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How To Back Up Apps and Data from Your Galaxy Nexus—No Root Required

By Ryan Whitwam

Google has hidden a handy backup/restore module in Android, but we'll show you how to make use of it.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) has sufficient developer options to make your head spin. So many, in fact, that we have only recently managed to investigate all of them. One curious entry asks the user to make a passcode for protecting desktop backups. Last we checked, there was no Google-provided desktop backup software. It turns out that Mountain View built a new system for backing up your apps and their associated data, but it’s only accessible from the Android Debug Bridge (ADB).

With a little command line magic or a handy Windows app, Galaxy Nexus owners can export a full backup of apps and user data to a file which can be restored later. Read on for all the details on the process.

The Setup

We’re just going to say this again, the desktop backup/restore system is an ICS-only feature. Older phones need not apply. So have your Galaxy Nexus at the ready, and head over to this site and pick up the WugFresh Nexus Root Toolkit. You do not need to root your device to backup and restore data, but this program is multi-talented.

You will also need a Windows PC and a USB cable. If you’re a Mac user, the process is going to be a little more sticky (we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it). Make sure that your phone is charged up, and has USB Debugging turned on. If you’re not sure whether USB Debugging is enabled, odds are it probably isn’t. It’s the top option in the Developer Options menu.

Windows users should not plug the phone into the computer until the WugFresh software says to do so. If you’re on a Mac, you will need to download the Android SDK and get your Terminal pointed at the device to enter ADB commands by hand.

Configure WugFresh Toolkit on Windows

The Galaxy Nexus Toolkit is a handy bit of software that will handle all the ADB commands for you, and makes setting up ADB easy. In the upper left hand corner, pick the version of Galaxy Nexus that you have before continuing. To backup your device, all you need to worry about are the “Initial Setup” and “Backup and Restore” boxes.

Click System Variables first, and follow the instructions in the Command Prompt that appears. If you have ever used the Android SDK, more than likely your computer already has the right ADB path configured. If not, the Toolkit will add them for you.

The Drivers button is next, and it will install the Samsung USB drivers. You will be asked to clear off any old drivers, just to make sure there are no conflicts. If you’ve ever plugged your phone into the PC, there are probably drivers of some sort present. You can opt to have WugFresh open a list of installed device drivers so you can remove them. The program even tells you which Vendor IDs to remove.

At this point, it’s time to plug in the phone and check that everything works. The Toolkit will make sure your device is visible to ADB, then it will reboot into the bootloader and make sure that it is visible there as well. We found that it took a moment longer than expected for the phone to be recognized. As a result, the software had to be told to check again to verify the connection.

Backup Your Data

Windows users just have to click on the “Backup Apps + Data” button in the toolkit window to proceed. The software will ask if you want to include the system apps (like Gmail and Market) in your backup, but recommends against it.

Make sure the phone is still plugged in and awake, and make your choice. The phone will enter backup mode, and will ask for a password to protect the backup file. Enter one, and hit “Backup my data.”

We have around 100 apps installed, and the backup took under 10 minutes. As it progresses, the backup screen will tell you which application package it is on. The result is a 700MB backup file with a .ab extension in a predetermined folder on the PC's hard drive. The “Restore Apps + Data button in the Toolkit lets you push apps and data back to your device if you ever have to reset or replace it.

If you’re on a Mac, or just don’t want to do things the easy way, you can enter the ADB commands yourself. Users familiar with ADB can get much more control this way, too. The basic command for this is “adb backup.” You can add modifiers like the name of a single application package, -noapk to save data only, -nosystem to exclude system apps, and -all to get all apps on the phone. If you need to restore, use the “adb restore” command.

Now that this is part of Android, we have to imagine that Google will offer an official tool at some point to make this process easier. In the meantime, Android 4.0 users can get backups of game progress and other more important app data with this ADB method. If you are on Windows, the Galaxy Nexus Root Toolkit also makes it easy to gain root access in addition to backing up, and you’ve already got it configured.