Can you root an AirTV box?

The AirTV box from DISH isn’t new, but it sure is exciting. Although it was first announced about 18 months ago, it hasn’t made a lot of waves until recently when Solid Signal announced a pricing bundle that makes it practically irresistable for cord-cutters. If you’re going to take a Sling package anyway, there’s simply no cheaper option. 4K quality, over-the-air antenna capability and apps? Take my money!

Yeah, but can you root it? I set out to find out.

First off, why would you want to?

The AirTV Player runs a somewhat customized version of Android TV. If you haven’t heard of Android TV, you need to learn more. It’s the same operating system that (probably) runs your phone but it’s optimized for TV. It gives Android users the same kind of tight integration that Apple users have with their AppleTV box. You get Google Play, access to your music and movies, and tons of apps.

In fact Android TV is one of the things that makes the AirTV Player irresistable. You get YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, MLB, and many many other apps in 4K when the app supports it and everything runs silky smooth. You also get the voice remote, powered by Google, that makes it all work right.

That’s not enough for some people. I’ll just put it out there… there are people who use Android devices for some interesting things. Some are completely legitimate, like controlling devices that you couldn’t otherwise control. Some of it though… some folks like to find pirated video and specialty information that you just can’t get through Google Play.

I don’t judge. It’s your thing, do what you want to do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to. (Hey, that sounds like it would be a pretty good song.) If you want to use the hardware your way, I may not support what you’re doing but it’s your choice.

A little bit about what “rooting” is

A smartphone or streaming box is just a computer really. Android is based, believe it or not, on the Linux operating system originally designed to run telephone systems. Like all modern operating systems, it works off the idea of “permissions.”

Generally, “regular users” of a device can’t do much with it. It’s your phone, you can’t turn it into a death ray or use it to do your taxes. It’s specifically designed not to let you do those things, because you don’t have the “permission” to.

There are in fact several levels of permissions in a modern operating system, ranging from “guest” which is a person who can interact in a very simple way and change NOTHING, to “root” who is the “super-user” who has the right to change the core programming, in ways that can permanently break it.

Obviously having “root” permissions gives you a lot of power, but it also could be a massive problem. So, device makers disable that “root” functionality. However, in many cases hackers find ways to put it back. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard.

So can you root an AirTV box?

So far the answer is no.

I have been trying for two months, to be honest with you. I’m not a master hacker but there’s a lot of things available on the internet that help you get close. Unfortunately I never got close enough.

Developer mode

One of the most common ways of rooting an Android device is to enable developer mode, which gives you access to the files you need to change to get root access. This is done by through the settings menu, then you generally connect to the device over a network using the “ADB” utility. You can find that utility online almost anywhere you want. Once you’re connected, you can run simple scripts that enable root access.

I tried this, and the problem was that the utility wouldn’t connect over a network. After a lot of mucking about with flash drives, I got the scripts over to the device and could run them with the help of ES File Explorer, a common app for hackers that you can get without enabling root access.

So, no dice there.

Rooting apps

There are a few apps that promise to root your device with one click. I’ve used one called KingRoot on a phone so I could delete some of the preinstalled crapware. It was super easy so I tried it on the AirTV with the help of ES File Explorer.

The first problem was that the app wanted me to tap something. You can’t tap anything on an Android TV box, it’s not a touchscreen. Surprisingly I found out that you can hook up a mouse to the AirTV and it works. So after a little trial and error I got that tap taken care of and the app was off and running.

It sat there for maybe 20 minutes and looked really promising but in the end the app told me it couldn’t complete the rooting process.

So it is beginning to look like at this point, I personally don’t have a great way of doing this.

Why can’t the AirTV Player be rooted?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, only that the internet hasn’t caught up with how to do it. The AirTV, unlike most Android TV devices, is built by Technicolor, who seem to have customized a lot of the operating system. They’ve blocked off most of the usual pathways to rooting and I’m left not knowing if there are other ones.

I’m sure someone with much more hacker cred than me will figure it out at some point but for now you are stuck using the AirTV Player as it was intended. If things change and I am able to root the AirTV player, I’ll report back.

One bit of good news

A lot of people think that you need a rooted device to run XBMC and JesusBox, which are media sharing apps. They’ll get you into a fair amount of trouble if you want to go that way, but they can also be used legitimately to play music or videos from a server.

Those apps are available on the Google Play store without the need to root and you can still use them any way you intend.