Android file management: An easy-to-follow guide

From managing files on your phone to seamlessly syncing folders with your computer, this guide will turn you into a certified Android file master.

hand reaching out to folders and files
Thinkstock

When you think about your smartphone, apps and interfaces are probably the first things that come to mind. Beneath all that surface-level stuff, though, our modern mobile devices are filled with files — folders upon folders of 'em! — just like the clunky ol' computers we've relied upon for ages.

We may not come face to face with our phones' file systems too often, but it's valuable to know they're there — and to know how they can work for us when the need arises. After all, your Android device is a productivity powerhouse. It can juggle everything from PDFs and PSDs to presentations and podcasts. It can even act as a portable hard drive and house any sort of important files you might need in your pocket (and not just on some far-away cloud). Your mobile device can carry an awful lot of data, and there may come a time when you want to dig in and deal directly with it.

Here's everything you need to know to get under the hood and tap into your phone's file managing powers.

Managing files on your Android phone

You might not realize it at a glance, but Android actually allows you to access a device's entire file system — even from the device itself.

The operating system has had its own native file manager since 2015's Android 6.0 Marshmallow release, and what started out as an experimental-seeming effort has evolved into a capable tool for basic data manipulation. With Android 6.0 through 7.1, the system-level file manager is somewhat hidden: You have to look in the Storage section of your system settings, then scroll all the way to the bottom and tap the line labeled "Explore" to find it.

With Google's Android 8.0 Oreo release, meanwhile, the file manager lives in Android's Downloads app. All you have to do is open that app and select the "Show internal storage" option in its menu to browse through your phone's full internal storage. You can then open, move, rename, copy, delete and share files as needed.

And if you have the Android 9 Pie release on your phone, things get even easier: As of Pie, the file manager exists in its own sensibly named Files app. Open it up and tap the three-line menu icon in the upper-left corner to browse any area of your local storage or a connected Drive account.

Android file managers - native and Solid Explorer JR Raphael / IDG

Android's native file manager (left) is fine for basics, but a fully featured app like Solid Explorer (right) can do much more.

If you want to do more than the most basic on-device file management, a third-party file manager is the way to go. I like Solid Explorer, which costs a meager $2 after a two-week trial. It's nicely designed and intuitive to use, yet jam-packed with advanced features like near-instant device-wide searching, support for creating and extracting common archive formats (such as ZIP, 7ZIP and RAR), and the ability to encrypt files and folders so they're accessible only with a fingerprint or password.

Solid Explorer can connect to almost any cloud storage service as well as to a personal or corporate FTP server for hassle-free transferring of local and remote files. Be sure to turn your phone horizontally, too, as that'll cause the app to expand into a multi-window mode in which you can easily drag and drop files between two different folders or destinations.

Supplementing your phone's local storage

One little-known feature of Android is its ability to connect with external storage devices like USB memory sticks and even larger-capacity portable hard drives. A phone just has to support something known as USB On-The-Go, or USB OTG, in order for the connection to work.

A fair number of devices, including Google's Pixel phones and many Samsung Galaxy products, offer such support. If you aren't sure if your phone does, your best bet is to Google its name along with "USB OTG"; odds are, you'll find the answer fairly quickly.

Provided your device supports USB OTG, all you need is a USB-A to USB-C adapter like this one made by Amazon. (If you have an older device that doesn't have USB-C, you'll need a USB-A to micro-USB adapter instead; you can find plenty such options on Amazon or at pretty much any electronics retailer.) Use the adapter to plug the external drive into your phone, then look for a notification confirming the drive is connected.

Android USB drive Google

A notification will appear when an external drive is connected to your Android device and ready to be accessed.

Tap the "Explore" option within the notification, and that's it: You can now browse and access all the files on your external drive. If you want to do even more, just open up a third-party file manager like the aforementioned Solid Explorer. You'll be able to find the USB drive there and perform most any imaginable function on its contents.

When you're finished, don't forget to go back to the notification and tap "Eject" before disconnecting the drive.

Transferring files between your phone and computer

In addition to supporting external hard drives, your Android phone can act as an external hard drive. Just plug your device into any Windows or Mac computer, and you can access its entire file system and drag and drop files between it and your desktop with ease.

With a Windows system, it's essentially as simple as plug and play. With a Mac, you'll first need to install a special program on your computer before the connection can be established.

For step-by-step instructions on either front, click over to my comprehensive Android file transfer guide.

Transferring files wirelessly between devices

Want to transfer files between your Android phone and a computer (or another Android phone, iPhone, etc.) without the need for wires? No problem.

Your most basic option is to embrace a middleman — specifically, a cloud storage service like Google Drive, Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive. Just upload the files to a folder within the respective app on your Android phone, then find the folder within the same app on the receiving device (or vice versa).

You can get more advanced than that, though — and make your life significantly easier as a result. One handy tool worth considering is a multiplatform app called Join. Install the app on your Android device and then install either the Chrome extension or Windows 10 app on any other device with which you want to share files. (You can also access the service via a standard website on any desktop computer — if, for instance, you use a Mac along with a browser other than Chrome.)

Once you've signed into the apps on both ends, you're ready to initiate hassle-free file transfers in either direction. On Android, just share a file from any app — a file manager, an image gallery or any other sort of file-using utility — and select Join as the destination. The file will appear on your desktop within seconds.

On a computer, meanwhile, sending a file is as simple as opening the Join app or extension, selecting your phone as the receiving device and then dragging the file into the window.

android file management join app JR Raphael / IDG

Drop a file into Join on your desktop (left), and it'll appear on your Android device a second later (right).

Join has a bunch of other functions, including the ability to create a common clipboard for your desktop and mobile device — so you can copy text on one system and then, without any additional effort, paste it anywhere on the other — but even if you just use it for wireless file transfers, it's well worth keeping around. The app comes with a free (ad-supported) one-month trial and then requires a one-time $5 purchase if you want to keep using it.

Syncing your Android phone's storage with a computer

Maybe you like having certain files stored locally on your Android phone, but you also want those files to be backed up and saved on your computer. The best of both worlds, right?

Believe it or not, this is actually quite easy to pull off. Just grab a $3 app called FolderSync Pro. It'll let you create pairings between a local folder on your phone and a cloud-based folder — with support for a huge array of cloud storage services, including Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive and Amazon Cloud Drive.

Install the appropriate computer-side app for whichever service you prefer, make sure it's set to sync with your computer's hard drive — and there ya have it: Your Android device's folder is now effectively part of your PC.

You can even have the folders stay constantly synced in both directions — so if you add or update a file on the computer, the same changes will appear on your phone as well.

That's a wrap!

Congratulations: You've officially earned the title of Android file master. (For real — you can even type it into a document, print it out and tape it to your desk so everyone knows.)

Next up: Make sure you understand the ins and outs of Android backups. They're ultimately made up of files, too, after all — and pretty important ones, at that.

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