How To: The 5 Best Phones for Rooting & Modding

The 5 Best Phones for Rooting & Modding

|Updated September 2017.

According to a study done by Tencent, a whopping 27.44% of Android users root their phones. With over 2 billion Android devices out there, that works out to more than 500 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 if you just want the option of tinkering with your device, it's important that your next phone is easily rootable and has an active development community. So we sorted through some of the most popular devices on the market today and created this list of the five best phones for rooting.

Image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

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 device. This is why it's important that you can easily download the stock firmware for your model, 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. On the other hand, manufacturers are not required to publish driver binaries, so 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, which is the OS version that all of these phones shipped with. Luckily, an updated version of Xposed for Nougat is coming very soon, and an unofficial version is available right now.
  • Magisk: If you want to root without tripping SafetyNet, your best option is Magisk. Not only does the popular mod give you systemless root, but it also provides a framework that lets you install modules and perform system-level mods. All phones in this list support Magisk, but because of the Pixel's A/B partition layout, Google's flagship requires an unofficial version of the mod for the time being. Official Magisk support for Pixel is coming soon, however.
  • 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 S8 suffered, as Samsung's latest US flagships 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. OnePlus 5

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 5, a Snapdragon 835-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 5's flexibility ensures you never have to settle on stock firmware. Image by Jake Peterson/Gadget Hacks

The OnePlus 5 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.

The OnePlus 5 has a software-based tamper flag, which is great, because you can easily reset this to keep the manufacturer from knowing you ever modified your software. And if you ever need them, you can easily download factory images for the 5 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. And OnePlus has even posted the kernel sources for the 5, which means plenty of custom kernels will be available.

The major kernel developers are committed to supporting the OnePlus 5, as both ElementalX and Franco Kernel are available for every firmware version. And because of its inherent modder-friendliness, the OnePlus 5 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 5 just yet. But, of course, that should be settled soon, and in the meantime, you can use the Skipsoft toolkit to get your OnePlus 5 rooted, install Magisk, TWRP recovery, and much more.

All of these same points apply to last year's flagships, the OnePlus 3 and 3T. However, OnePlus has stopped selling these models on their official website, so we're recommending the 5 for as much future-proofing as possible. If you can get your hands on one of the 2016 models, though, you could save a little cash and still have a very modder-friendly phone with great custom ROM support to help with the longevity factor.

With a starting price of only $479, the OnePlus 5 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.

2. Pixel

Google's 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 ranks above almost all other phones when it comes to modding. Image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

As to why the Pixel ranks so highly 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. 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's ready, it will be easy to install, thanks to the Skipsoft toolkit (but not if you've already updated to Android Oreo, of course).

The Pixel's only real drawback from a modder's perspective is its questionable status with Magisk. Because of the new A/B partition layout introduced alongside the Pixel (in fact, it's still the only available phone to use the new system), official Magisk support is currently unavailable. However, there is a working unofficial version that you can install right now, and Magisk developer John Wu has just purchased a Pixel with the hope of releasing an official version soon.

Cost is also a factor with the Pixel. The 32-gigabyte unlocked Pixel will run 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.

3. Moto G5 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 G5 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 G5 Plus is a budget-friendly modder's phone. Image by Jake Peterson/Gadget Hacks

With a starting price of $229, the Moto G5 Plus simply can't be ignored here. Think about it this way: You could buy a G5 Plus, brick it, buy another, brick that one, too, then buy a third, and you'd still be paying less than a single LG G6 or Pixel XL.

It's easy to unlock the G5 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 G5 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 G5 Plus, and TWRP recovery is officially supported, so all of the basics are covered.

Developers seem to be attracted to the Moto G5 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. Since the G5 Plus shipped with Nougat, the Xposed Framework isn't available just yet, but Magisk works like a charm.

However, there are a few downsides when it comes to rooting and modding the Moto G5 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 G5 Plus, since Motorola doesn't offer an official factory images download page. All factors considered, though, the Moto G5 Plus is a solid pick if you plan to mod your next phone.

4. LG G6

LG's latest flagship isn't selling as well as the company would like, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the best phones on the market. The Korean manufacturer's latest flagship has been met with near-universal acclaim from reviewers, and as the latest iteration in a series that has seen some of the best-selling Android phones, the LG G6 has a solid cult following from fans who owned previous LG devices and have been thoroughly satisfied.

The LG G6 is a beautiful phone with a solid dev community. Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

LG allows you to generate a code that will unlock your device's bootloader through Fastboot commands. This process voids your warranty, but at least LG gives you the option. It's also worth noting that most carrier-branded variants of the G6 have double-locked bootloaders, so the only model we recommend is the US997 SIM-unlocked version that you can purchase directly from LG.

The G6's kernel sources are published, however, only Code Aurora Forum (CAF) driver binaries are available at the moment. CAF drivers are provided by the device's CPU manufacturer, Qualcomm, but they're generic drivers, so optimizations in the G6's official firmware won't be available in custom kernels. This helps explain why ElementalX is not available for the LG G6, which is one significant downside.

Back on the bright side, TWRP recovery is officially available for the G6, as is Magisk, which means you can have full systemless root if you want to pass SafetyNet. And while Xposed isn't supported because of the G6's Android Nougat-based firmware, Rovo89 should have that sorted out fairly soon.

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 G6 variant, so getting started with modding the device should be easy.

The main reason that the G6 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 G6, as these have extra security measures that prevent you from easily unlocking the device's bootloader. In fact, developers are still struggling with root for carrier variants of the G6 as of this writing, so we'd suggest that you only buy directly from LG if you want to root and mod the G6.

5. Huawei Mate 9

Even though they're the third-largest smartphone maker on the planet, most folks in North America never heard of Huawei until they partnered with Google to make the Nexus 6P. But now they seem hell-bent on making waves in the US market, so you'll probably want to learn how to pronounce the name — it's said "wah way." So far, our favorite phone from the Chinese manufacturer has been the Mate 9, and when it comes to rooting, it's a great option.

The Huawei Mate 9 rounds out our top five phones for rooting. Image by Jake Peterson/Gadget Hacks

Huawei lets you unlock the Mate 9'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 Mate 9's kernel sources and binaries are published on Huawei's official site, which is partly thanks to the phone's modder-friendly SoC, the HiSense Kirin 950. The ElementalX kernel is not available for the Mate 9, but other custom kernel options can fill that void. Unfortunately, TWRP isn't officially available, but there's a working unofficial port, so you'll still be able to flash to your heart's content.

Since the Mate 9 shipped with Android Nougat, Xposed still isn't compatible with the device, but we expect it soon. In the meantime, you can satiate your need for root-level modules by flashing Magisk, which works flawlessly with the latest firmware updates as of this writing.

The Mate 9 has an active development community and decent custom ROM support, though most ROMs are based on Huawei's EMUI skin. This means that, with most ROMs, you won't get very far away from the stock interface that came with the phone, but some of the many great root mods and themes available for the Mate 9 should help on that front.

The custom kernel selection for the Mate 9 is decent at best, as most of the options are simply modified stock kernels. But this ties back to the custom ROM support — since most ROMs are based on EMUI, you'll want a kernel that matches. There aren't any notable toolkits for the Mate 9, but the phone does come with a full Fastboot interface, so you shouldn't be hindered.

If you're satisfied with the Mate 9's ROM selection and you don't mind EMUI, there are plenty of root mods available to help scratch your itch to tinker. When you combine that with Huawei's up-and-coming status and the phone's reasonable $499 price tag, the Mate 9 is a solid buy.

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 OnePlus 5 and the Google Pixel. The OnePlus 5 gets a slight edge because it's officially compatible with Magisk and ticks all of the other major boxes. However, the Pixel has possibly the development support, 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 G5 Plus, LG G6, or Mate 9. 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 G6 being one of the best-looking phones out there, and the Mate 9 being a great all-rounder.

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 by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

5 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 :(

Great article. Just got myself a V20 from an HTC 10.

Googling for "best developer phone 2017" made me here. I'm a few months late but this is still quite relevant to my interest. However regarding your writing about HTC,

The Korean manufacturer's latest flagship has been...

No, it's not Korean. HTC is a Taiwanese company. Only Samsung and LG are from Korea.

D'oh, I knew that! I'll fix it right now. Thanks!

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