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How to hack Android

Android hacking 101: FAQs and problems solved in our guide to rooting, flashing custom ROMs, backing up and using custom recovery on all Android phones and tablets, including the Galaxy S3 and Nexus 7

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Once you know what you’re doing, rooting your phone and flashing a ROM on Android is a pretty simple affair. But along the way you will encounter some things that you don’t necessarily understand, such as the wealth of jargon that is used, or have a few problems that you need to solve.

We’ve kindly collected together all the questions you ask us most often, and present the answers below. Whether you are using a Nexus, Galaxy, HTC or other device a life of trouble-free Android hacking awaits.

Will rooting my phone stop me from getting official over the air updates?

This depends on your phone’s manufacturer. If you’re rooted but still running the original ROM you should be alerted to the availability of over the air system updates for your phone. If it installs it will almost certainly unroot your phone in the process, so you’ll need to re-root afterwards.

If it doesn’t install you’ll need to either unroot yourself, or flash a ROM containing the update. Non-over the air updates, such as those supplied via Kies for Samsung devices, won’t be available on rooted phones.

Can I install Jelly Bean / ICS / Gingerbread on my phone?

In order to be able to install a different version of the OS on your phone (or tablet) you need two things.

First, a device that is compatible with that particular version. Second, a developer to have created a version for your specific handset.

The compatibility issue is quite complicated, as technically any device that can run Gingerbread can also run Ice Cream Sandwich, but to build a ROM for a device developers may need drivers for particular parts of the hardware. If the manufacturer has not made those available then the ROM will be incomplete – it’s not uncommon for older devices that have been upgraded with unofficial ROMs to lack major features such as camera support, or FM radio.

In these cases it will come down to what compromises you’re willing to make to have the latest version. Devices that have seen official updates will not have these issues. To see what ROMs exist for your phone head over to forum.xda-developers.com and locate the sub-forum for your device.

Most reasonably well know devices have at least a small developer community backing them so may have some ROMs available; the cheapest or most obscure devices may not.

One of my favourite apps has stopped working. Is this related to my custom ROM?

Quite possibly. Apps that require a certain level of security, be it for DRM on media streaming apps such as Sky Go, or for any number of banking apps will not work on a rooted phone. Apps such as Hide my Root from the Google Play Store will temporarily make the phone look as though it is not rooted, enabling some blocked apps to run. You will have to check its effectiveness on an app-by-app basis, though.

I’ve flashed a ROM but now my phone won’t boot. What do I do?

Sometimes there can be problems flashing a ROM, and while it is initially scary to see you phone refusing to boot you should be able to recover from the situation relatively easily.

First, leave the device for a while, as the first boot after flashing a ROM can take in excess of ten minutes. If there’s still no joy whip out the battery to reset the phone then boot into recovery mode (you will need to look online to find the key combination required to do this on your phone).

Now follow the menus through and either select ‘install zip from sdcard’, locate the ROM you flashed and attempt to re-flash it. Or select ‘backup and restore’ and restore the backup you (hopefully) made before you began.

What is a custom recovery and why do I need it?

Recovery is a piece of software that runs in a small partition on your system that can boot independently of the OS. This is used when performing a factory reset or OS update. The stock recovery on a device is very limited in functionality and is not really intended to be user accessible.

A custom recovery, which in most cases will be flashed automatically when you root, adds extra features, enabling the user to create and restore a backup, access the SD card without booting into Android, and – crucially – to flash a ROM. It is essential you have a custom recovery installed before you attempt to flash anything to your phone, as this will enable you to recover from most problems you may encounter.

In most cases this will be ClockworkMod Recovery. How you access it differs from one phone to the next – it usually involves holding a combination of keys when powering on, such as pressing the volume down and power buttons at the same time, or volume, power and home buttons.

I’ve restored my data using Titanium Backup but my text messages are still missing.

Some manufacturers replace the stock Android apps with their own versions. If you’re moving from a TouchWiz or Sense-based ROM to something close to stock Android, such as CyanogenMod, you might find your backed up text messages are not compatible with, and thus cannot be restores, the new SMS app. Backing up your text messages with a specialist SMS app like GO SMS will enable you to restore them again when using your new ROM.

When flashing a ROM I’m asked whether I want to clear the Dalvik cache and the data and cache. What are these and which should I choose?

The dalvik cache contains optimisations created by the OS to make your apps run faster. You probably should clear this when flashing a new ROM. The data and cache contains all your data – you should obviously back it up before flashing, but for the sake of convenience will no doubt prefer not to clear it. As a rule of thumb, when updating to a different version of the same ROM you don’t need to wipe the caches; when flashing a completely different you should.

How do I know that my phone is rooted?

Assuming the rooting process completed successfully you will have the Superuser app installed on your phone. Apps that require root access will ask for this when they load.

How do I root my phone?

It is impossible to list all the combinations for rooting devices here. Almost every phone uses a different method and the method is different for Windows, Mac and Linux users.

A search of the XDA Developers website will reveal the procedure for your handset – some have a one-click solution that requires nothing more than for you to plug your phone into a computer and run a small app; others, such as the Galaxy SIII, have a slightly more involved process, although even that is still relatively painless if you follow the instructions to the letter.

Is it possible to break my phone when rooting or flashing a ROM?

It is possible, and your warranty will almost certainly be voided if you do it (at least until you revert the process). However so long as you follow the instructions carefully and take the necessary precautions, such as ensuring your phone is fully charged and your data is properly backed up before you begin, the you should be fine.

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