The differences in 'rooting' Android and 'jailbreaking' iOS

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: September 7, 2011

Cell phones can do virtually everything these days. Like I've stated many times before, I avoid using my computer at all costs. I will try every route possible on my tablet or phone before booting up my PC to do a simple task. But no phone is perfect – each manufacturer and its respective platform have flaws and limitations of their own. In the end, it boils down to which combination is best suited to meet your needs – which one has the most manageable set of flaws that you can live with without pulling your hair out.

Keep in mind that when I say “flaws,” I don't necessarily mean gimp buttons on a hardware keyboard or a flimsy battery door that nearly breaks every time you have to open it. Problems like these are certainly prevalent and I suggest avoiding manufacturers with a history of outstanding hardware problems. Instead, by “flaws,” I'm talking battery life, software hiccups, lag, etc. More often than not, issues like these (and many of the limitations) can be fixed by altering the software, or “hacking” and “modding” your phone. Many users take to these methods to open up the capabilities of their phone and to customize it to cater to their needs. For example, if a phone does not allow Wi-Fi tethering by default (thanks to wireless providers prohibiting it), one might hack their phone to enable it and avoid the monthly fee.

I'm sure every mobile platform out there has some third-party developer working on mods, but Android and iOS are the most widely known for their heavily supported development communities. The two methods of “hacking” these operating systems are more popularly known as “rooting” (Android) or “jailbreaking” (iOS). In most cases, people throw around these terms and go through the process without ever truly understanding what they've done or what to do after the fact.

Rooting your Android device is a very raw and poor description of what is actually happening. Essentially, you are gaining access to the root directory on your phone. Think of it as granting yourself administrative privileges over your device by installing an application called Superuser – you can do things and allow processes that would not otherwise be allowed like toying with CPU settings and removing carrier installed applications. To root your Android device, you first have unlock the bootloader and (optionally) flash a custom recovery.

The process of the jailbreak is quite different but the goal is the same. Jailbreaking your iOS device allows the user to install packages (themes, patches and apps) that are not normally available through the App Store.

Although the main concept behind jailbreaking and rooting are very similar, what can be done afterwards is largely different. Being open source, the possibilities with Android are much more vast. Not only can you install patches, themes and applications that would not normally be available, you will also be allowed to flash entirely customized software, otherwise known as a ROM. The user has much more control over what can be done, depending on the level of development support for their specific phone. Custom kernels, ROMs and various other tweaks can drastically change battery life, performance and appearance. All of this varies with every Android device available; however, there are some widely supported ROMs that generally yield the same experience across all supported devices like CyanogenMod or MIUI.

Hacking a jailbroken iOS device is an entirely different ballgame. Although the possibilities are great, you are limited to what is available in the third-party application and tweaks catalog, Cydia. (You can, of course, add different repositories for extras that aren't initially found in Cydia, but it's generally more of the same plus some pirated applications.) Such tweaks range from different ways in which you can arrange your home screen icons and the look of the icons to how notifications work. You can tweak and theme your jailbroken iOS device seven ways 'till Sunday, but it will always be the same software with a slightly different look.

Despite the comparative limitations of jailbreaking, it does have its advantages. For instance, installing a tweak or patch on iOS is virtually no different than the process of installing an application. In the end, you're only using a third-party application catalog. And if you install something that is draining your battery or having adverse effects on performance, it's typically just as easy to undo the change as it is to install it. Modding an Android phone, however, can be a rather laborious process and requires some computer knowledge and setup beforehand. And if you don't create backup image fairly often, installing a glitchy patch may lead to you wiping the slate and starting fresh.

As always, dealing with unauthorized or unsigned software can be risky and can lead to other issues, especially if you don't know exactly what you're getting yourself into. I always recommend taking your time, reading thoroughly and doing research before you jump into something all willy-nilly. Slow down, learn of any problems you may run into, know the solutions (if there isn't a solution, you can avoid running yourself into a corner by reading ahead) and skip anything you do not understand.

Also know that I am not encouraging you to root or jailbreak your phone, nor is PhoneDog responsible for any damages to your phone that may occur in the process. If you partake in rooting or jailbreaking, you are doing so at your own risk.

Knowing what your device can and can't do, and if you can mod it to do what you need is important. After all, phones are a staple in the way we live our lives. My suggestion is, if you want an open playground to run free and try all sorts of software customization and crazy performance tweaks, dip your toe into the Andriod pool. If you prefer to tweak the look and feel of your phone and don't care to delve into super nerdy realm of kernel tweaking and ROM flashing, stick with the more simplistic yet functional iOS device. Who knows, you may not even need to mod anything to accomplish what you need. When in doubt, always ask around first.