The Hills Are Greener: Getting to the Root of Jailbreaking

The Hills Are Greener: Getting to the Root of Jailbreaking

May 2, 2011

Jailbreaking is the iOS scene’s most open secret – because Apple restricts what apps can do, hackers have been trying to break into Apple’s walled garden with much success over the last several years. They have often succeeded in providing functions that Apple either would not provide, or would later provide officially. Copy and paste, multitasking, even the very idea of running apps on an iOS device period were all the dominion of jailbreakers befotre Apple ever implemented them for regular iOS users.

However, nowadays, I tell people to not jailbreak. First off, it generally leads to decreased performance because to get a lot of these new features, you have to run a lot of new processes in the background. The problem is that a lot of these new functions rely on an extension called MobileSubstrate to operate in the first place, and running it leads to new glitches, particularly as it conflicts with other, ‘official’ processes. MobileSubstrate is an unavoidable part of jailbreak life, though, as practically everything useful requires it. So, jailbreaking becomes a decision between whether you want a phone with increased functionality, or a phone that runs clean and stable.

Rooting, however, is often the exact opposite situation – it can be invaluable in improving the experience of your phone. Granted, Android is set up in a way that allows for even official apps to have functionality far beyond whatever an App Store app could ever hope to have, so rooting is less necessary from a general usability perspective. You have the ability to easily clear out background processes on Android, whereas it’s much harder for a stock iOS device because of Apple’s restrictions. iOS users may claim task managers and closing out background apps is unnecessary – but odds are that everyone has had to reboot their device or clear out apps in your multitasking bar to get your device running smoother. It’s still a part of an iOS user’s life, Apple just likes to hide it, and make it more difficult than Android does.

Rooting pretty much does exactly what jailbreaking does, which is to open up your file system entirely, but it tends to do less on the surface than what jailbreaking does. One of the big advantages of rooting is that it is a lot easier to take screenshots on the device, especially with an app like ShootMe, which also lets you record screencasts. It also becomes far easier to backup and restore your apps’ data, and you can save it yourself, without having to suffer through the tyranny that is iTunes. There are other functions that become available, but not a lot of them are designed for everyday usage, they’re generally ones that are locked away to developers for good reason. For example, you probably don’t want random apps having the ability to take pictures, as they could theoretically take pictures of your sensitive data like passwords and send it to remote servers, for example. It’s good that functions like that are locked away unless you specifically allow them (and the app Superuser does a great job at allowing you to allow/deny apps that want to use root functions). But really, the biggest advantage to rooting? Why, it’s custom roms.

Granted, most custom roms wouldn’t be necessary if the phone manufacturers were competent software developers, but their skills lay more in the side of hardware than they do in making user software, and it shows. Who here actually likes Samsung’s TouchWiz software? Show of hands? However, even Google’s Nexus devices, which are as close to a pure Google Android experience as you will get, still have custom roms available for them. This is because of the fact that developers have created great tricks to make your phone go faster than ever, and do more than they could. They implement a variety of new lock screen options, lag fixes, overclocking options, expanded audio options, and more. As well, you get to not have to put up with the frustrating built-in apps that phone manufacturers often install and are difficult to remove. There is no tradeoff of functionality for performance with rooting and custom rom installation – you get both, with only the drawback of a lost warranty and the slim possibility that you could mess your phone up, of course.

The beauty of it is that the experience is largely quick and hassle-free: while you have to generally wipe and restore your data to install a new rom, backing up with Titanium Backup is relatively painless, and makes getting back to a usable state very easy, or at least far easier than iOS and iTunes make it. Even when I messed up on a custom rom installation one night, where everything was crashing to a point where I couldn’t actually do anything (as I misread some instructions on what to do), getting into the custom recovery menu and wiping out all the now-unusable data on my phone was easy. All I really lost that was unrecoverable (because I didn’t backup anything beforehand) was some game progress that I lost, and there was admittedly nothing I would lose sleep over, and I knew it was my fault for having not backed up in the first place. So, be patient and always backup!

However, starting clean was a good idea – I did have a lot of useless apps that were just taking up space and running in the background occasionally. Oh, and redownloading my apps from the Android Market was easy, as I could just log back in with my Google Account, go to the Market, and see all the apps that I had purchased. I didn’t lose any of my data on my internal SD card, either – so all my music and pictures were safe. You try this with iTunes, and you’ll be waiting forever for everything to get reinstalled and resynchronized on your device. Messing around with Android is far quicker than iOS could ever hope to be.

It helps that you have access to your phone’s files directly, and not have to go through iTunes much like how iOS users have to do. You’re never really free of it – while you can avoid it for activating your device, you either have to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid transferring media to or from it, and if you want to legitimately install apps, then you absolutely have to use it. I’ll cover why iTunes is so bad in a future post, but jailbreaking really doesn’t set iOS users free from iOS’ real biggest problem. Everything with Android can be managed from the device itself, or from any computer with USB file access. You don’t have to worry about using a clunky program to manage your data. It’s fitting that Android, even when getting into the dirty nitty-gritty parts of it, is still more user-friendly than even iOS is.

If you’re interested in taking part in the rooting and custom rom scene, I recommend either giving Google a whirl, or checking out the forums at XDA-Developers – there are more custom roms, themes, and other things to make your phone look and behave the way you want it to. The scene seems to be more free of drama than the iOS jailbreaking scene, in part because there are so many Android devices available that it’s hard for just one developer to get out ahead of the crowd. There’s Cyanogen and the CyanogenMod roms, and some pushback against the rom’s popularity, but it’s small peanuts compared to any of the notable personality conflicts in the iOS jailbreaking scene. And in part because of the relative lack of drama, and the improvements you gain, rooting and installing custom roms is extremely worth it for Android users.

Carter Dotson
Carter Dotson, editor of Android Rundown, has been covering Android since late 2010, and the mobile industry as a whole since 2009. Originally from Texas, he has recently moved to Chicago. He loves both iOS and Android for what they are - we can all get along!
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