How-To Geek

Lesson 5: Managing Your Device’s Storage and Backups

Android 5

Data management on Android is easy but you can still find yourself low on empty space very quickly. After all, your device has finite space. So, if you find yourself running out of space, you need to take action.

There’s also data management in the form of backups. For example, do you know what is backed up and what isn’t by your system? And, more importantly, what can you do to make sure that moving to a new phone or replacing a lost one is as painless as possible.

So in this final and very important chapter, we discuss how to save or regain diminishing storage space. This can be accomplished by removing applications (covered in Lesson 2), as well as clearing out cache, media files, and other storage pigs, but also most often through the “Storage” settings.

Then we’ll turn to backing stuff up through the use of cloud services, or using backup programs to save stuff like your phone logs, texts, and all that other stuff that accumulates on your phone that you take for granted, until you lose it.

Ultimately we hope you can avoid a data catastrophe, or at least mitigate it. We can’t promise you’ll necessarily get your phone or tablet back, but having your data stored or backed up somewhere else will sure make it easier to get your life back.

Regaining lost space

Let’s assume you got the tablet or phone model with the smaller storage configuration. You’d be frugal if you did because device manufacturers tend to make money by charging considerably more for extra storage than the actual storage is worth. Not only that, but it’s so easy to quickly fill up your device with apps, videos, photos, and games. Next thing you know, your phone is groaning for space.

It’s important to audit your storage every now and then though the longer you wait, the longer it takes to regain space. Still, we know there’s only a small fraction of you are actually going to go through and delete all those blurry pictures of your cat, or finally uninstall Angry Birds or Candy Crush, unless you actually have to.

Storage settings

Android provides a pretty good diagnostic tool for seeing available space as well as what is taking up space. Open the “Storage” settings and you can quickly get a grasp for what’s involved.


You can see the “Storage” settings gives you a nice, colored bar graph, your total storage space (minus what the system uses), and then what each color on the bar represents. If you click on any one of these, you have the option to take appropriate action.

For example, if you tap “Pictures, videos,” it will open your gallery, and you can delete the ones you don’t want. Just long press a photo or video and then you can select as many items as you want, and then tap the trash can icon to delete.


Or, you can tap “Cache” and it will quickly delete all your app’s cache data.


To learn more about the implications of this, you should read the next section.

Data and cache (be careful)

As you manage your data, you’ll have the option of clearing app data and cache data from your device. Clearing cache, simply means, for example, that you clear all the stored site data that Chrome keeps for future visits, or Facebook stores all the pictures of your friends and their status updates so it doesn’t have to download them again next time you use it.

Application data, on the other hand, means that your applications will revert to their default state. Imagine you have just downloaded and installed an app from the Play Store. When you first open it, it will likely ask you to login and personalize it. If you clear the app data, you will have to login again on the app when you next launch it, and any personalizations will revert to their default state.

There can definitely be unintended consequences to this. For example, if you have a widget you use on your home screen, such as for the weather, and you clear the data, you will likely lose any customizations. You’re best to leave data untouched or clear it on an app by app basis, and while you can safely clear out any cache data, bear in mind that if you’re on a limited data plan, repeatedly downloading data over and over will eat into your monthly allowance.


We all need to make backups, or so the thinking goes. Truth is, we don’t back up stuff nearly often enough, and that’s a problem for reasons we’ve already made abundantly clear. Unlike a traditional desktop computer or even a laptop, phones are easy to lose, they get stolen, or they can become damaged like if you accidentally jump into the pool with it or leave it on top of your car. You actually want to be even more diligent about backing up your valuable data.

Backup & Reset settings

The “Backup & reset” settings are Android’s modest attempt to build in some backup capability. When you first sign onto your Android device, you will be asked to provide a Google account that you want to use for backups. Thereafter, stuff like your Wi-Fi passwords, app data, and other settings will be backed up to that account.


Note, only certain data is backed up so you don’t want to rely on this as your end-all be-all backup solution. For more information on what is automatically retained, check out our article on what Android data is backed up automatically.

Integrating cloud solutions

Cloud services tend to offer photo (and video) syncing so when you install a cloud service such as Dropbox, or OneDrive, you will be prompted to sync your photos with them. This is definitely something you should exploit as it means you never have to manually back up your photos, and if disaster strikes, you can easily move your photos back to your device from the cloud.

We typically use one of the two aforementioned big cloud services for photo syncing or you can simply use the included Google Photos.

Google Photos

Recent versions of Android include a new app called “Photos,” which can, if you choose, sync your photos with Google’s servers. Your allocated space is however much space you have with your Google Account, so if you have 15 GB, you’ll have that much to store photos with, minus whatever you’re using for Gmail and other Google products.

To set up photo syncing, open “Photos” and select “Settings.”


Then choose “Auto Backup” and if it isn’t already “On”, then select it.


Note these options let you choose the size (Full or Standard). If you choose “Full” size, then you’re limited to your available space. If you choose “Standard” (2048 px), then you get unlimited free storage.


You can also purchase more storage and choose when and what is backed up, such as when the device is roaming or plugged in.



Dropbox is a bit simpler. When you first install Dropbox, it will ask you if you want to automatically sync photos, which will be uploaded to your “Camera Uploads” folder.


You can turn this feature on or off at will by opening the settings and the “Camera Upload” section, as well as specify how and when backups are performed.


That’s all that there really is to it. Once you start snapping pictures and taking video, they will be automatically uploaded per your specifications or until you run out of storage space.


Similar to Dropbox, OneDrive gives you the option to sync your photos.


Same as with everything else, open the “Settings” and under “Options” choose “Camera backup”


Again, at this point you’ve set it and can forget it. Pictures will automatically pushed to OneDrive’s “Pictures” folder according to your preferences until you turn it off, uninstall the app, or run out of space.

Other backup solutions

Unfortunately, as we discussed earlier, Android doesn’t back up everything. To do that you really need to look outside the system and take to the Play Store.

How-To Geek has several articles that you may find valuable. If simply want to back up your text messages, then that’s pretty simple. You can check our article on using SMS Backup+. Note, this app has been obviously updated since we published this how-to in 2012 but the information remains relevant.

If you want to go all out and back up your device completely, and you don’t want or know how to root it, then you can follow along with our article on how to create full android backups without rooting or unlocking your device.

Finally, you can manage your device on your desktop computer using some type of service like SnapPea. We have an in-depth article on using SnapPea that you can explore at your leisure.

In the end, what you use will depend on how much you want to back up and how you want to do it. There’s many other backup solutions you might explore but, as always, we recommend doing your research and making sure the app is legit.


That concludes our How-To Geek School series on getting the most out of your Android devices. We hope we were able to help clear up some of the system’s mainstream features, as well as give you some pointers on how to capitalize on some of it lesser known stuff.

Of course, if you have missed any part of this series, we encourage you to use the navigation section above to go back and read up.

Thank you for being such great students! You all get an A+!

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 04/25/14

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