How-To Geek

Lesson 5: Managing Your Device’s Storage and Backups

Android 5

Your phone’s storage is limited, and it’s amazing how quickly it can fill up with photos, music, and other files. When you start running out of space, you have to do something: without a decent amount of free space, you can’t install new apps, take new pictures, or…do anything else with your smartphone, really.

So in this final and very important chapter, we’ll discuss how to save space on your device, and regain it when it gets too filled up. This can be accomplished by removing applications (covered in Lesson 2), as well as clearing out old files you don’t need anymore and offloading some of it to the cloud.

Regaining Lost Space

Let’s assume that, when you had your choice of phone or tablet, you bought the one with the least amount of storage. You wouldn’t be crazy—device manufacturers tend to make a lot of money by charging considerably more for extra storage than it’s actually 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 and you want to buy a new one.

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

Delete Old Apps, Photos, and More from Android’s Storage Settings

Android provides a pretty good diagnostic tool for seeing the available space on your phone, as well as what is taking up the most space. Open the “Storage” settings (Settings > Storage) and you can quickly get a grasp for what’s going on under the hood. Depending on how much space you have and how much is being used, this screen can take several minutes to load completely.

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At the top, you’ll see the total amount of storage space used on your device, along with easy to parse bar graphs for a variety of categories. If you click on any one of these, you have the option to further explore what’s taking up the most space in each.

For example, in our screenshot above, apps are clearly taking up the most space. Tapping “Apps” on this screen will open the App Storage screen, with the sort option defaulted to “Sort by size.” That way, the apps that take up the most space are shown up top, in descending order of space used.

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Tap an app to access the “Clear Data” and “Clear Cache” options, which we covered in Lesson 2. If you want to completely uninstall the app, just tap on its name in the header to jump into its info page and uninstall it from there.

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While apps can take up a significant amount of space, images, videos, and music files are arguably the real space hogs. To really get an idea of how much space we’re talking about, refer back to the Storage screenshot above—nearly three gigabytes are being used up by images alone! To start deleting images, videos, or music files, go ahead and tap on the appropriate titles in the Storage menu. A new screen will show up with all of the folders that contain the selected file type. From there, you can go through and manually select the files you want to delete by long-pressing on them, then choosing the trash icon. Unfortunately, it won’t let you delete the entire folder.

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If photos and videos are what you’re looking to get rid of, however, there’s an easier way using Google Photos—we’ll highlight how to do that down below.

Be Careful Deleting Data and Cache

We talked about this in Lesson 2, but it bears repeating: those “Clear Data” and “Clear Cache” buttons may free up space temporarily, but they are not permanent solutions, and they can actually delete stuff you may want to keep.

Clearing an app’s cache will remove files it’s stored temporarily for quick access later. This could be site data that Chrome keeps for future visits, Facebook profile photos for all your friends for faster loading, or locally stored music in Spotify so you don’t need to re-stream a song over and over again. But if you clear the cache, those files will just come back eventually later, so they are not a real solution to a phone bursting at the seams with data.

Deleting application data, on the other hand, means that the app in question will revert to its default state. You will have to log in again, 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. And when you log in and set the app up again, that data will all come back, taking up space on your phone.

You’re best off leaving 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.

How to Back Up Your Phone’s Data

Lastly, while you may primarily be concerned with freeing up storage, you should also worry about keeping the stuff you want to keep. 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. So you want to be extra diligent about backing up your data.

Android’s Built-In Backup

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.

Over time, this section has gotten much simpler than it used to be. It’s now defined by two sections: “Device backup” and “Photos backup,” each of which runs independently of the other. When it comes to “Device backups,” you have very little control of what is happening—this if very much an automated, set-and-forget sort of thing. Photo backups, on the other hand, are much more granular, and you can mange those settings in the Google Photos app.

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For more information on what is automatically backed up, check out our article on what Android data is backed up automatically.

Automatic Photo Backup

Plenty of cloud services, like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive, tend to offer photo (and video) syncing. Whenever you take a photo, it’ll automatically get sent to your online storage. This not only ensures your photos and videos are backed up (in case you lose your phone), it also means you can remove them from your phone’s storage when you need to free up space. Double whammy!

We recommend Google Photos for this. It’s free, it likely came with your phone, and those photos don’t take up any space on your Google Drive as long as you upload in “high” quality rather than the “original” quality. For most stuff, that’s probably going to be fine.

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

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Then choose “Back up & sync.” If it isn’t already toggled on, go ahead and do that now.

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Note that there’s an option that lets you choose the size (Full or Standard). If you choose “Original” size, then you’re limited to your available Google Drive space. If you choose “High Quality” (2048 px), then you get unlimited free storage. The one exception here is the Google Pixel phone, which gets unlimited free storage at original resolution.

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

The nicest feature of Photos, however, is its ability to quickly remove files that have been backed up. Once you’ve got everything set up and all of your files are being stored in your Google Drive, jump into the Photos app and open the menu on the left side. Close to the bottom of this menu there’s an option that reads “Free up space”—this will automatically find all of the images and videos that have been backed up to your Drive and remove them from internal storage. It’s brilliant, easy, and super-fast.

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If you’re a big Dropbox user, you can also enable automatic photo uploads there. In the app’s Settings menu, there’s a section called “Camera uploads.” If it’s not already on, just tap the “Turn on camera uploads” option.

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Once it’s on, you have some options to play with, like when to upload (battery status, charging, etc.), how to upload (Wi-Fi, cellular data), and what to upload (photos, videos).

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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.

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.

We have several guides that you may find valuable. If you simply want to back up your text messages, then that’s pretty simple. You can check our article on using SMS Backup+. 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 your device.

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

Conclusion

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.

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.


Cameron Summerson is a self-made geek, Android enthusiast, horror movie fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys on the 'net, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, chugging away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

  • Published 11/11/16

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