Android's backup and restore system: something other than seamless

Here's the main thing to know about moving between Android phones: it is not seamless.

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Yes, that is packing tape. And it is surprisingly touch-sensitive.

Photo by author

I smashed the screen on my Galaxy Nexus about two weeks back, with an assist from an over-eager dog and the only room in my house with a tile floor. There was the usual mixture of guilt and enthusiasm: "Oh, man, this is going to be costly," followed by, "Finally, a solid reason to upgrade." You might know that half-and-half feeling.

I ordered a used phone on Swappa, a gently used HTC One (or so the headline reads). I've switched actual phones about five times, but as an Android writer, tester, and tinkerer, I've wiped out and reinstalled Android dozens of times more, and maybe close to 50 times. Here's the main thing to know about moving between Android phones: it is not seamless.

In almost every newer Android phone, there are two settings that are enabled by default, and shown to you when you first set up the phone: enabling automatic backup and restore through Google. In theory, a company like Google, that has servers and storage to throw at just about any problem on Earth, should be able to make moving from one Android device to another dead simple. They've got all the apps, data, settings, and other peripheral information from your Android life; whatever phone you use is just a choice of a thin client, so to speak.

With your contacts, it is just turn-on-and-go seamless. Everything else? It does not work that way. At least as I've seen it, over dozens of restores, and I am a person who really digs into settings.

I can say that most settings, wallpaper choice, and Wi-Fi passwords make it over maybe 70 percent of the time. The apps you previously had installed from the Google Play store? Those are more reliably restored, but then, also, you might find apps you installed a year or two ago, long since uninstalled from your phone, are "restored" as well. What about application data—things like your Twitter history, saved games and scores, and your logged-in state on apps that require a username and password? I would not bet on those, at any odds.

In part, that is because the Android Backup Service is something that developers have to decide to activate and hook into, and some apps may not go that route. But there is much more to Android's backup system, and I don't know why it is so entropic, esoteric, or other fancy words for "crazy." But I do know I'm not the only one. Taylor Martin at PhoneDog writes:

… The point I'm trying to make is that you can't specifically pick and choose which apps are synced, which Wi-Fi networks are backed up or what system settings need to be restored upon a restore. If something you really need backed up is missed and does not actually get backed up, you're simply out of luck.

That doesn't even take into consideration the fact that the restore only happens a fraction of the time.

Some Android users asked Google to add some kind of "Do it now" switch to the backup system, rather than rely on gradual faith. No response so far.

Before we get into some other reports on Android backup and restore, allow me to set aside this paragraph to report what most iPhone and iPad owners already know: iOS backup works better. When it messes up, it really messes up, like any backup system. But for the most part, the iPhone and iPad in my house have been restored and upgraded a few times over the years, always without problem. Your mileage may vary, but I bet it's better mileage than my Android phones.

Moving on. I asked about Android backup/restore on Twitter this morning:

There were some positive responses:

And some other responses:

I'm going to look in what makes Android backup and restore tick, and suggest some good third-party solutions (or maybe just one) in my next post. In the meantime, I'll take your war stories and suggestions on Twitter or in the comments here. Keep your phones firmly in your hands, folks.

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