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Jailbreak: Escape from Appletraz

To jailbreak or not to jailbreak?

Have you heard the term ‘jailbreaking’ before? If you think it has to do with prison, you may be reading the wrong column. Jailbreaking, in the tech world, refers to the process required for removing the limitations imposed by Apple on their iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, or Apple TV devices. The process essentially replaces the device’s operating system with one that looks and acts exactly like Apple’s iOS, but with supersized features.

Sounds awesome, right? Especially now that jailbreaking is no longer considered illegal (although it will void your Apple warranty). Warranty issues aside, if doing so will make my iPhone do things it wouldn’t normally be able to do, why wouldn’t I want to do it, you ask?

That’s where things get interesting.

The first concern that needs to be addressed is whether the process is simple enough for anyone to do. The answer to that question is sometimes yes, and sometimes no. If fiddling around with technology scares you, especially with the looming threat of screwing up your device, then I’d say not to bother. But even if you fancy yourself as a “techie”, you may want to think twice.

One thing I’ve found after successfully jailbreaking several devices (did I just say that out loud?) is that the process is never simple. Even if the technique has been described as easy, that may not be the case. What is simple in theory, especially in the world of technology, is rarely the case is practice. More about that in a moment.

Another important issue to consider is security. What happens to the built-in security mechanisms Apple has built in to their products when you replace the iOS with a modified operating system is anybody’s guess. I know many tech experts who are running jailbroken iDevices that aren’t worried, but with mobile threats becoming even more pervasive it may not be anything you’ll want to screw around with.

If I haven’t scared you out of doing it yet, perhaps my most recent experience with jailbreaking will do the trick. Over the holidays we got an Apple TV, and it’s the most awesome thing. The list of features is astounding, and will change your home entertainment landscape dramatically.

What delayed my Apple TV purchase was the fact that streaming options for media are limited to Apple file formats. Unless it gets the jailbreaking treatment, in which case you can add a specialized media-streaming program to the device thereby opening it up to all sorts of possibilities. As soon as I had the Apple TV in my hot little hands, I couldn’t wait to do some tinkering.

Every legitimate tech site I came across articulated how simple the jailbreaking process would be.

I believed them.

I was wrong.

I wouldn’t call it difficult, but the word simple isn’t suitable here. As the saying goes, results may vary.

Mine varied, and I wasn’t happy.

Even after getting everything the way I wanted it and installed XBMC (the free open-source media player), I was somewhat underwhelmed. I was now able to stream any media file I wanted, but picture quality wasn’t quite as clear as I’d hoped. It was like getting a new pair of glasses and noticing your prescription is just slightly off; everything still looks great but something isn’t quite right.

Needless to say, I’ve given up on the jailbreak and restored it to factory settings.

So is jailbreaking all it’s cracked up to be? I haven’t even covered all the awesome things you can do with a jailbroken iPhone, but generally I’d say to ixnay the ailbreakjay. I jailbroke my first iPhone (the 3G), and although it could outdo its non-jailbroken iFriends, the thing actually ran a little slower than normal.

If uncertainty, security issues and a voided warranty don’t scare you off, and/or you hate being confined to Apple’s technological shackles, jailbreak away.

I’m not sure whether to be worried or jealous.

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Each week, Tech Soup will be written by a member of the Okanagan's burgeoning first-rate technology community. We already have a few regular contributors, but if you're interested in writing a tech piece for this weekly column, send us an email to [email protected]

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