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Complete Guide to Backing Up Your Android Phone

By Ryan Whitwam

Android backup is a bit of a mess, but some changes are on the way.

Editor's Note: Because Android is moving at a rapid pace, so we've updated this guide with the latest information on more recent versions of Android. You can find the new version here.

There is a clear difference in how Android and the iPhone handle your personal data. With the iPhone, you connect the phone to a PC with a USB cable, and use iTunes to manage content. It might seem increasingly archaic these days to rely on a PC to use a smartphone, but there is a practical upshot to it. Apple has built in a simple, fast backup solution for the iPhone into iTunes. If you end up getting a new phone for whatever reason, you can just restore the backup to the new handset. On Android, the picture isn't as clear.

Android takes the cloud-based approach. At first, the platform wasn't really showing off its cloud-connected potential. It really felt unfinished in that way. But it is becoming increasingly clear where Google is going with Android, and how that relates to data backup and security. As it stands right now, you just can't do a complete backup of an Android phone without rooting the device and voiding the warranty.

Let's go over what you can backup, what you don't need to backup, and what you can look forward to in Android backup.

Contacts, SMS, and Call Logs

First off, we suggest you don't use a third party app to backup your contacts. This is one piece of the puzzle Google has handled well from the start. The contact database on the phone is completely integrated with Google Contacts. This is a service that any Gmail user is taking advantage of whether or not they know it. When you log into an Android phone it will sync the contacts associated with that account. For many, this might only include email addresses. But adding in your phone numbers (which you can do on either the phone or the PC) will ensure your address book will remain safe and sound in the cloud, ready to be synced to any Android device you want.

You will find innumerable apps on the Market that will offer to backup your contacts, SMS, and call log. We've already talked about contacts, but having a record of calls and texts is important to some. For the most part, these apps just create a file on the SD card that can be restored later. But what if you lose your phone? Having data on the SD card isn't going to help much.

Some apps have online backup to add a little peace of mind. We use Sprite Mobile Backup because it has options for saving data to Dropbox and Box.net. It works well, but the file it outputs is a single block of data that you'll need Sprite to restore. Sprite can also backup some of the stock Google app settings. Similarly, you can backup SMS to your Gmail with an app called SMS Backup. The only problem is this is a one way process. You cannot pull this data back onto a phone.

There is a really interesting way to keep your call log backed up that actually provides additional functionality. CallTrack adds an entry to your Google Calendar for each call you receive, make, or miss. Each of these categories can be turned off, so if you only need to keep track of your missed calls, for instance, you can do so. This, like SMS Backup, isn't traditional backup as there's no way to import the data back into a phone, but we feel it fulfills the spirit of a backup by making the data available even if the phone is lost. Also, it's just an awesome app.

Apps

The situation with apps is a strange one. Most apps save all their data on the internal memory, though some do you a favor and create a folder on the SD card for easy backup. If everything is on the internal memory, you can't save the app's state without rooting. However, if the app is not copy protected, you can backup the package so you can install it later. Our favorite app for doing this is Astro , since it's a great file manager, it's always on our phones anyway. In the tools menu, you can select the Application Manager. There you can pick the apps you want to backup. The protected apps are not selectable here. The apps will show up as APK files on your SD card. These can be loaded on an Android phone without the Market.

About the Market, though--restoring apps with this method cuts you off from updates through the Android Market. If you just install an application via an APK file, the Android Market on the phone has no idea you've got it installed. So that means you won't get updates the usual way. You're better off just installing apps from the Market if possible. The Market will keep a list of all paid apps associated with your account. The APK backup method only makes sense if you need an older version of an app, or if the app is no longer available.

Google has made some strides that make this process less necessary. Starting in Android 2.0, Google began doing cloud-based backups of the apps associated with a particular Google account. Logging into a new 2.0+ phone will cause the previously installed apps to be restored. Well, sometimes they're restored. It's often like a form of black magic to get everything to go smoothly. In our experience, if you log into the phone and do not launch the Android Market, your apps should be restored. In fact, it's best to just set the phone aside for a few minutes. If your apps don't seem to be coming back, you can try hard resetting the phone to try again. To activate this functionality, you have to make sure 'Back up my settings" is checked in the Privacy settings before you switch devices. The restored apps won't have any of their associated data, though. So your progress in games and in-app settings are lost. Do not despair though, Google is working on this.

At the recent Google I/O conference we got some excellent app backup news. Google will be allowing developers to use a new data backup API in Android 2.2 (Froyo). Combined with the existing app syncing introduced in Android 2.0, your apps should be able to sync down to a new phone and exist just as they did before. The only caveat is that developers have to actually take advantage of the data backup feature in their apps. It won't just happen automatically like the syncing of the apps themselves. They didn't discuss it, but we're really hoping they clean up the process of syncing apps so it's easier to see what's going on. For Google's brief explanation of app cloud backup, and the new data backup API, check out this video from I/O (might not load properly in HTML5 player).

System Settings

This is an easy one. If you're on an Android 2.0+ phone, you don't have to worry about most of your system settings. Just logging into a phone and waiting a few minutes will get your settings back to normal. This is controlled by the same privacy checkbox as the app restore functionality. The data you can expect to magically reappear includes Wi-Fi networks, privacy settings, accessibility options, wallpaper and search settings. This will not save any third-party account sync settings like Facebook, Exchange, or Twitter (in Froyo). For us, the only big category missing is the custom dictionary. We've never seen that sync properly. Might be worth using a third-party app for this is you've added a lot of words.

Unfortunately, this too sometimes just fails to work. We've had instances where everything is back, and others where only bits and pieces seem to be restored. Since the phone has no data on it at this point, a quick hard reset lets you try the sync again. This is what we've seen so far with Android phones. It is possible the final version of Froyo could have more robust syncing abilities. If you don't want to trust this admittedly sketchy process, Sprite Backup can backup your system settings as well.

The backup situation on Android is far from perfect. We can see where Google is going now, we just wish they'd get there faster. The idea of having everything important to our phone in the cloud is comforting in a way an iTunes backup can never be. If you choose to root your Android phone there are apps like Nandroid and Titanium Backup that can make full backup images of your phone. But this just isn't the answer for most consumers. Google is making progress, and we're encouraged. For the time being though, it's a bit of a hodgepodge to keep your Android phone backed up. Do you backup anything on your Android phone? Let us know how you do it.

Image credit: Anandtech