and mess up your phone later.
Life with a custom ROM (please try Cyanogen) is amazing for my wife and I. I went from wanting to break my phone into pieces because of all of the lag to absolutely loving my Hero. I don't care if my contract doesn't end for over a year anymore. It is really easy to do USB tethering now that I have FroYo which HTC and Sprint said I never would have. I can customize every single aspect of my phone. No seriously. Everything. Stuff you can't even imagine right now. There is also an open source wifi hotspot app that you can run so you aren't paying Sprint twice for the same data.
Since you are coming from Sense UI, I highly recommend getting Launcher Pro and then donating money for the extra widgets. I really don't miss the Sense UI at all thanks to Launcher Pro. It's like the Sense UI but on crack because there is so much you can customize.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 23, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I recently rooted my Droid; it was a relatively painless process following instructions that one can find in several locations online. One of the great benefits of rooting the Droid is the enabling of tethering - the ability to turn the Droid into a secure wireless hotspot for my laptop while out and about or travelling. It's not the fastest connection while tethering, but it fits the bill for a quick and stable (so far) connection. As has also been mentioned in the article, it's also nice to have superuser control over what is and what is not loaded on the Droid, particularly the cruft loaded by the folks who sold me the phone.

Posted by: mrb137 | September 24, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
Great article, but THIS WILL ONLY WORK FOR A SMALL MINORITY OF USERS! TOO COMPLICATED!

YOUR WHOLE ARTICLE POINTS TO ANDROID PHONES negatives!...Android phones are too cluttered and compromised by use-killing traps and system destroyers.

WHY NOT POINT TO THE OBVIOUS SOLUTION -- DON'T BUY AN ANDROID PHONE. PICK ONE OF MANY ALTERNATIVES.

J.LUMA

Posted by: jcluma | September 25, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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