How To: The Best Phones for Rooting & Modding

The Best Phones for Rooting & Modding

According to a study done by Kaspersky, 7.6% of Android users root their phones. That may not sound like a lot, but with over 2 billion Android devices out there, the math works out to over 150 million rooted phones — more than the total population of Russia, Mexico, or Japan — 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 four best phones for rooting.

Table of Contents

Comparison Chart

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 Unlock Method: 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.
  • Project Treble: Google's new system for making updates easier on manufacturers has a neat side-effect for modders: Because Project Treble separates the vendor implementation from the underlying system framework, developers can make custom ROMs that simply replace the system partition. This means there can be one custom ROM that works the same on all Treble-supported devices (called a GSI, or Generic System Image), which translates to faster update times for custom ROMs.
  • 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.
  • 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 by Aaron Segaert, 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. Xposed is now available directly though Magisk (more on that next), which means you can have all your favorite mods without tripping SafetyNet.
  • 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. Considering how important this is, all phones in this list support Magisk.
  • 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.

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. With iOS 12, jailbreak methods are currently unavailable, but even for older versions, Apple has been shutting down these exploits almost faster than developers can create them. So the iPhone XS, XS Max, and iPhone XR 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 S9 suffered, as Samsung's latest US flagships will simply never have a traditional root method available to them.

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.

There were a pair of devices that could've easily made this list — the Pixel 2 and the OnePlus 6 — but we omitted these since there are alternate models from Google and OnePlus that are a bit more future-proof. For instance, the OnePlus 6T was just released, and the Pixel 3 ticks all the same boxes as 2017's Pixel 2, but will receive support for an additional year over the older model.

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.

Phone 1: OnePlus 6T

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 6T, a Snapdragon 845-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.

Image by The Verge/YouTube

The OnePlus 6T 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 6T 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 6T directly from OnePlus' website, then flash them in Fastboot to restore your phone to its stock state.

Because the phone is so new at the time of this writing, we're going on reputation for some of the other key factors in this comparison. For instance, with past OnePlus devices, kernel sources and binaries were published promptly, including those related to the Dash Charge feature, so it's a sure bet that custom ROMs on the 6T will be just as feature-rich as stock.

The major kernel developers haven't quite had time to bring their wares to the OnePlus 6T just yet, but we expect that to change very soon. ElementalX developer Flar2 has made a version of his popular custom kernel for each of the last five OnePlus phones, so it should just be a matter of weeks before the OnePlus 6T is supported. And because of its inherent modder-friendliness, the OnePlus 6T will have one of the most active development communities out there, which means custom ROMs, as well as root apps and mods, should be numerous.

As it ships with Android Pie, the 6T supports Project Treble. Not only does this mean updates to the stock firmware should be fast and frequent, but it also means Generic System Images (GSIs) will be available from custom ROM developers. This is another reason we're confident the 6T's root scene will be extremely active.

All of these same points apply to this year's older flagship, the OnePlus 6. However, OnePlus broke sales records when it released the 5T in 2017, indicating a trend of more people buying the late-year model than the mid-year version. As such, we're recommending the newer model since more users typically means better development. If you can get your hands on one of the older 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 lower than pretty much any other phone with comparable hardware, the OnePlus 6T 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.

Lastly, the OnePlus 6T will be the first OnePlus phone to be sold in US carrier stores. This should benefit the development scene, as it should result in more people owning this phone than past OnePlus devices. But you should be aware that some of these aspects aren't the same on the carrier-branded models — most notably, there's a different bootloader unlock method for the T-Mobile variant that utilizes a manufacturer code. As such, we'd recommend buying the unlocked variant directly from OnePlus if rooting is one of your top priorities.

Phone 2: Pixel 3 (Or 3 XL)

Google's Pixel phones have only been around for two years now, but they've already made a name for themselves thanks to a great camera (seriously, it's amazing). The Pixel's marketing campaign tries to position the phone as an iPhone alternative — almost an "everyman" device — but make no mistake, the Pixel 3, like its ancestor the Nexus, is a modder's dream phone deep down inside.

Image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

To be clear, we're recommending either the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL — all key aspects when it comes to rooting are exactly the same for both phones. So it's up to you if you want a bigger screen with a notch, or a smaller phone with slightly bigger bezels. This year's Pixels do have a new Titan M security chip that locks down the boot chain and prevents rolling back the firmware, but Google went out of their way to make sure this didn't impact your ability to root or modify the phone's software. It's really just an extra layer of security against outside threats.

As to why the Pixel ranks so highly on our list, let's start with development support. On the same day the phone officially hit shelves, TopJohnWu got Magisk working on the Pixel 3 and achieved root. This is largely due to the easily-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, the absolute best should soon available for the Pixel 3: Aaron Segaert, AKA flar2, has made his ElementalX kernel available to all previous Pixel models, so we're certain it's just a matter of time before it become available to the Pixel 3. ElementalX adds some great features like color control and automatic battery-saving CPU profiles.

As I alluded to earlier, Magisk developer John Wu purchased a Pixel 3 on day one. As a result, he's already updated his popular mod to work with Google's latest phones. This means that the Pixel offers full Magisk support, including the ability to root the phone without tripping SafetyNet, and it also means you can install Magisk modules like the systemless Xposed Framework.

As the Pixel's stock interface is so close to AOSP Android already and Project Treble support is baked in, there will soon be many custom ROMs available to the device. Though we don't expect it to be quite as active as the OnePlus 6T, the Pixel's development community is typically one of the most active, so you can expect a constant stream of Pixel-compatible root apps and mods.

Ultimately, cost is the biggest downside with the Pixel 3. The smaller, 64 GB Pixel 3 will run you $799, and it only goes up from there. That price tag may make you hesitant to tinker with such an expensive toy, though if you can handle the 3 XL's $899 starting price, it's every bit as good of a pick as the smaller Pixel 3, because again, 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 3 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.

Phone 3: Essential PH-1

Essential is a new company started by the founder of Android, Andy Rubin. Their first phone kicked off the trend of bezel-less phones in earnest, and it's still a great buy today despite being a little over a year old. The Essential PH-1, AKA Essential Phone, is still the company's one and only flagship. Despite reports that the company is scaling down in the wake of a scandal involving Rubin, their flagship has continued to have top-notch software support.

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

In many ways, the Essential Phone is identical to the OnePlus 6T and Pixel 3, at least from a modder's perspective. The bootloader can be unlocked by enabling "OEM Unlocking" in Settings –> Developer Options, then sending a single fastboot command. This means there's no manufacturer code to void your warranty, and speaking of, the warranty will remain intact even while the bootloader is unlocked.

The similarities don't stop there. The PH-1 has a software-based tamper flag, meaning even if Essential decided to stop honoring warranties on bootloader-unlocked phones, you could easily reset this flag so they'd be none the wiser. And even if you somehow ended up soft-bricking the device, you can always download the stock firmware directly from Essential — something that's also handy for unrooting and updating the device.

Project Treble is supported, so you can flash Generic System Images if you're not a fan of the available custom ROMs for the PH-1. However, this is one area where the Essential Phone lags behind offerings from Google and OnePlus — custom ROM support isn't terrific, with only eight total non-stock ROMs to choose from at the time of this writing. That said, the development community is fairly active for the PH-1, and there are several root apps and mods to play around with.

The kernel sources and driver binaries are published, and this has led to custom kernels like ElementalX supporting the Essential Phone. In fact, all of the most popular root-level mods are available for the PH-1, including Magisk, TWRP, and Xposed.

There are two main downsides to the Essential Phone, however. First, the phone is over a year old at this point — but you may view this as a plus, as you can get the phone for relatively cheap nowadays. Secondly, the company itself does not appear to be in good shape, even going so far as to cancel their planned Essential PH-2. But again, despite these issues, Essential has continued to provide top-notch software support to the PH-1.

Phone 4: Moto G6

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 G6 can go toe-to-toe with phones that cost twice as much, which makes it one of the best value buys on the market.

Image by GSMArena Official/YouTube

With a starting price of $229, the Moto G6 simply can't be ignored here. Think about it this way: You could buy a G6, brick it, buy another, brick that one too, then buy a third ... and you'd still be paying significantly less than a base-model Pixel 3.

It's easy to unlock the G6's 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 G6.

Driver binaries and kernel sources are published on Motorola's Github page, plus Project Treble is supported, so developers won't have any problem in creating custom firmware. Magisk root is available for the G6, and TWRP recovery is officially supported, so all of the basics are covered. However, unlike last year's Moto G5 Plus, there is no ElementalX support.

Developers seem to be attracted to the Moto G6 low price and near-stock version of Android, because the device's XDA forums are fairly active already. Though there aren't many custom ROMs or kernels available just yet, we suspect this is due to the phone still being fairly new in the US. However, the stock Android UI means there are plenty of root-level mods and apps that will work with the G6.

There are some downsides when it comes to rooting and modding the Moto G6. The biggest one is how it can be hard to find stock firmware downloads for the G6, since Motorola doesn't offer an official factory images download page. This means you'll have to scour the internet for a third-party firmware download if you ever soft-brick your phone or feel like unrooting and/or updating. All factors considered, though, the Moto G6 is a solid pick if you plan to mod your next phone.

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 6T and the Google Pixel 3. The OnePlus 6T gets a slight edge because it's a bit cheaper with slightly better development support, and it ticks all of the other major boxes. The Essential Phone, while great in most areas, lags behind these two because it's a year older and doesn't have quite the custom ROM and kernel support.

The Moto G 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. Though if you're willing to risk it, the G6 makes a compelling case for itself when you consider how cheap it is.

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:

This article was produced during Gadget Hacks' annual Tweaks & Hacks Celebration week. Read all of the Tweaks & Hacks Celebration stories.

Cover image by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

6 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!

I gave up on rooting/mods/hacking on phones about 4 years ago when I got off the
carrier branded phones. Direct from the manufacturers for me is the only way to go.

Little/no bloat, mostly non tampered with. Unfortunately due to Huawei being kind of thrown under the bus by the government, I'm going to probably start looking elsewhere, but it will be a year or two before that happens.

I stopped rooting to dump bloat and unlock restricted features found on most carrier phones, and the last 3 Huawei phones (Mates 2, 8, 9) have been great! But as with any manufacturer outside of Google for the most part, a bit SLOW on updates.

My phone is my "workday tool". At the end of the day I don't even want to look at it, so I got away from the mod community.

Oh, new user here...stumbled onto your site via a link off I think it was gizmodo.
Now you are a daily stop!

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