To root or not to root? That is the question. Rooting your Android device definitely pushes you up a level or two in your geekdom. It requires a certain level of commitment, at least a little savvy, and even a modicum of risk. So, why would you want to bother?
We've got nine good reasons for ya.
We talk about rooting plenty around here, but here's the high-level look for the few remaining uninitiated. Rooting means gaining root access to your device. When you take your phone out of the box, while there are plenty of settings you can tweak, you can only alter what the manufacturer allows you to. By gaining root access you can modify the device's software on the very deepest level. It takes a bit of hacking (some devices more than others), it voids your warranty, and there's a small chance that you could completely break your phone forever. But you know what? It's still totally worth it for all the goodies you get access to.
If you've spent much time in Google Play, you know you're not exactly hard-up for good apps. But why settle for good when you can have great. Once you're rooted not only can you get more apps, but the apps you have access to can get way down deeper into your phone's brains. In some cases you'll be able to do things that carriers, manufacturers, and/or Google may not want you to do. Some will allow you to do things of questionable legality. For example, Network Spoofer uses your device to set up a fake wireless network. When your houseguests sign in, you can make ever image they see inverted, or all of the text fuzzy. It's a harmless prank, but of course it could (but shouldn't!) also be used for stealing passwords and other nefarious things.
Where do you find all these root-only gems? Amazingly enough, many of them are still in the Google Play app store. Google's much more relaxed about rooting than Apple is about jailbreaking. Some apps, like Tasker, work for factory-shipped devices as well, but get expanded superpowers when you root.
Dammit, why am I always three updates behind. This may be the most common complaint among Android users, less than half of whom have made it as far as Ice Cream Sandwich. Between the Google, the carriers, and the hardware manufacturers, there are a whole lot of shenanigans behind closed doors that determines when (or if) your phone gets an upgrade. Who has the patience?
Android's developer community, on the other hand, is a hardcore bunch. They're often able to get the new OS onto a phone months before the carrier releases the update, often along with a few bonus features. Once you're rooted, you just have to find the OS version you want (optimized for your specific device), and it's generally extremely easy to install the latest and greatest.
Android enthusiasts rightly hate the software skins that hardware manufacturers use to brand their devices. They're often bulky, ugly, unwieldy, or just downright not as clean and functional as stock Android. They're also a big reason those OS updates take so long. You're almost always better off without.
So root! Once you do, you can download and install any number of custom-built ROMs (different versions of the Android firmware). Some of them are highly customized and tweaked to add features, and others are basically just stock Android. Cleaning off an ugly skin can be like a breath of fresh air.
Android phones are plagued not only with OEM skins, but with a fistful of superflous apps that you don't want and will never use. Generally, they're just things to get you more entrenched in the carrier's ecosystem. The best part? You can't remove them. In Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) devices, you can disable those apps so you don't see them, but they're still there, taking up space. Once you've rooted your phone, you can use Titanium Backup to delete them once and forever. Just be careful you don't accidentally delete something that your phone actually needs, or you'll be sorry.
Phone starting to get laggy? Or maybe you're having trouble making it through the day on a single charge? Rooting allows you to install customized kernels (the software that enables the OS to talk to the hardware, basically) that are optimized differently. Some are made for low-power consumption, and some are built for speed. You can also use an app like Set CPU, which enables you to overclock or underclock your phone's processor, and set rules for usage.
For example, you can set your processors to go into overdrive when you're playing a graphically intensive game, but have them draw the bare minimum power when the screen is off.
Android is already the most customizable mobile OS out there, which is one of its big draws, but if you root your phone you can really go nuts. If you want a total change, you can download custom ROMs that look nothing like Android at all. Want your device to navigable entirely by gestures? No problem, just install GMD Gesture Control (see video). Prefer a sliding keyboard when you're in portait mode, but a tapping, predictive keyboard when you're in landscape. Keyboard Manager will automatically switch between your keyboards of choice whenever you rotate your phone. You can also add features like widgets in your notification bar, or can change the way certain features look or behave, like the lock screen, or notification bar. The sky's the limit.
Beyond just customizing your phone's existing features, rooting helps you pile on all kinds of wonderful new weirdness. You'll love it.
Want to hook up your PlayStation controller to your phone for better gaming? You can. Want to set rules for callers to decide who can and can't call you when? Why not. Maybe your carrier has blocked certain apps, or an app isn't available for the country you live in? There are Market Enabler apps that trick your phone (and Google) into thinking it's on another carrier or in a far off land. Nervous about connecting to the public Wi-Fi? Wifi Protector will keep you safe from all kinds of ARP, DOS, and MITM attacks. Or, you could put the new Android 4.2 camera on your non-Jellybean phone. Accidentally deleted something you wish you hadn't? Undelete might just save your bacon. The possibilities are virtually limitless.
You probably know that your phone can function as a Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing you to get your laptop (or tablet, or whatever) online wherever your phone has a data connection The catch? Most wireless carriers charge you $10 a month or more for that privilege, on top of your regular data plan. With a rooted Android device, however, you can simply download Wireless Tether (yep, right from the Android Market), create your own mobile, encrypted Wi-Fi network, and your carrier will be none the wiser.
If you do tether multiple devices to your liberated phone, just make sure you don't go over your monthly cap. Data goes down a lot faster on a laptop.
There are apps out there that kiiiiinnnnda back up your phone, but generally it's pretty surface level stuff (contacts, pictures, music, etc.). Once rooted you can go way, way deeper. Grab an app called Titanium Backup. Not only can it back up all of your apps, but it can back up all of the information stored in those apps. So if you've been doing great in Temple Run but you want to wipe your phone and start fresh, you can use Titanium to back up and then restore the game, and you'll be right where you left off. It's a nice security blanket if you're going to be messing around deep in your phone's brain.
In spite of all these benefits, only you know whether rooting is right for you. For some people it's just not worth the time and effort. For others, it's a godsend that allows them to use their phones in a better way and for a longer time. If you decide to take the plunge, read up and make sure you follow instructions carefully. After that, go hog wild. It's your phone, after all.