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The 5 Best Phones for Rooting & Modding

According to a study done by internet provider Tencent, a whopping 27.44% of Android users root their phones. With over 1.4 billion Android devices out there, that works out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million rooted phones and tablets. In other words, there may very well be more rooted Android devices than there are Americans, so root nation is an important demographic that deserves being catered to.

Superuser status isn't always easy to achieve, though. Many manufacturers lock their device bootloaders and add extra layers of security to prevent users from rooting and installing a custom recovery. Yet people still find ways around these hurdles, because rooting allows them to uninstall bloatware, block ads, and apply cool system-level mods and tweaks, among other things. For many folks, this level of customization is why they chose an Android device in the first place.

If you're a modder, or even if you just want to have the option of tinkering with your device, it's very important that the next phone you buy is easily rootable and has an active development community. We sorted through some of the most popular phones on the market today and narrowed down the best phones for rooting to just five options.

Key Comparison Points

When it comes to rooting and modding an Android device, there are several important factors:

  • Bootloader Unlocking: Traditional root methods rely on an unlocked bootloader, and you can't use TWRP custom recovery without one. Some phones allow you to unlock the bootloader with a single Fastboot command, while others may require you to get a code from the manufacturer's website beforehand. The manufacturer code method is fairly simple, but it has one major downside—your OEM will know when you've unlocked your bootloader, so you'll probably lose warranty coverage.
  • Tamper Fuse: Most phones these days have a tamper fuse or flag that gets tripped when you modify the stock firmware in any way. If you ever need to send your phone in for faulty hardware, the manufacturer will read the state of this fuse, and likely deny warranty coverage if it's been tripped. Some phone makers allow you to reset this fuse and restore full warranty coverage, while other manufacturers keep track of its status by recording whether or not your account registered for a bootloader-unlock code.
  • Stock Firmware: When you're rooting and modding a phone, there's always a risk that things could go awry, leaving you with a soft-bricked phone. This is why it's important that you can easily download the stock firmware for your device, which would allow you to restore things to working order.
  • Kernel Sources and Binaries: When a device's kernel sources are published, third-party developers have the bare minimum they need to create custom kernels. All Android manufacturers are required to publish kernel sources, though some can drag their feet (cough, OnePlus). On the other hand, manufacturers are not required to publish driver binaries, though, if they do, there will generally be a bigger selection of stable custom ROMs and custom kernels for the device.
  • Toolkits: When you're rooting and modding, a good toolkit program can come in handy for restoring factory firmware, applying updates, and getting your device drivers in order. Plus, some toolkits even help you root and install custom recovery!
  • TWRP: TWRP recovery is perhaps the single most important tool when it comes to modifying an Android device. While some phones are officially supported, others may only have ported versions of TWRP available to them, which generally work well, but may have some bugs.
  • ElementalX and Xposed: Two of the most popular mods out there are the ElementalX custom kernel, and the Xposed Framework. ElementalX gives you great features like double-tap to wake, while Xposed allows you to install modules that change core functionality and modify the behavior of apps. It should be noted that Xposed is not currently available for devices that run Android Nougat, but an updated version is in the works.
  • Development Community: When great developers own a particular device, that phone will usually get some of the best mods. In general, if a device has an active XDA forum dedicated to it, the variety of available mods will also increase.
  • Custom ROMs and Kernels: Custom ROMs can give you extra software features, change your phone's UI, and even speed up performance. Custom kernels, on the other hand, allow you to change CPU frequencies and governors to find the right mix of battery life and performance, and they'll occasionally add features like color control and double-tap to wake. As these are two of the biggest types of mods for Android devices, it's important that the phones listed here have a good selection of kernels and ROMs.

Methodology: How We Picked These Phones

To come up with this list, we established a set of ground rules. First, every phone had to be rootable, so that ruled out a number of devices. The biggest phone model that was excluded by this rule was the iPhone 7. With iOS 10, jailbreak methods are occasionally available, but Apple has been shutting down these exploits almost faster than developers can create them, so the iPhone 7 couldn't realistically be considered here.

Secondly, we disqualified devices that were only rootable via kernel exploits like Dirty COW or Towelroot, as these methods are usually blocked quite fast. In other words, each device had to have a traditional root method available to it. This is where devices like the Galaxy S7 suffered, as Samsung's latest US flagship models require some serious hackery to root.

Traditional root methods center around unlocking the device's bootloader and flashing custom images like TWRP Recovery. For this reason, we only included devices with unlocked or unlockable bootloaders, and we excluded devices that did not have a Fastboot interface for flashing said images.

Aside from that, we only tested current-generation phones that were available for sale in the United States. However, carrier-branded phones like those sold by Verizon and AT&T often have bootloaders that cannot be unlocked, so the phones listed here are only the SIM-unlocked variants that are sold by the manufacturer directly. Tiebreakers were then determined based on how active the device's development community was, which left us with the following phones.

1. Pixel

Google's new Pixel phones have been selling very well for a first iteration, to the point where Google has been unable to keep the devices in stock after underestimating demand. The Pixel's marketing campaign tries to position the phone as an iPhone alternative—almost an "everyman" device—but make no mistake, the Pixel, like its predecessor the Nexus, is a modder's dream phone deep down inside.

The Pixel tops our list of the most mod-friendly phones. Image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

As to why the Pixel comes in first on our list, let's start with its unlockable bootloader. Every model, with the exception of Pixels sold by Verizon, can have its bootloader unlocked by simply enabling a setting, then sending a single command with Fastboot. And since unlocking the bootloader does not void your warranty, you're free to mod your device's software as you please.

The Pixel does have a tamper flag, meaning when you unlock your bootloader or install custom firmware, there's a bit of data left behind that would let Google know you've altered your software. However, this is only a software-based tamper flag, which means that you can send a simple Fastboot command to reset it, and Google would no longer be able to tell that you've modified your operating system.

Google publishes all of the Pixel's factory images as soon as a new Android version is released, so if anything ever goes wrong while you're installing software mods, you can easily re-flash your stock firmware to get things up and running again. The Pixel's driver binaries are published, as are the kernel sources, so this makes it extremely easy for developers to create custom ROMs and kernels for the Pixel.

Speaking of custom kernels, two of the absolute best are available for the Pixel: ElementalX and Franco Kernel. Franco Kernel gives you a great mix of performance and battery life, while ElementalX adds awesome features like color control and automatic battery-saving CPU profiles.

As the Pixel's stock interface is so close to AOSP Android already, there are many custom ROMs available to the device already. In fact, the Pixel's development community is one of the most active, so you can expect a constant stream of Pixel-compatible root apps and mods.

Since the Pixel runs the latest version of Android, the Xposed Framework is not yet supported. This is only a temporary inconvenience, though, as developer Rovo89 has already begun to make Xposed compatible with Android Nougat.

When it comes to getting root in the first place, two of the best root toolkits are currently or will soon be available for the Pixel. Skipsoft, a command-based toolkit, can walk you through many aspects of modding. Wugfresh's Nexus Root Toolkit, an easy-to-use utility that only requires a mouse, will soon be renamed to Pixel Nexus Root Toolkit and made available for Google's latest devices, so rooting and modding will be about as easy as it gets.

The Pixel's only real drawback from a modder's perspective is its price. The 32-gigabyte unlocked Pixel will cost you $649, and it only goes up from there. That price tag may make you hesitant to tinker with such an expensive toy, which is why we recommend the Pixel over its larger counterpart, the Pixel XL. Though if you can handle the XL's $769 starting price, it's every bit as good of a pick as the regular Pixel, because everything we've said in this section still applies to the larger model.

On a final note, remember that Verizon variants of the Google Pixel all have locked bootloaders. For this reason, we would only recommend that you buy a Pixel directly from Google if you plan on doing some rooting and modding.

2. OnePlus 3T

With the death of the Nexus line, there was a void in the market when it came to phones with high-end specs at midrange prices. OnePlus capably fills this space with the OnePlus 3T, a Snapdragon 821-powered flagship with a veritable smorgasbord of high-end specs. The company is able to keep its prices down by cutting costs on marketing, and shipping directly to the consumer, so in the end, you get great modding value for your dollar.

The OnePlus 3T's flexibility ensures you never have to settle on stock firmware. Image via OnePlus

The OnePlus 3T is a modder-friendly phone by design, as the manufacturer has always embraced Android's development community, starting with its Cyanogen-based ROM on the OnePlus One. They've even gone so far as to explicitly state that unlocking your bootloader will not void your warranty, and doing so is as simple as sending a single Fastboot command after enabling OEM unlocking.

Like the Pixel, the OnePlus 3T has a software-based tamper flag—but again, you can easily reset this to keep the manufacture from knowing you ever modified your software. And if you ever need them, you can easily download factory images for the 3T directly from OnePlus' website, then flash them in Fastboot to restore your phone to its stock state.

All key binaries have been published, including those related to the Dash Charge feature, so custom ROMs are just as feature-rich as stock. However, OnePlus has been dragging its feet with releasing the 3T's Android Nougat kernel sources, which has slowed down kernel development for the time being.

That said, the major kernel developers are committed to supporting the OnePlus 3T, as both ElementalX and Franco Kernel are available for every firmware version except the latest. And because of its inherent modder-friendliness, the OnePlus 3T has one of the most active development communities out there, which means custom ROMs, as well as root apps and mods, are aplenty.

As it's a device that runs Android Nougat, the Xposed Framework is not available for the OnePlus 3T just yet. But, of course, that should be settled soon, and in the meantime, you can use the Skipsoft toolkit to get your OnePlus 3T rooted, install TWRP recovery, and much more.

With a starting price of only $439, the OnePlus 3T is one of the most affordable flagship phones, and that's a great combination when it comes to modding. The phone will have plenty of processing power to spare regardless of what mods you throw at it, and you won't have the queasiness you would have when flashing things on a more expensive device.

3. Moto G4 Plus

Motorola practically invented the budget smartphone space with its Moto G lineup. Prior to the original model's release in 2013, smartphones that cost less than $400 were looked at as throw-ins when purchasing a cellular plan, but Motorola's refined looks and balanced performance have raised the bar in the budget segment. As it stands, the Moto G4 Plus can go toe to toe with phones that cost twice as much, which makes it one of the best value buys on the market.

The Moto G4 Plus is a budget-friendly modder's phone. Image via Motorola

With a starting price of $249, the Moto G4 Plus simply can't be ignored here. Think about it this way: You could buy a G4 Plus, brick it, buy another, brick that one, too, then buy a third, and you'd still be paying less than a single LG V20 or Pixel XL.

It's easy to unlock the G4 Plus' bootloader using Motorola's official site to generate an unlock code. However, the company states that as soon as you get a bootloader-unlock code, "your device is no longer covered by the Motorola warranty." The account-based bootloader unlock method also ensures that Motorola can keep track of whether or not you've modified your firmware, regardless of tamper flag state. To put it simply, you'll need to be comfortable with losing your warranty if you want to root the Moto G4 Plus.

Driver binaries and kernel sources are published on Motorola's Github page, so developers won't have any problem in creating custom firmware. ElementalX is available for the G4 Plus, and TWRP recovery is officially supported, so all of the basics are covered.

Developers seem to be attracted to the Moto G4 Plus' low price and near-stock version of Android, because the device's XDA forums are extremely active with plenty of custom ROMs, kernels, and other mods available. On top of that, the G4 Plus still runs Android Marshmallow at the moment, so the Xposed Framework can be easily installed.

However, there are a few downsides when it comes to rooting and modding the Moto G4 Plus. For one, there aren't any noteworthy toolkits available, so you'll have to do most of the initial modding in a command prompt. It can also be hard to find stock firmware downloads for the G4 Plus, since Motorola doesn't offer an official factory images download page. All factors considered, though, the Moto G4 Plus is a solid pick if you plan to mod your next phone.

4. HTC 10

HTC's sales figures have been slumping lately, but it's certainly not the HTC 10's fault. The Korean manufacturer's latest flagship has been met with near-universal acclaim from reviewers, and as the latest iteration in what used to be called the One series, the HTC 10 has a solid cult following from fans who owned previous HTC devices and have been thoroughly satisfied.

The HTC 10 has a cult following and a solid dev community. Image by iphonedigital/Flickr

HTC allows you to generate a code that will unlock your device's bootloader through Fastboot commands. This process doesn't void your entire warranty, but claims involving issues related to bootloader unlocking will not be covered.

The HTC 10's kernel sources and binaries are published on the device's official site, which gives developers plenty to work with. TWRP recovery, the ElementalX kernel, and even the Xposed Framework are all available for the HTC 10, though note that Xposed will only work if you haven't received the Android Nougat update yet, otherwise you'll have to wait on an update to the Framework.

The HTC 10 has an active development community and solid custom ROM support, though most ROMs are Sense-based. This means that, with most ROMs, you won't get very far away from the stock interface that came with your phone, but as far as manufacturer skins go, HTC's Sense is one of the more classy and understated interfaces.

Aside from ElementalX, the custom kernel selection on the HTC 10 isn't much to write home about. Thankfully, though, Hasoon's All-In-One HTC Toolkit makes rooting and installing TWRP a breeze with its mouse-based interface, and HTC publishes factory firmware images in case anything goes wrong along the way.

If you're satisfied with the HTC 10's ROM selection and you plan to use ElementalX as your main custom kernel anyway, there are plenty of apps and mods available to help scratch your itch to tinker. When you combine that with HTC's rational warranty approach and the phone's reasonable $599 price tag, the HTC 10 is a solid buy.

As a final note, the HTC 10 is available for purchase from most US cell carriers, but to ensure that you encounter the fewest hurdles while rooting and get the best ROM support, we recommend the SIM-unlocked version that you can buy from HTC.

5. LG V20

These days, LG is taking a dual-flagship approach, with a G series phone being released in spring, then a V series flagship debuting in the fall. This year's V20 is LG's most powerful phone yet, as it sports dual cameras, three microphones, and a Quad-DAC setup. The phone is billed as a multimedia powerhouse, but with its impressive spec sheet, it's really an anything powerhouse.

The LG V20 is a sound choice for modders. Image by LG/Flickr

LG lets you unlock the V20's bootloader with a code-based system, but this alerts the manufacturer that you've done so, which voids the device's warranty. This is the case with almost every phone out there, so it's par for the course, but something you should be aware of.

The V20's kernel sources are published, however, only Code Aurora Forum (CAF) driver binaries are available. CAF drivers are provided by the device's CPU manufacturer, Qualcomm, but they're generic drivers, so optimizations in the V20's official firmware won't be available in custom kernels.

This helps explain why ElementalX is not available for the LG V20, which is one significant downside. Another negative is that TWRP recovery is not officially available just yet, though the V20 already has an unofficial TWRP build that works just fine. And while Xposed isn't supported because of the V20's Android Nougat-based firmware, Rovo89 should have that sorted out fairly soon.

Back on the bright side, LG offers a useful toolkit called LG Bridge that allows you to download stock firmware and restore your phone in a few clicks. On top of that, third-party root toolkit Skipsoft offers full support for the SIM-unlocked LG V20 variant, so getting started with modding the device should be easy.

The main reason that the V20 makes this list is the fact that is has a very active development community, so you should never be hard up for cool mods and root apps. Custom ROM and kernel selection is merely decent, but this is mainly due to the device being fairly new at the moment, so give it time.

Keep in mind that none of this applies to carrier-branded variants of the LG V20, as these have extra security measures that prevent you from easily unlocking the device's bootloader. In fact, you can only root a few carrier variants using the Dirty COW exploit, so we'd suggest that you stay away from carrier variants and buy directly from LG if you want to root and mod the V20.

Conclusion

If the ability to root your next phone and install custom firmware are your top requirements, then two devices stand out above the rest: The Google Pixel and the OnePlus 3T. The Pixel gets a slight edge because its kernel sources are available, and its root toolkit selection will be slightly better once PNRT comes out. However, the OnePlus 3T is quite a bit cheaper and ticks all of the other boxes, so the two devices are almost on equal footing here.

The rest of the pack is a step behind when it comes to rooting and modding, with the main differentiating factor being that you will lose warranty coverage when you unlock the bootloader on a Moto G4 Plus, HTC 10, or LG V20. Though if you're willing to risk it, each of these devices makes a compelling case for itself, with the G4 Plus being super affordable, the HTC 10 being a great all-rounder, and the V20 being one of the most powerful phones on the market.

Once you've decided on a phone and you're ready to start rooting and modding, we think the following links would be a great place to start:

Cover image and screenshots by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

2 Comments

I think you can add OnePlus 3 beside 3T...

Definitely a good point, everything with the 3T applies to the 3 just the same, so it's a great phone for rooting. The only reason I didn't include it here is that OnePlus stopped selling it on their site :(

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