I rooted my Nexus 5X for themes, and here's what I learned

Unlocked Nexus FTW
Unlocked Nexus FTW (Image credit: Android Central)

That may not sound quite right for a themer, but I do. I well and truly do love simple. That's why I loved Motorola's phones and the Nexus approach to Android. But there are limits to what you can do in the simple sandbox, while your bootloader is locked and your phone is stock. You can replace your launcher, but you can't replace the blinding white in all the Google apps. You can't bring back that seek bar in the Play Music notification you've missed for two years. And you can't get into the nitty gritty details of choosing how your Android system looks and behaves. For that, you need complete control of your device.

And that's why I've gone back into the chaos theory that is root.

Being far from an expert in root, I decided to root my device in the company of a more experienced friend, which is far and away the biggest piece of advice I have for you. When rooting your phone and dealing with recoveries, flashing images, Xposed modules, and any other root software or operations, you're gonna want friends to turn to when things go wrong. Because things go wrong a lot.

ROM forums for the Nexus 5X and the Galaxy S7

That's the nature of the beast here. Rooting is in large part experimentation. What works for one phone might not work for another. That's why having a device that's well-supported by the modding community is important, too. Rooting and messing around on a Nexus 5X is drastically different than on a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which has subtle but important differences between carriers, countries, and software, to say nothing of Samsung Knox.

Meanwhile, the Nexus 5X not only has an easily unlockable bootloader, but should things go wrong, Google provides the stock images for you to return to (as long as you didn't hard-brick it, that is). Matter of fact, while we were downloading system images to use while rooting my phone, my guide was downloading system images to return his Nexus 6P to stock and unroot. Those system images are a useful safety net, I used them again and again while rooting my 5X, because I kept making mistakes and getting stuck in a bootloop.

This became a quite familiar image during my root process

My repeated bootloops were the result of two more mistakes I'm sharing so you don't repeat them: be picky with whose instructions you follow, and make sure they're current and correct. While researching what I needed to root, I read a guide from XDA, but the instructions my guide used to help me were from another site, were outdated, and were missing an important step (formatting userdata to disable encryption). By trusting his instructions instead of the ones I'd previously read, we spent an extra hour re-flashing and re-flashing the device, which if nothing else gave us practice with the terminal commands.

Minimal ADB is the best kind of ADB

Speaking of terminal commands, while there are toolkits aplenty out there, I found the experience of flashing the images manually through a terminal much better than my experience using the toolkit in my previous forays into root. While many encourage you to download the Android SDK from Google to to control and flash your device through ADB, my friend suggested Minimal ADB and Fastboot, which worked wonderfully. You don't have to hassle with setting up a full SDK you most likely won't be using beyond adb.

Yes, this requires you to learn a little bit about ADB and fastboot and their commands. Knowing the actual commands and going through the process manually helps give you a better understanding of how Android and root work though, and you absolutely benefit from that. Also on the note of fastboot commands, I think we need to make a new hoodie. The bootloader unlock command for the Nexus 5X is 'fastboot flashing unlock' not 'fastboot oem unlock'...

After following the proper instructions, my phone was re-flashed and rooted in about 15 minutes, and it was oddly anti-climatic when it happened. There's no "Congrats" banner like you completed a major update, no fanfare beyond a new warning when you first boot up. It wasn't until I flashed Xposed and started adding modules that I felt the giddiness of being able to do whatever I wanted with my device. Xposed is a great option for that, as rather than flashing new kernels or ROMs to get new features, you can add them piecemeal via Xposed modules.

Let's get customized!

I look forward to exploring Xposed and other root apps in the coming weeks and months, but for now, I'm content to get my bearings messing with smaller modules like XHangouts. Now, where'd that notification seek bar module go ...

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

91 Comments
  • I would love Sense on my 6P... Posted via the Android Central App
  • Ask and ye shall receive :)
    http://www.apkmirror.com/apk/htc-corporation/sense-home/sense-home-8-01-... And it works well on my Motorola Nexus 6 running 6.0.1
  • That reply was to funny. Good one. Posted via the power of my mind
  • When you have Galaxy S7 Edge and Nexus 5x, you'll stop looking for new phones! Posted via the Android Central App
  • That's the same combo I have, S7 Edge on Verizon and the 5X on Fi :)
  • S7 edge on tmobile 5x on fi here.
  • You do not have to decypt to root maybe that's why that step was missing from her first guide. I ran both my Nexus 5X and 6P rooted for the longest time and neither was decrypted.
  • Both of my Nexus 5X phones used "fastboot oem unlock" and NOT the new unlock command. Maybe both commands work but I used the old one. I have heard the 6P requires the new command.
  • Yeah, fastboot oem unlock also works on the 5X so both work (I had used both methods on 2 of my 5X's) the 6p has the new command
  • There's a new bootloader unlock command? What is it? Posted via the Android Central App
  • "Fastboot flashing unlock"
  • Nice one! Posted via the Android Central App
  • Yeah the OnePlus 3 uses the old command as well. I wonder why. Posted via the OnePlus 3
  • This sounds like borderline scaremongering for a process that isn't that difficult, especially in a Nexus...
  • I'll agree with that funny how times change in 2013 and below it was kosher. Posted from my cracked Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • Describing their experience is not scare mongering, it is just describing the experience. Also rooting my be trivial to you, but this site caters to all experience levels. As someone who works in IT I've learned to never assume that just because something is easy for me that it's also easy for the next person. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Agreed. I just got the Nexus 5x for $250 with Project Fi and i followed the original root guide and it was like a 5 minute process. Much easier than most others I've unlocked/rooted.
  • Could you provide a link to the guide you used? My 5x is currently in the mail being shipped to me :)
  • http://forum.xda-developers.com/nexus-5x/general/guides-how-to-guides-be...
  • No, the process isn't that hard. I made it hard on myself because I was careless. And my foolishness is what I shared in hopes of remind others that they don't need to repeat my mistakes and make a ten minute operation an hour and half.
  • An hour and a half of calm research followed by a painless 5 min root sure beats a rush job and an hour and a half of frantic search for a fix.
  • And for me, as someone who was big into rooting up until recently, simplicity and rooting don't go together. My phone was never as stable after rooting as it was in its stock configuration. I eventually realized that I cared more about my phone working correctly than I did about a dark theme. YMMV of course, but in the end rooting just wasn't worth it to me. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm in the same boat as you. I use to be a flashoholic then just got tired of the instability. I still rooted for ad blocking, greenify and a couple other essential root apps but that's about it and kept everything stock. Also now I'm more paranoid about security on my phone so I now have the bootloader locked on my 6P running Android N and even switched to the new file based encryption that's in N. I actually wrote a post a while back about my evolution using Android. It got shared around quite a bit and someone even made a graphic from it. lol
    https://plus.google.com/+PatrickHill/posts/Et6zEEM5Gqz
  • Ad blocking was the main thing I was missing, with the Samsung Browser I can have that while browsing and 99% of the apps I use I have bought or paid for the ad free version so I just don't see ads that often anymore. I agree though, the biggest reason I rooted up until recently was the ad blocking capability. I used to flash roms that claimed to be the smoothest experience available/a million hours of battery life and was always left disappointed, I used to think it was something I was doing but then I realized that for the most part these home brew roms are just inherently unstable. Does my phone work perfectly right now, no, but neither does my SO's iPhone. I do know that my phone works better now than any of my previous phones did with custom roms. Again, people's mileage may vary but the hassle is just not worth it to me anymore.
  • i was a flashoholic before nexus because i was always seeking smother, faster. then i became a nexus and it was about the customization but slowly i realized the thing runs (mostly) perfect stock and its the non nexus people that are seeking my nexus like os. Even still Wugfresh makes it so easy for a nexus.
  • Generally, rooting alone won't cause any instability. It's when you start flashing custom kernels, ROMs, mods like xposed, etc. that you have stability problems.
  • Yes you are not wrong, I misspoke.
  • Once you root a phone you should not trust using the device for banking apps. Anyone else notice that this site runs terribly in MS Edge?
  • Why should I not trust using my device with banking apps?
  • Because you root your device by using an exploit that you should not trust unless you developed it yourself for one. For two, once you have root it is much easier for apps that you might side load to take full advantage of your device. My policy on my devices is that if I root them I stop using sensitive apps because I have weakened the security model of my device with untrusted software.
  • I've never used an exploit to root a phone, so I'm fine there. And a super user app prevents root access to anything I don't expressly grant access to... Posted via the Android Central App
  • Yup exactly, if you're smart about it, it's actually safer. And you have the control in your hands. There is no reason why I shouldn't trust a banking app on my phone with root.
  • Yeah, I'd certainly never suggest everyone should have root access, just like most people shouldn't have administrative access on a windows machine. But for a conscientious and tech savvy user there is no inherent security risk. Posted via the Android Central App
  • By definition, root is obtained by an exploit. It's just that with a Nexus, the exploit is intentional.
  • That's technically true in that you're exploiting a resource, but I think it's pretty clear that they were talking about exploiting software errors or issues to obtain root, the kind of stuff you have to do to root a Samsung carrier phone. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Root can actually improve your security. Many apps, like Cerberus and Lookout use root access to gain access to the system level and make it harder for someone to reflash an image on your phone if you lose it. Root isn't a security risk at all if you are careful where you get your apps from. Using a banking app from the Play Store poses no additional security risk when you have root. If you get "free paid apps" or non-Play Store apps, then yeah; expect some security concerns.
  • Of course if you only get apps from trusted sources your exposure to risk is less, but many people who root and dont worry about running exploits they download from the web also probably are more apt to side load apps. I worry about trojan horse software. If I am pulling down software to exploit vulnerabilities in my device I am trusting developers who I don't know. It simply is not a good security practice unless you are 100% sure you can trust the source.
  • You do realize that with many phones (Nexus included) you *don't* have to employ third party software to unlock the bootloader right? You're not abusing any software exploits to get there...
  • Lol, ok.
  • think the same way
  • It is true with the newer phones root isn't necessarily necessary. . But to me it is just to much fun to me not to right now. Now I am playing with the HTC 10 and I'm having a blast. An absolute beast of a phone. So much freedom while rooting and a few headaches along the way. But to me it is well worth it. And the rooting communities are great. There are a lot of great folks out there that will help you if you ask. I also have a 5x. Right now I like my 10. Happy rooting. . . . . Posted via the Android Central App
  • With Google insisting on its horrible white notifications, for me, root has never been more necessary! Posted via the Android Central App
  • The main reason I root is for Titanium backup. So many games still don't save your progress to Google+ so you need to be able to backup the 'data' folder to get your save games.
  • Helium works great for this, yes you have to plug your phone into your computer before you backup but it will backup apps and data with no issue. Titanium is seriously an amazing application though, and the fact that many Android games still don't backup progress is embarrassing. I think at this point if you want to have your game on the Play Store it needs to use cloud backup, no excuses. If it doesn't allow you to sync data, it doesn't get listed.
  • For a split second I thought Ara wrote an article that wasn't about theming. Sigh. Oh well, at least it wasn't another AC article title ending in"You need to know." Posted via the Android Central App
  • I wrote about gifs yesterday. Those aren't themes, lol. Posted via the Android Central App
  • For a split second I thought someone might see an article they aren't interested in and just pass over it instead of leaving a lame comment about how the article isn't something they are interested in.
  • Some guys do banking, trading etc on rooted phones? Seems save to me Posted via the Android Central App
  • Someone who's rooted and careful is probably a damn sight safer online than someone who assumes they're safe because they're not rooted. Probably sees less ads too... Posted via the Android Central App
  • Just like with the standard Android permissions model, you can selectively choose which apps have root access after you've rooted. If an app is attempting to access root, you'll get a popup asking if you want the app to have that access. Don't grant it to shady apps, don't allow installation from outside the Play Store unless you trust the source, and you should be fine.
  • How is being rooted making me unsafe? Installing garbage apps from outside the play store or clicking links your aren't sure about is just as unsafe on a non-rooted phone. Any app that requires root has to get permission to run before it can do anything. If magical way an app like that got on my phone I would see it trying to run. Ignorant people who know nothing about root but install shady apps or click on garbage links run the risk of that malware actually rooting their phone. Those people would be much more likely to click to allow root apps to run not realizing what they are doing than someone like me who knows what I am doing. Either way the point is don't install shady apps or click on shady links in shady websites. It doesn't matter if you're rooted or not if you don't use common sense in how you use your phone.
  • Odd that you rooted for theming, but went to xposed and not layers first. Layers is a must have for rooted themers (don't install more than one framework though...). TWRP backups are your best friend, having to reflash and start from stock everytime you screw up will get old fast if you're the experimental type. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Layers is coming, too, but I wanted to ease myself in. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Well, on the off chance you haven't started yet and are looking for suggestions, inversionUI, material glass and MAGPIE are worth taking a look at. I just wish Google would properly open up RRO in their apps. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Layers definitely, Xposed seems to cause issues
  • I personally tried moving away from rooting but couldn't because I hate those pesky ads in the apps, and yes I do have a ton of paid apps as well.
    Also the dark theme is a must for me, not a fan of the white background used by Google or some of its OEM.
    Another key reason I cannot move away from rooting is because of app data transfer & setting when switching devices,for the life of me I don't know why Google hasn't baked this functionality into android backup & restore like iOS does! From my personal experience, android restore just doesn't cut it!
  • I would like to see some basic theming on all phones out of the box. Something as simple as a light/dark mode switch and being able to change the accent color on various UI elements. Theming more than that gets complicated and can be messy, while being able to theme at least just that adds just enough personalization to make me happy. Would also like to see a tinted navigation bar that changes color based on the app. Either matching the status bar or blending in with the content of the screen (for example: if you're using an app with a black background, the nav bar is black or it's white when using an app with a white background).
  • I think it'll be a few years off, since Google keeps teasing a basic night mode then removing it
  • So long as we don't have an AOSP/Google offered standard for theming, it's going to be hodge podge on devices and users will suffer for it. I have a dream... Of a system wide dark theme on all devices! If Windows Phone can do it, so can we! Posted via the Android Central App
  • A good Layers theme, like Spectrum, along with flashing theme-ready apps, will go a long way toward what you're looking for.
  • You learned that themes are 99% ugly?
  • Everyone has different tastes. Use the themes you like, let others use the themes they like.
  • Haven't rooted a phone in almost 3 years. Just don't see the need to anymore. My last 2 devices were the OnePlus One and Galaxy S7, they both do everything I need and then some. Why purchase a device that you need to Mod? Posted via the Android Central App running on my Galaxy S7
  • It's been a few years since there's been a device that people NEED to mod. This article isn't about the NEED to mod anything, just the ability.
  • It's great if you don't feel the need to root, good for you! I still feel the need though. Those white notifications need to go. Also, some of us see modding as a hobby, not a chore. Posted via the Android Central App
  • The extent of my desire for customization doesn't go beyond installing Nova Launcher and an icon pack.
  • And that's where it is for most folks, which is why that's still my primary focus while theming. But for those that do want to go hardcore, I should experience these things once and be knowledgeable enough on them to write about them and answer questions when asked about them.
  • Why root a nexus? It goes against the whole nexus is the premier android experience doesn't it? Posted via the Android Central App
  • If you're that type of person... personally I see the Nexus line as one of the best blank canvases to get the phone I want rather than the phone Google, Samsung, LG or whoever want. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm curious to know if the 5x runs any better with root. I know there were some performance quibbles when it first released.
  • well, the 5X won't be my daily driver, but it's fine since I rooted. Of course I haven't done nearly as much as other might've.
  • definitly , Im running Pure Nexus Rom with ElelentaX kernel and GhostPepper governor and its night and day in battery life and performance...its actually fun to use this phone now with no lag and a fantastic SOT plus battery .
    Than Nova Prime as my launcher ..and it makes for good DD.
  • Manufacturers claim that allowing unlocked bootloaders mean people will brick their phones.
    That's a lie. With an unlocked bootloader and factory images, it is near impossible to hard brick a phone.
  • Aw root. I haven't rooted something since 2014. So long ago. It's a long gone memory. #TeamFrosty Nexus 6P
  • Ara, do yourself a favor and search for the ARISE sound system mod. The improvement in sound quality is with rooting for.
  • If I'd rooted my daily driver, I totally would. But my daily driver and my Google Play authorization are on the HTC 10 right now while I muck about. I have heard good things about ARISE, though.
  • I tried that mod on my 6P when it was rooted. Besides draining the hell out of my battery when I listened to music, it made songs sound like they were being played through a crappy filter.
  • No,only lazy people who do t do their own research have trouble rooting,if English is your first language,you have good internet connection and a reliable pc of some description,then there is absolutely no excuse for not getting it right first time with a phone,specially a nexus.
    I hope the person who was meant to be guiding you doesn't describe themselves as "expert",between you,you seem to have made very hard work of what is a very some procedure,if you do the proper work before hand,but then people wonder how they managed to brick a device..
  • It's funny hearing someone on Android Central talk about the greatness of root and xposed. After all, that's how you install ad blockers, which also effect the AC app and site. Posted via the Android Central App
  • We don't have ads in our app...
  • So, Ara, NOW you can install XHangouts like we discussed on Twitter awhile ago. :-P
  • Check the article! I did!
  • Oh, great! Sorry, was stuck at work and could only read the headline and author at the time :-) Posted via the Android Central App
  • Hey Ara, finally read everything. :-)
    The Google Music module you want is in Xposed as "GPM Notification Seek Bar [L-M]", I believe. I have it as well. You might also want to check out a second Google Music expansion module called "XGPM" which allows playback buttons colored to albums, three rows of albums displayed instead of two, and other goodies. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I started rooting Android devices back in 2009, with the HTC Hero, on Sprint. Back then, it was stupid complicated to get root. You had to run a bunch of command line commands, chmod this, chmod that, etc. Then, you ran an RUU, ran more commands, and finally you had root, and could flash what your heart desired (as long as it was available in the forums....). It became super simple for a while, and then got complicated again with the advent of the carriers locking down the devices. But the Nexus devices, and OnePlus devices make it pretty easy to unlock, root, and flash custom roms.
  • "...experienced friend, which is far and away the biggest piece of advice I have for you. When rooting your phone and dealing with recoveries, flashing images, Xposed modules, and any other root software or operations, you're gonna want friends to turn to when things go wrong." Speaking as one of those friends, I couldn't disagree more. Everything you need is on the internet, and you need to learn exactly what your doing and how to correct any mistakes you make by yourself. It's a pain in the ass to help someone who can't even be bothered to read a couple of forum threads to do stuff to their phone, stuff that they don't even know why they want, how to do or how to utilize. If you can't learn how to do this on your own, you're most likely better off not doing it. Sorry for being harsh, but this is my firm belief. I learned to do this in a couple of hours when I was 14. All it took was some interest, a phone, a computer and a micro-USB cable.
  • Amen, I don't think there's anything wrong with asking questions if there's a step you're iffy on (or if you're really oblivious, asking what forum to start looking for info on)... But you should do some research and get the gist of the procedure before bugging people... It's not even that people aren't more than willing to help, but if you don't have a clue you're gonna skip something obvious even with all the help in the world. Do research, plenty of it, THEN ask for help IMO. More often than not there's some very explicit and noob proof tutorials around.
  • Oh, you absolutely need to put in the research and work yourself, but having someone to ask if you get stuck or someone to give an opinion before you flash one ROM versus another can be a great asset. I'm not saying have a geek friend and let them do everything. I'm saying learn to do it yourself and know who you can ask if you struggle. Jerry told me to do it myself and come to him if I needed help. I split the difference doing it myself with a friend there for 'help'. Though his actual help may be debatable... Posted via the Android Central App
  • I root for two main purposes, and I could probably do without the latter... 1) To enable hotspot without some ridiculous $20 plan add on (data is data, get over it Sprint) 2) Titanium app data backups, mainly for games.
  • Study, study, read, and understand. Don't make a move, until you understand the whole procedure. Particular phones, have their own ways and you need to learn.
  • i tried a lot phones and root/ jailbreak all of them. spend so much time playing around and install tweaks. from all of them the nexus was the best to root and install roms. now i am using my note 5 and that is not rooted or anything just stock phone and i am happy.