The very first Android smartphone, the T-Mobile G1, rocked a 256MB hard drive. That was way back in the olden days of 2008. These days, Android smartphones commonly come with 64GB SSDs, with options for 128GB or even 256GB.
The result? Lots of pictures of plated food, videos of singing toddlers, phone numbers from mysterious strangers and hilarious (and sometimes litigable) text-message conversations. With all that data, you’ve got a lot to lose. Solid-state drives can take a beating, but that won’t help you when you leave your smartphone in the back of a taxi cab.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the basics of how to backup Android so you don’t lose your precious data along with your beloved gadget. We’ll begin with a look at Google’s native backup features, which are easy to use and free.
For those who don’t trust Google not to turn your mobile data into a targeted-marketing campaign, or who don’t want NSA agents combing through your data to see who you’re hanging with, we’ll also show you how to backup your data with IDrive, a more secure Android backup option.
How to Backup Android with Google
If you let Google do the work, backing up Android doesn’t actually take much effort or even attention. The OS automatically backs up certain system settings using built-in software called Android Backup Service.
Additionally, other information like contacts, calendar data and app data can be synced to Google. Android users also get a free 15GB of cloud storage with Google Drive, which can be used to automatically protect photos and videos. Check out our Google Drive review for details on paid subscriptions.
The first time you use an Android phone, you’ll be asked to setup or sign into an existing Google account. Technically, you can opt out here, choosing not to sign-up for Google. However, that will prevent you from adding apps from Google Play and doing some other things.
If you set up a Google account, going forward, your phone can use a combination of backup and sync operations to protect your data from loss. Let’s take a closer look a look at how to manage those operations from your smartphone.
Backing Up System Settings
If you elect to skip backing up your data initially, or want to turn it off later, just go to settings. Scroll down to find the option for “backup & reset,” below the “personal” header.
Next, tap where it says “back up my data.”
Another screen will open, where you’ll need to tag the toggle at the top to turn backup on or off. Going forward, certain system settings will be periodically backed up, including WiFi passwords, display settings, time settings and call history. App data, if the app developer has enabled backup using Android Backup Service, will also be backed up.
Syncing Google Apps
To manage your sync settings for your Google account, go to settings and tap “accounts.” The next screen will show a list of cloud-based services you have connected to your smartphone, including Google.
Tap Google, and you’ll be able to toggle sync on or off for various Google services, plus app data if the app developer chose to sync data with Google’s web services. Specific Google services that get synced include Google Calendar, Chrome, contacts, Gmail, Docs and Google Drive.
Beneath each option you can also see the last time it was synced. Data only syncs about once per day, with no option to decrease the interval. You can force a sync, though, by tapping the three-dots menu in the top right corner, and selecting “sync now.”
You won’t find Google Photos on the list of Google services just mentioned. Instead, you to enable automatic backup to the cloud in the Google Photos app by opening its settings menu and tapping “back up & sync.”
On the next screen, tap the toggle at the top to enable automatic sync of any photos you take with your smartphone camera.
You can also tap “back up device folder” to enable backup of image downloads and screenshots.
On a side note, if you don’t want to use Google Photos to store your selfies, there are plenty of other cloud storage choices that have mobile apps for automatic photo upload. Our rankings for the best cloud storage for photos should get you started.
The Downside of Using Android Backup Service
Think it all seems a little too easy? You’re right to be suspicious: simplicity and security don’t always go hand in hand. The issue in the case of Android’s native backup capabilities is that you’re forced to trust Google with your privacy.
Yes, Google encrypts data in transit, meaning you shouldn’t have to worry about eavesdroppers snagging readable copies of your data. However, we would still recommend protecting yourself while on public WiFi networks by using a VPN. Our best VPN for Android article that will point you in the right direction on that front.
Yes, Google also encrypts data stored at rest in its data centers, which will protect files in case of data breaches. However, by allowing Google to backup your contacts, call logs, photos and other personal data, you’re also giving the company access to that data.
That’s because Google manages your file encryption keys. Doing so allows the company to reset your password, but it also allows it to use your data from marketing purposes and feed readable files to law enforcement and government surveillance programs, like the NSA’s PRISM project.
A Secure Android Backup Approach
The alternative to managed encryption is zero-knowledge encryption, which is a common nickname for private end-to-end encryption. The idea behind making encryption zero knowledge is that only you, and not the cloud service, have access to your encryption key. That means that the cloud service can’t decrypt your files for marketing purposes or anything other reason.
The problem with zero-knowledge encryption is that if you forget your password you’ll also lose access to your content, which is why it makes sense to use a cloud password manager like LastPass. However, zero-knowledge encryption is also considerably more secure and one of the key recommendations made in our online privacy guide.
Native Android backup may not offer a zero-knowledge option, but most of our picks for best online backup do. Unfortunately, most of those don’t offer Android backup, probably because native backup tends to be more popular due to being both easy and free.
However, there are secure mobile backup options out there that due offer Android Backup and won’t burn through your bank account. Two very good options include Acronis True Image (read our Acronis True Image review and Zoolz (read our Zoolz review), who make a popular Android backup app called G Cloud.
However, for our money, IDrive takes the cake when it comes to Android backup. It’s mobile app has been downloaded over one million times through Google Play, and you use it for free it out with a free 5GB account.
One of the benefits of IDrive is that it can be used to backup unlimited devices, including Android and iOS, plus Windows, Mac and Linux. While 5GB won’t be enough to do all of that, a 2TB of subscription is only around $50 a year, as you can read about in our full IDrive review.
Once you’ve got your account setup and the app installed, here’s how to go about backing up your Android device.
How to Backup Android with IDrive
The IDrive mobile experience exceeds using Android Backup Service in pretty much every way, despite taking a little more work initially to get things running. Probably the biggest advantage is that everything can be managed from one app, rather than having to jump around and remember where different settings options are.
After you sign into the IDrive app, you’ll be greeted by a home screen that has a big “cloud backup” box near the top. There’s also a critical settings menu in the top-right corner, plus some other options further down the screen like “access and restore” and “timeline.”
To select data for backup, tap where it says “cloud backup.” A new screen will open where you you see a list of possible backup categories: contacts, photos, videos, calendar, SMS, call logs, music and “other files.”
For all categories, backup is single touch. Just tap the category name to toggle protection. With the categories of photos, music and other files, you can further customize exactly what is getting backed up if you want, or you can just backup everything.
Once you toggle a category for backup, data gets copied to the cloud instantly. After that, like Google Drive, data only gets backed up once per day. Continuous backup isn’t an option, which is one of the few downsides to the service.
You can, at least, set the backup schedule you want. Do so by by tapping the menu icon in the top left corner of the home screen, then selecting “settings.” The next screen will have a header called “backup settings,” below which is an option for “schedule backup.”
Tap that, and you can set a separate schedule for each backup category (e.g., contacts, photos, SMS). You’ll be asked to pick a day or days to run backup on, plus a time of day.
There are some other settings options worth mentioning. One of the most important is toggling cellular data on and off for backups. By keeping it off, which it is by default, your backups will only take place over WiFi so that you don’t burn through your mobile data plan.
Other options include an audit view for backup activity, the ability to alter the photo quality of uploads and an option to include video in automatic camera uploads. There’s also a battery saver and a passcode lock option.
Back on the home screen, you’ll also find an “access and restore” option. This is handy, because not only can you use it to access smartphone files, but you can use it to access files you’ve backed up from your desktop.
In addition to the backup categories mentioned earlier, the IDrive Android app also lets you backup two popular social media platforms in Facebook and Instagram. Doing so saves both images and videos, including Facebook content you’ve been tagged in.
While we think ease of use makes Android a better choice for mobile backup than going native with Google, the security advantages we mentioned earlier are more important.
Data backed up to the IDrive cloud is protected using AES 256-bit encryption, and, as mentioned, you can opt for a private encryption key known only to you. IDrive also retains ten previous versions for each file you backup, so you can revert back to previous states if you accidentally alter a file or it gets corrupted, such as through a virus attack.
The mobile backup app market has actually taken a step back in reason years, with fewer services available due to the fact that Google has gotten better at this task. For system settings and the like, there’s very little you need to do to get it working. Email, photos and other file types take a bit more tinkering, but not much.
The big problem with letting Google hold onto your files is that the company has the stink of distrust looming over it, both from marketing tactics it employs using consumer data to going along with government surveillance programs.
While IDrive is a U.S.-based company and cloud be theoretically be ordered to participate in such programs, too, the use of zero-knowledge encryption means that any files handed over couldn’t be read by the NSA because AES-256, so far as anybody knows, has yet to be cracked. Plus, 2TB of backup for $50 a year is a really good deal.
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Of course, the big thing is just making sure your Android gets backed up, and hopefully this article gave you a few ideas for doing so. For more specific advice, we also have an article on how to backup text messages. For those who want a different option over Google Drive to send photos and videos to, our best cloud storage for Android guide has some options.
Let us know your own approach to Android backup in the comments below, and check out our guide on how to encrypt Android devices, too. Thanks for reading.