Disclaimer: Everything I mention may void your warranty and potentially ruin your device. I am not responsible in your decision making on whether or not to unlock and root your device.
So you just bought a fancy new Android device and want to root it, throw a custom ROM and kernel in it and be part of the cool crowd, only you don’t know what any of that means. Asking what the benefits of rooting are is probably one of the most asked questions on every major android message board out there. What I’m gonna try and do is explain, in layman’s terms, what root means and what you can do when you are rooted. This is not a rooting tutorial, sorry guys 😛
So lets look at the definition. Rooting is an act of gaining access to the system files of your Android device through a security weakness in your devices firmware, there by giving you administrative control over your device. OK, what does that mean? Lets say your Android phone is like a house you just bought. Android already lets you change how the house looks naively. So you can rearrange the furniture, change the carpet, the paint, the landscaping etc.. What rooting does is allow you to run applications that require special permissions. So back to my house analogy, a rooted application would be like remodeling the kitchen or bathroom. Rooted apps let you go beyond what your phone originally allowed. So in this instance, lets say your kitchen didn’t come with a dishwasher, a rooted app is like adding one. It adds function and control that you couldn’t achieve normally.
A great example of an app that requires root access is Titanium Backup. There’s currently no way to backup all your system files in Android without root access. This app adds that feature. So in short, root access grants the user more control by allowing them to install apps that can affect system files.
So what’s this bootloader I have to unlock?
First off lets distinguish the difference between unlocking your phone and unlocking the bootloader. When you unlock the phone that means you are allowed to take that phone to another cell phone carrier and use their services instead. That is not the same as unlocking the bootloader. The bootloader is the set of commands that the device runs to boot into the operating system. While Android is an open source operating system, manufactures tend to lock the bootloader so that you are using the system firmware they want you to use. Unlocking the bootloader allows you to install a custom recovery program like ClockWorkMod or TeamWinRecovery and change the system firmware or in other words install a ROM.
If just rooting your device allowed you to remodel your house, installing a custom ROM is like bulldozing it to the ground and rebuilding it from scratch and adding a swimming pool. There are loads of custom ROMs available and the benefits to installing them vary. In many cases they let you run a newer version of Android that you don’t have, allow further customization and have even more controls available at your fingertips.
The custom recovery programs allow you to backup your current firmware and all apps and data , as well as flash or install a custom ROM or kernel. A kernel is what is used to to transmit commands from hardware to software and vice verse. For example, when you tap the back button on your phone, that command is sent from the hardware of the button to the software that initiates “going back”. People who install custom kernels tend to do so for one of two reasons. Either extend battery life or overclock the CPU to improve performance.
What are the dangers?
Anyone searching online about unlocking and rooting your device have no doubt come across some horror stories of people “bricking” their phones. “Bricking”, for those that are new, is when you have done something causes the phone to either never boot up or never make it to the boot animation and you are unable to get into the phones recovery. In other words, your phone has stopped working completely. These instances have become more and more rare as the process to unlocking/rooting your phone have improved. In many cases, especially with Nexus devices, unlocking and rooting your phone can be done in a matter of minutes with certain programs available in the development community. Those who “brick” their device usually have not followed the instructions properly or attempted to flash something that was not meant for their device in the first place, like a custom kernel. Overclocking may also damage the CPU and must be done with care.
Should I root my device?
That question depends. What is it you are trying to do? Are you stuck on Android 4.0 because your phone manufacturer or carrier won’t upgrade you? Do you want to backup your entire phone just in case something happens and you need to replace it? Did you see someone with the same phone with a custom ROM and a ton of really cool features you want? If you answered yes to these than by all means go for it. What I will say though is that if you are happy with the phone you have as it is, leave it alone. Too many times people unlock/root, just so they can say they did and often times are the first ones on the message boards begging for help.
How can I unlock and root my device?
As I stated earlier, this is not a tutorial. There are too many phones out there. To try and make them all would be next to impossible. Luckily for you there is a website that has gradually grown with every new device that has come out. XDA-Developers is the absolute best resource for all of your rooting needs. I have never seen a group respond so quickly to problems people have. Their site has all the tutorials and resources needed to allow you to unlock/root, flash recovery, install a ROM and just about do anything else on your device.