Why you might want root and S-OFF on HTC devices
When I tell people about my work at Pocketables, I always seem to be asked, “Why would I want root?” and “Why do I need S-OFF if I’ve got root?” The answers are different for each, although they exist in the same realm of root.
What is root?
Root, in the simplest terms, is the ability for an application to run with permissions that allow it to access everything.
Within Android, one application normally cannot touch another application or its data (unless stored on the SD card). This generally prevents viruses, hijacking attempts, etc., from being able to do anything more than you agreed to give them permission to do when you installed.
Unfortunately, it also prevents some great third-party interfaces from functioning without recreating applications in their entirety. For example, Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Latitude all have check-in functionality, but one application could not launch and check into a place using other programs. You have to launch them yourself, or that checkin application has to contain all the code in itself to access the servers and perform the check-in.
With root access, this check-in program could launch the apps, enter keystrokes, and check you in to multiple social media accounts.
I use the above just as an example, and I don’t think such an application exists at the moment that works. But there are plenty of other things that can happen when one application is allowed free rein on your HTC device.
As a note, a prerequisite to root on most HTC devices is having an unlocked bootloader. This is done at HTCDev, announces to HTC that your phone has been unlocked, and lets you know that your warranty may be invalidated. If your phone breaks and it’s HTC’s fault, there’s generally no problem getting it repaired it. If you manage to soft brick your phone because you don’t know what you’re doing, you might have a problem.
It’s also important to make a distinction between root and S-OFF.
Why would you want root?
Unless you’re on a carrier that’s cool with it, your phone came bundled with a bunch of bloatware that you’re unable to uninstall. Most people don’t use half of the included applications, although many of them are loaded into memory and sit there in the background taking up memory space, if not necessarily processor power.
Rooting usually allows you to remove things you don’t need. Products like Titanium Backup allow you to freeze, disable, and uninstall. If you’re less concerned about memory space and more concerned about errant annoying applications running in the background and taking up processor time and data, you can also leave them be but frozen when not in use with root-only applications like Greenify.
There are plenty of other free and useful applications for wrangling your misbehaving bloat, trimming the fat, and making your device function much closer to how it should have in the first place.
Ability to erase mistakes
One of the great things about having root is the ability to have a custom recovery such as Team Win’s Recovery Project, ClockworkMod, or 4ext.
A recovery, as the name implies, allows you to recover your phone’s operating system and applications to a pre-backed up state.
Accidentally deleted an application, screwed up a game, or downloaded an app update that simply does not work? Restore back using Titanium, or recovering your system to a snapshot nandroid (nand backup) state.
Although Ice Cream Sandwich and later now allows you to make backups on a computer, restoring is a pain, time consuming, and requires you to be at the computer you backed up to. This is kind of useless if you accidentally destroy your phone’s data while you’re out and about.
Ability to backup on the fly
Like your phone the way it is now? Applications such as Orange Backup can take a snapshot of your phone while it’s still running. It can even upload the snapshots to a service such as Dropbox or Google Drive. You can also set it and forget it and have it back up nightly.
Jump to a faster ship
There’s an area of town that my wife’s prenatal care provider was in that had no data service or signal to speak of. Every Thursday we would go there, sit in a waiting room and wait, wait, and wait. Using my phone for anything other than voice calls was out of the question.
Utilizing a roam-only mod while there allowed me to jump on another carrier’s service and subsequently actually be able to surf and read up on what conditions they were testing for. Of course, roaming charges and limits may apply. On my carrier, I have 300MB of roaming before I supposedly get a call from the roaming department.
Ability to have “truly unlimited” data
Applications such as WiFi Tether for Root allow you to share your connection with laptops or other devices. I’m poking fun at Sprint for its “Truly Unlimited” campaign, as it’s not unlimited in either the amount you can download or how you can use it.
In downtown Nashville, there’s a bar that has Sprint signal next to a window. I’ve had to use WiFi Tether on a few occasions to slap up a mobile wifi hotspot so my friends (also on Sprint) could actually do anything, although I think the average use for applications like this is going to be connecting to a laptop and using the exact same amount of data you would have used on the phone, but with a keyboard.
Your carrier may have a problem with this, so beware.
Ability to choose power savings or performance
A kernel is the core of your phone. It’s a piece of software that runs everything, schedules tasks, and generally gets things done. The stock HTC kernels are pretty good, but are set for safety and moderate performance.
Most HTC devices have some developers working independently on the device to make a faster kernel, a more power saving kernel, or one with more features. Installing a new kernel can give you greater options, remove spyware the carrier has installed at a system level (I’m looking at you Sprint and CIQ), and allow you to take control of how you want your phone to work.
It’s important to note that root and S-OFF are required on most HTC devices in order for kernel flashing to not be a total pain. You can flash with only root, but it usually involves extra steps such as HTC Dumlock, Flash Image GUI, 4EXT’s SmartFlash, or flashing from Fastboot. Unlocked HTC One devices don’t appear to have this issue.
Ability to fix your carrier’s mistakes
While I can only comment on my carrier, they seem to universally get it wrong on the first updates to a new operating system. The release of Jelly Bean brought about near-uselessness of my phone in its stock state. Well, perhaps that’s exaggerating, but several months later and the stock Jelly Bean distribution on the HTC EVO 4G LTE is still pretty buggy. It’s not perfect.
Thankfully you can get it fixed by flashing ROMs from developers who work on fixing what the carrier’s developers and HTC break. We’ve reviewed a whole lot of ROMs on Pocketables and attempted to highlight what has been awesome, and what needs to make its way into stock. Mods to fix things such as carrier roaming, or persistent annoying notifications for power savings, are some of the many things you can install to make your phone more useful.
Swag out your phone
What your phone to look like an iPhone? Grab the MIUI ROM. Want to use Samsung’s Touchwiz? You can do that. Like the Windows Phone Live Tiles? There’s something like that been done.
If you can think it, there’s probably a developer who’s been working on it.
Why would you want S-OFF?
What is S-OFF?
In simplest terms, S-OFF on HTC devices is the ability to flash unsigned code that modifies the kernel, boot, and radio partitions from recovery. Unsigned code is code that has not come from HTC directly, or has been modified in transit.
Having S-OFF does not mean that you have root. Root is a function of a Superuser application.
Radio and firmware updates
Every few months, there are changes made to the radio firmware of your phone. These usually come as a system update, and correct problems such as LTE signal handoff bugs, power consumption, or Bluetooth and NFC connectivity issues.
While radio firmware doesn’t have to be updated, usually there’s a reason for the updates, and sometimes kernels or ROMs will require later (or earlier) firmware than you currently have. Without S-OFF, the only thing you can do is update your radios and hboot. You can never go back. With S-OFF, you can generally flash anything you want.
Users of the HTC EVO 3D have discovered that their phones are fairly useless in the AOSP world unless a certain hboot is used. Unless you’re lucky enough to have landed on the correct hboot, you’ll need to downgrade, or upgrade, to make things function nicely.
When there’s a new update, independant developers generally tear apart the radios, firmware, etc and see what’s up. A lot of time when the updates come they break something badly.
For example, a recent update in the Jelly Bean level firmware for the HTC EVO 4G LTE broke the touch screen in recovery, which meant a lot of people were stuck trying to figure out how to flash things in TWRP without touching the screen. A modified set of radios and firmware was released by an independent developer that did not include the touch screen firmware, enabling people to flash an update to the newest radios except the one problematic driver.
I’m told The new HTC One’s unlocked bootloader allows proper flashing of kernels. This is not the case on most devices however.
Should I try to root and S-OFF?
That’s up to you. I don’t think you’re a bad person for leaving the phone as it is, and attempting to root and S-OFF won’t affect your karma.
You can, however, make your phone less of a hassle and more of what you want it to be. You can also greatly extend the enjoyable life of your phone quite a while longer than the carriers will bother to support it. The HTC EVO 4G is an example of a phone that’s gone on way past the carrier’s dropping of support.
Root and S-OFF require some computer knowledge. Root generally requires a passing understanding of driver installation and the ability to type a few commands. S-OFF is more frequently requiring knowing how to use a linux Live CD which requires a little more of a hurdle.
You don’t have to have S-OFF if you’re root. You can stop going down the rabbit hole at that point if you want. Alternately you don’t have to have root if you’re S-OFF although I can’t really think of many reasons you would want to be in that situation.