The New Complete Guide to Backing Up Your Android Phone

By Ryan Whitwam

With a few apps, and your data can live safely in the cloud.

Google has had more than a enough time to develop some sort of unified backup solution for Android. They haven't, and we don’t expect them to ever do it. Google, and by extension Android, are about the Cloud. A lot of the data on your device ends up in Google’s servers, ready to be pushed back down to your device should you ever need it. But for the data that isn’t handled by Google, you’re on your own.

A year ago we went over how to backup your Android phone, and it’s about time we revisited the issue. Technology marches on, things change, apps fall behind, and new services appear. Read on to find out what you can backup and how to do it.

Full Backups for Root Users

If your device is rooted, a full image backup is a must have. When flashing ROMs and swapping out recovery images, you don’t want to be left with a brick should something go wrong. For users that are just rooting for the first time with the intention of installing a custom ROM, make sure to get a nand backup (Nandroid) taken care of first. This is handled through the recovery system on most phones (you probably flashed a custom recovery shortly after rooting). Booting into recovery will vary by device.

The other angle for rooted users is backing up apps. This can be done more easily and comprehensively than on non-rooted phones. We suggest picking up Titanium Backup from the Market. A pro license will run you about $6. With this app, you can get serious control over your apps to backup not just the apps themselves, but all the data associated with them.

So root users have to jump through a few hoops, but have a much more powerful set of backup tools. Non-root users can still feel secure with a few backup methods. For rooted users without a custom recovery, some non-root methods below could be of use.

SMS, Call Logs, Apps, and more

The primary tool we’re going to suggest for non-rooted users at this time is MyBackup Pro. Last year we were big proponents of Sprint Backup, but it’s more or less fallen into disrepair. MyBackup allows for a ton of data to be stored on the RerWare servers for safekeeping. Or if you're the paranoid type, you can store the backups on your SD card. The full version is $4.99, but a 30-day free trial is available.

One of the reasons we’re smitten with MyBackup is that is has systematically expanded the items it can store for you. SMS and call logs are the ones most people know about, but MyBackup also offers support for storing the custom dictionary, home screen settings, apps, alarms, and MMS.

MyBackup allows you to set a schedule for backups to happen in the background with your chosen settings. The app outputs a single file that can be easily restored. Should you just want to just get your texts, dictionary, home screens, and calls backed up, the file will be small. MyBackup Pro comes with just 100MB of space online, so if you want cloud backups of apps, it’s going to cost you a few bucks. You might consider manually uploading the backup file to a cloud service like Dropbox.

MyBackup lets you pick the apps you want backed up, but they are also turned into a single restore file. The time to use this is when you are already using MyBackup Pro for your other data and don’t want to deal with another solution. The other way to get your apps backed up is the store the APK files directly. We still use Astro File Manager for this since it also happens to be a killer file browser.

Apps will sync down from the Google servers when you log into a phone for the first time, but this process is not universally reliable. It also does no good if an app is no longer available or you don’t like the updated version. The web Market also has a list of all the apps you have installed, so it’s easy to get them back on the phone in a pinch. If this system seems fine to you, we recommend skipping the manual backup of apps in favor of the Google method.

Images and video

Backing up your images is going to be a bit of a pain in general. It’s a lot of data and most services won’t want you to keep a ton of 8 megapixel snapshots and HD videos on their servers. Even if you do get the content up there, the interface for actually restoring so much data is no good. Our favorite way to backup images and video is to make use of Dropbox.

Dropbox is the totally awesome could storage and syncing service that you’ve probably heard about through people trying to get you to use their referral links (let's not do that here, cool?). You can sign up for a 2GB free Dropbox account, which is more online storage than a lot of apps offer. If you need more, you can always pay, or get people to use your referrals. Dropbox also runs the occasional scavenger hunt or contest to get you more storage.

There are two apps that we really live for backing up your DCIM directory to Dropbox. The first one is an app we told you about just recently called DropSnap. This app automatically uploads your snapshots to Dropbox on the spot. It costs $4 for the full version, but we’ve found it to be very reliable.

The other method we have tested is Titanium Media Sync. From the same folks that brought you Titanium Backup, this non-root app pushes new files to your Dropbox at predetermined times. You pick the variables like power, Wi-Fi access, 3G/4G, and so on. When the conditions are met, Titanium Media Sync will fire up and upload new photos and videos to Dropbox. Titanium Backup also has the option of pushing files to an FTP server of your choice.

Music

This is less of a backup scheme, and more of an alternative storage system. If you haven’t already, sign up for Google Music and await your invite. Upload all your music to the Google service, and it will be available on your Android phone. The tracks live in the cloud, but can be played back on the phone or tablet.

From there, you can download music to the phone by “Pinning” it in the music app. You can access this functionality by long-pressing or hitting the down arrow next to each artist and album. By going this route, you get the best of both worlds. Easy local playback if you need it with a full backup of your content accessible in the cloud.

Calendar, settings, bookmarks, app data, and contacts

These are all items that you don’t need to worry about backing up. Google has taken it upon itself to keep this data in the cloud for you. Google Calendar has always lived in the cloud and is part of the Google account login and sync. Contacts works the same way. If you have your contacts on the phone, Google has them in the cloud. When you log into any Android phone, the contacts will be pushed down.

Bookmarks, settings, and app data are all part of the Google data backup API. Much like the app restore mentioned above, these bits of data will be stored online by Google and then dropped on any phone you log into as the primary account. It’s great to not have to recreate Wi-Fi passwords or bookmarks, but some data is controlled by developers.

The app data backup API was added in Froyo, but not all developers have supported it. For apps that do use it, when Google pushes the app to a phone, the data will come with it. We’re talking about things like saved games, internal settings, and account details. Our favorite Android automaton tool, Locale uses the data backup API, and we’re grateful it does. Just make sure you have the backup check boxes filled under the privacy settings.

That’s everything you need to know about backing up your Android phone, circa 2011. It might seem a little daunting at first, but just two or three apps for non-rooted users and you’re data will be safe and sound. We would like to see Google expand the cloud backup abilities of Android, and maybe make the process a little more transparent, but third-party solutions like MyBackup Pro and Dropbox connected apps stand in well enough. Let us know how you keep your Android device backed up. Are there any apps you can’t live without?