If you've been browsing cord cutting websites lately, you've likely seen articles about “Jailbroken Firesticks” or “Jailbroken Fire Sticks” [sic]. You may also see articles promising to show you “how to unlock a Firestick.” These articles are talking about Fire TV Sticks (and regular Fire TVs), though they tend to take some liberties with the branding. And these articles tend to use a term – “jailbreaking” – that evokes the practice of jailbreaking iOS devices. The suggestion is that there is a way to do something similar to a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, stripping away Amazon's limitations and creating a more powerful device. But is there? Can you really jailbreak a Fire TV device? And what does it mean to have a jailbroken Fire TV Stick or Fire TV?

The short answer is “not really.” What has come to be called “jailbreaking” Fire TV Sticks and Fire TVs is actually our old friend “sideloading.” To explain the distinction, let's take a step back and look at what jailbreaking is and what it means.

What Is “Jailbreaking?”

“Jailbreaking” is a term that rose to prominence in relation to iOS devices, particularly the iPhone. Apple has long had a reputation for exerting a certain amount of control over the way its devices can be used – it was Apple that pioneered the app store, which serves as a way to regulate which programs users can and can't use on a given platform. And Apple's iPhones have long been considered to be less customizable than their Android counterparts. Collectively, these rights restrictions are sometimes referred to as a “jail.” So when programmers came up with a way to counteract all of these restrictions, they were “breaking out of iOS jail” – that is,”jailbreaking.” A jailbroken iPhone can install programs that Apple hasn't approved, allowing users to customize their home screens, add new features, and run apps that “jailed” users can't.

The Difference Between Jailbreaking, Rooting, and Sideloading

“Jailbreaking” is a catchy term, no doubt about it. So maybe that's why it spread beyond its technically correct usage and began to be used to describe a wide range of techniques and exploits designed to loosen restrictions or install unapproved apps on different platforms.

One such technique was “rooting,” which can be done on Android devices. Rooting gives Android users access to the source code of their device, letting them do things as extreme as removing the operating system itself and replacing it with a different version. This allows Android users to do things like tweak the appearance of their device and add new customization options.

A rooted Android device is not the same as a "jailbroken Firestick" or a "jailbroken Fire Stick," whatever those are
One example of the customization possible on a rooted Android device (via MakeUseOf)

iOS jailbreaking does not actually allow users to change the source code on their devices, so these two processes are very different – but that hasn't stopped people from using the terms interchangeably.

Rooting is a more extreme step than jailbreaking. There's no way to merely “jailbreak” an Android device, and there's really no reason to wish for one. That's because the main perk of jailbreaking an iOS device – the ability to add unapproved apps – is available on Android without jailbreaking.

The main method for adding unapproved apps to Android is called sideloading, and it's a relatively simple process. Sideloading just means enabling “developer mode” on Android – a feature designed to allow developers to test their apps while they're working on them (at which point, of course, they aren't in the approved app store yet), then loading an app's file. You don't need to be a developer to use the developer feature, so anyone can sideload apps.

And because Fire TV's operating system is based on Android, this brings us to what jailbreaking a Fire TV Stick actually means.

What Is a “Jailbroken Fire Stick”? What Does It Mean to “Unlock a Firestick?”

The questions in the heading above remain. (So does another: why is it that none of these articles can properly spell or format “Fire TV Stick?”) Let's find answers (to the ones in the heading, anyway).

We just talked about how Android devices can “sideload” apps not found in the official Android app store. As it turns out, this method also works on the Fire TV. That's because the Fire TV's operating system is based on Android. Fire TV devices have their own app store, but they can still run Android apps if you sideload them. Some work better than others (your TV is not a touch-screen phone with a rotating screen, so some apps are pretty useless when sideloaded to Fire TV), but, generally speaking, a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick will do its best to run most Android apps.

And this practice – sideloading – is all we're talking about when we talk about “jailbreaking” a Fire Stick or Fire TV. A “jailbroken Fire Stick” or “jailbroken Firestick” [sic] is just a Fire TV Stick with apps sideloaded onto it. Some guides to “jailbreaking” a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick focus on sideloading Kodi and essentially turning Kodi into the user-facing interface, so “jailbreaking” a Fire TV device often refers specifically to sideloading Kodi, at least in popular usage. But any way you slice it, there's nothing “jailbroken” about a jailbroken Fire TV Stick. Jailbreaking a Fire Stick is just sideloading re-branded with a cool name.

Wait, What's Kodi?

So when we say “jailbreaking” we mean sideloading, often with the implication that we're talking specifically about sideloading Kodi. But what's Kodi?

Well, that's a topic for a different explainer (one that, actually, we've already written!). But the short version is this: Kodi is a media center application that is designed to do many of the same things that Fire TV's own operating system does, including organizing streaming media. But Kodi excels with local content in a way that Fire TV's native OS does not, and it is also highly customizable. And it has its roots in a tech DIY culture and has been a favorite of hobbyists and power-users for years.

Kodi's open-source nature and the fact that its legions of fans overlapped so much with the DIY crowd led to a proliferation of fan-made “add-ons” – plugins and apps for Kodi that expand its functionality. At times, these add-ons included some streaming abilities of highly questionable legality. For that reason, Kodi was not welcome in most major app stores. Kodi has made some real efforts to clean up its act in recent years, cracking down on illegal add-ons and striving to keep third parties from sullying its reputation. Kodi is available in the Android app store these days, but it's still not available on Fire TV, which is why it must be sideloaded. Kodi is legal, but its reputation and its standing with certain app stores have not yet fully recovered.

The type of people who enjoy pushing the boundaries of devices like the Fire TV are precisely the sort of people who love Kodi, so it's no surprise to see sideloading and Kodi going hand-in-hand — even if it is a bit surprising to see everyone torturing the definition of “jailbreaking” while describing the pair.

Fine, We'll Call It “Jailbreaking”

So what is a site like ours to do when the masses begin to call sideloading (or sideloading Kodi) “jailbreaking?” After all, we're fans of sideloading and write about it frequently. Our guides to sideloading have long just called the practice “sideloading,” both because that's the correct term and because that's what everyone called it (even in the case of sideloading Kodi) back when we first wrote those pieces.

“Sideloading” remains the correct term, but “jailbreaking” has become a common term for the same practice, particularly when Kodi is involved. Language evolves, and we're not here to police tech terms — from the start, Cordcutting.com has been focused on using plain language to make streaming-related topics and projects simple and straightforward. So we'll bow to the prevailing usage and will use “jailbreaking” and “sideloading Kodi” more or less interchangeably going forward, so that the many people who use the former term can still find our coverage of and guides to sideloading. You can read our updated guide on how to jailbreak a Fire TV Stick here.

But we're still not going to call it a “jailbroken Firestick,” because it's Fire TV Stick, and you can do the same thing to the regular Fire TV. Okay?