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  1. #1
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    HTC Phones and S-off: What Is It, and Why Should I Care?

    Rooting Android devices is a little more complicated than we usually make it out to be. In most case, when you root a phone, you do three different things:

    1. You unlock the bootloader, an initial step that allows you to fiddle with the operating system.

    2. To make use of this unlocking, you'll typically also install a custom recovery (which then allows you to install custom ROM's, backup the whole operating system and data, and other useful things).

    3. You do the actual rooting, which means installing a "superuser" program that gives applications (or the user, for that matter) access to the root folder of the device, making it possible, while the phone is running, to do things like removing system apps or backing up all your apps.

    Most rooting procedures will accomplish all three of these steps at once; in fact, if the procedure is automated (as most of them are these days), you may not even be aware that the three steps are separate. However, separate they indeed are, and it's possible to unlock a device without rooting it, or even to root a device, temporarily at least, without unlocking it or installing a custom recovery first.

    With HTC phones, the situation is even more complicated: you can unlock the bootloader, root the phone, and still, when you boot into the bootloader, you're faced, in the second line of text, with the cryptic code "S-ON". What does this mean, and why does it matter?

    Snapshot_20130116.jpg

    As you can see in the bad picture above, my Evo 3D is "S-OFF".

    The "S" here stands for "security". HTC bootloaders have an extra layer of protection, such that when they're unlocked, it's still not possible to modify certain areas of the system partition. This prevents the user from doing things like installing a custom kernel (which, as it so happens, is part of most custom ROM's) or a custom recovery. If the only reason you want your phone rooted is so that you can use apps that require root access (Titanium Backup, for example), this isn't a problem. If you want to install something other than the stock operating system, it is a problem. It's not a completely insurmountable problem, because some clever developers have found ways to circumvent it and do the things you're not supposed to be able to do with S-on, but having S-on can limit your choices.

    Because being S-off gives you more freedom to modify your phone, developers of root methods for HTC phones have traditionally attempted to include S-off in their root procedures, just as unlocking, customer recoveries, and rooting are all normally bundled together. However, this situation has changed with recent HTC phones, as HTC has now provided users with a method to unlock its phones (see HTCdev for details--I'll cover this later in guides for specific phones), thus removing much of the incentive for developers to find security holes they can exploit in order to obtain root. Alas, while allowing a phone to be rooted, the HTCdev procedure leaves the device S-on, and what's more, HTC has made getting S-off much harder than it used to be.

    Does this problem affect you? It depends on the phone, and for some slightly older phones (the Evo 3D, for example), it affects phones with newer bootloaders (including older phones that have been updated), but not the older bootloaders with which the phones originally shipped. There is at least one procedure to achieve S-off on certain phones, the infamous JuopunutBear (say that three times quickly) "wire trick", which requires a minor feat of manual dexterity. Even for phones for no one has found a reliable means of getting S-off, such as the HTC One X, developers have gotten around many of the limitations of having S-on, but it still limits your options.

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