Backup, Part I

Most everyone knows the heartache of losing data in some form or another. Physical or digital, a hard drive crash or a housefire, there are things that no one wants to lose. Memories. Journals. Photos. Even a high score in a game. Backups are important.

Android has some built-in backup and restore functionality. Users can choose to disable this, but in most cases, it’s enabled by default–Google backs up some settings (such as stored wi-fi passwords), apps and app data to its own servers. Upon signing into your account on a new phone or a cleanly wiped phone, these are restored, with the intent of creating a relatively seamless experience. It works well enough, and

Android is largely centered around Google’s own offerings, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Drive/Docs. The cloud is where Google excels. To a large extent, if you are Google-centric, there may be relatively little you’d need to back up, since most of your information is already stored in the cloud. Sign into your Google account, and your contacts, calendar, and gmail are synced (these and other things can be individually enabled and disabled for multiple accounts).

That being said, a phone is also a phone, and there are other things that one might want to back up, such as SMS/MMS messages or call logs. Moreover, you may want to have local backups in case you end up stranded somewhere without data coverage or wi-fi access. Sometimes, the backup/restore that’s baked in may prove insufficient. That’s where backup utilities come in.

Titanium Backup

Titanium Backup is the most well-known backup utility for Android. It’s versatile, solid, and will back up apps, app data, settings, and system data. It’s very powerful, and not only provides extensive backup/restore capabilities (multiple histories, multiple data profiles, batch, uninstallation, and scheduling), it also provides many other capabilities, such as syncing to popular online storage services (currently Dropbox, Box, and Google Drive), disabling/freezing apps, and movement of apps. The free version is very powerful, but for optimum performance and features, Titanium Backup Pro is a steal at less than $7. This was my first ever purchase from Google’s Play Store, and it’s been worth every penny many times over.
Titanium Backup [link] Pro [link]

SMS Backup+

For extensive users of Google’s services, SMS Backup+ is a very useful tool. It allows for backup of SMS messages, MMS messages, and call logs to your Google account, either manually or automatically. It also allows for restoration of SMS messages and call logs from the backup to your phone, should you lose them. It requires enabling of IMAP access to your gmail account, and you can customize the labels that are applied to the backups. Selective backup/restore is also available. While I use both this and the next item, this is my favored method of backing up the phone aspects of my phone. Since it syncs with your gmail, you benefit from Google’s excellent search, and furthermore, it continues to break down the divides between types of communication. Mail, chats, texts, and calls are all in one place, labeled and searchable. If you use Google Voice as well, even if only for voicemail (as I do), your voicemails can be there as well. There are a number of similar apps out there, this just happens to be the one I use.
SMS Backup+ [link]

SMS Backup & Restore

If you prefer local copies of SMS messages, SMS Backup & Restore provides solid options. It provides backup, restoration, viewing, and searching of SMS messages–automatic or manual, to the local storage or microSD card. The backups are stored in xml format, and may be split up or use a single archival file. Like SMS Backup+, you can perform selective backup/restore. It does not provide MMS or call log backup/restoration, but for most people, its capabilities are more than sufficient.
SMS Backup & Restore [link]

ROM Manager

Chances are, if you’re rooted, you’re familiar with ROM Manager. It is not, lestrictly speaking, a backup utility in and of itself. It was, however, created by Koush (Koushik Dutta), the author of Clockwork Mod Recovery, the most widely used custom recovery image for rooted/unlocked phones. More importantly, it interfaces with CWM to provide simple flashing of ROMs and backup/restoration management for nandroid images. That is–more or less a complete image of the the phone at a given time. Now, there are anecdotal reports of occasional issues with backups/restorations/flashes when ROM Manager is used instead of using the recovery interface. Personally, these days, I don’t use it for anything other than flashing a recovery image. However, it’s a good multipurpose app with backup, restoration, and flashing uses. I flashed my first (and many subsequent) ROM with it. It’s worth installing, especially for those new to flashing. There is a premium version available that has a few more features, and provides access to more ROMs than the standard version.
ROM Manager [link] Premium [link]

Notes

I’ll be covering cloud based and local storage later, including things such as photo or file sync. I do, however, use ADB, ES File Explorer, an Android Terminal Emulator, and/or MTP/CTP/UMS to tinker with files, especially in the /system partition.

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Launchers

I figure that launchers are as good a place as any to start. Launchers–or home apps–are the everyday face of Android. It’s important to have a good one, since it’s the primary way you’ll interact with your phone. Manufacturer skins, such as Sense, TouchWiz, and Blur all have custom launchers, with varying features and degrees of user friendliness. Note that the status bar, notification drawer, and associated interface elements are not part of the launcher, but part of the framework/ROM. Launchers can be interchanged, but those elements will remain as part of your ROM.

Now, many people get used to the launcher that comes with the skin that manufacturers put on the phone. If you like it, great–if it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it. There are, however, other options out there, and trying them is (generally) free. Moreover, if you root/unlock and start installing other ROMs on your phone, you may opt to go with an AOSP ROM, instead of a Sense/TouchWiz/Blur ROM. If you do, you may end up with something like Trebuchet, the CM9/10 launcher, which is based on Google’s AOSP launcher, with some additional features. This is all well and good, but the options on the AOSP/Trebuchet launchers are a bit lacking, in my book. One nice thing about Android is that it’s modular, so you can change out many of the components. Launcher, keyboard, browser, mapping, SMS/MMS, the list goes on and on. This also means that if you start using a 3rd party launcher, you can often change ROMs and still use the same launcher, and get the same experience. Most of them even allow you to back up and restore your settings, so you don’t have to go through the hassle of individually changing each of the settings to get things just so. On to the

It used to be that there were many launchers worth mentioning. ADW.Launcher (and ADW.Launcher EX, its paid counterpart), Launcher Pro, GO Launcher EX, etc. All of these are very decent, but based on older versions of Android. If you’re running Gingerbread (2.3) or earlier, then they’re still worth mentioning. They’re all viable options (I favored ADW EX, personally). Now, however, it seems to me that there are currently only two worth mentioning for most phones: Nova Launcher and Apex Launcher. They’re very similar–Both of them only support ICS (4.0) and newer versions of Android, and both have paid versions (Nova Launcher Prime and Apex Launcher Pro), costing about $4, to add premium features. They’re very customizable and offer many features, even in the free versions. A few of the features, such as adding widgets from the app drawer, requires that the phone be rooted, but by and large, it’s not necessary. Some of the key features are listed below.

Free:

  • Homescreen: number, grid size, interface elements
  • App drawer: grid size, groups, drawer style, hidden apps
  • Dock customization: size, number, appearance
  • Gestures, such as swiping up/down or pinching in/out
  • Icons, folders, transition effects, infinite scroll
  • Backup/restore of configurations and desktop setup
  • Theme support

Paid:

  • 1×1 widgets in the dock
  • Unread count notifications
  • Overlapping widgets
  • Additional gestures, transitions, and drawer configurations
  • Batch operations

Nova Launcher is slightly more fully featured, such as customization of animation speeds (which, when increased, makes the phone feel faster–at least to me) and a few more customizable gestures. Apex Launcher, however, has slightly nicer interface. It’s a little cleaner, and the homescreen management system is more reminiscent of HTC’s Sense interface. It supports fling-to-delete and locking the desktop to prevent accidental changes. I haven’t experienced any noticeable difference in performance, but this may vary depending on the phone, ROM, kernel, settings, and other factors. Either way, you’re getting an excellent launcher based on Google’s AOSP, with excellent performance and wonderful features and customization. I’ve purchased and used both enthusiastically. Currently, due to the aforementioned perceived speed increase, I use Nova, but it’s a close call, and I have both of them installed and up-to-date. Redundant? Mostly. Occasionally, however, having more than one launcher installed can be useful, and there’s no harm–they coexist peacefully. Recently, a broken update to Apex Launcher caused it continuously force-close. I should note that this was solved within hours, and things like that are bound to happen occasionally, so it should not be viewed as a reflection of the quality of Apex,  but it nevertheless demonstrates that there are occasions where multiple home apps could prove be useful.
Nova Launcher [link] Prime [link]
Apex Launcher [link] Pro [link]