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Android handset 'rooting': Should you risk it?

If your idea of heaven is meddling with the gubbins in your phone, gaining root access to your Android handset will be almost too much to bear. The question is, should you do it?

We love Android with all our hearts. It's a smashing mobile operating system, with so much promise for the future that we can hardly contain our excitement. There are some teething problems at the moment however, for example the lack of a good backup solution for all your settings -- and crucially, your progress in Bonsai Blast. Because we've been switching between different HTC Magic handsets recently, the lack of backup has bothered us. It's something Nokia PC Suite has been able to do for ages -- but is there any solution for Android?

One way to run backups is to 'root' your handset -- that is, gaining admin access to the OS. If you don't know what root access is -- and we're not referring to the Australian slang -- this might not be the best process for you to undertake, and is likely to be wholly unnecessary. Rooting can also open your phone to running malicious code, and for that reason should only be attempted by people who understand the risks. Because this is a phone, malicious code could cause you a bunch of problems and cost you significant amounts of money.

It's also crucial to point out that doing any of this will invalidate your warranty and Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange or HTC are very unlikely to have any sympathy if you end up bricking your handset.

If you do decide to go ahead, there are some really good tutorials out there to help you. We used the one from Android-Dls.com, and didn't encounter any significant problems at all. If you're using a T-Mobile G1, the instructions are quite different. Once you've followed all the steps, you'll be given the option to boot into a special menu by pressing the power and home buttons together. From here you can run updates from the SD card and perform a full backup of the phone. These backups are stored to the SD card and can be put back on the handset at a later date using the Android SDK.

One of the other things you might consider is flashing your phone's ROM and turning it into a completely different phone. It's possible to take customised ROMs for the HTC Hero and install them on, say, the Magic. That means you would gain awesomeness such as Exchange support and a much better keyboard. You might find it doesn't run that quickly, because the Hero hardware is different to the Magic and G1, but still, if you're a fiddler, this is a brilliant experiment.

One feature you won't get on the Magic is the ability to use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi tethering to browse the Internet from your PC. This is apparently an issue with the particular operating system and hardware combination used on the Vodafone-branded handsets. Tethering is possible, and it doesn't require the phone be rooted first, but it's a USB-based solution, and not entirely simple.

So, should you do it? We'd advise against it, to be honest. It's not that the process is hard, or the risk especially high, but unless you really want to switch the ROM or do full system backups, there isn't much you can really achieve with root access. Sure, you can access the phone at its core, but how many of us know what to do with that sort of power? Of course, if you're an incorrigible geek, it's the sort of thing you'll find irresistible.