One of the nicest things about the Android platform is freedom. Android lets you use your device the way that you want, compared to alternate platforms like iOS. Instead of a strictly controlled App Market that requires you to load only approved applications, most Android devices allow you to “side-load” an application package (called an .apk file) onto your device that was not downloaded directly from the Android Market.

There are a variety of ways outside of the market that you can get an Android .apk package, including downloading directly from the Internet (generally from a publisher/author’s web site), downloading from an alternative app marketplace, or by backing up from one Android device and restoring to another. Sometimes modders, like the people at XDA-Developers, will take an application like Google Voice that has not been officially released for tablets, modify it slightly to work, and then publish the modified .apk on their forums.

When might you decide to side-load apps? Generally speaking, there may be apps that are not available or that are available but not through the market on your particular device or wireless carrier. In other cases, you may have an Android device like the Archos or Coby Kyros MID7015 tablets that do not come with the Android Market installed. The alternate markets that are installed on these devices frequently do not have as wide of a selection of apps as the Android Market, and you may be disappointed to find many of your favorite apps missing.

If you have an Android device that has the Android Market, you can easily download many apps and use a 3rd-party file manager like “Astro” to back up those files to .apk packages. Then you can easily transfer the applications to your other device and attempt to install them there. In my experience, this works more frequently than it doesn’t.

This how-to guide will attempt to describe how you can back up an application from one Android device, copy it to another, and install it there. For practical purposes, what you learn here will allow you to copy .apk files from other sources (as mentioned above) and install them on your Android device as well.

I’ve made the following assumptions here:

  • That you’ve already downloaded and installed Dropbox on both your source and target Android devices, created a Dropbox account, and understand how to copy files from one device (through your Dropbox folder) to another. This isn’t the only way to move files between Android devices, but it is the method I describe here.
  • That you are familiar with using a file explorer-type interface to navigate a system file structure and manipulate / copy files. If you’ve used OS X, Gnome, KDE, or other Xwindows shell, or even Windows File Explorer to do these sorts of tasks, you should be able to follow the steps I describe here as well. Root or super-user access to your Droid device is not required, but some wireless carriers, device manufacturers, or models of Android devices may disable these features.

Warning: Side-loading apps requires you to enable “Unknown Sources” in your Android device settings, which increases the risk that you might install malicious applications or malware. You should be aware of the potential danger and use your best judgment, because you assume the full risk and sole responsibility should you follow the steps I describe here. If you’re unsure, don’t do it.

With that said, I hope this document helps you explore the maximum potential of your Android devices, giving you the freedom to run the apps you want – not just the apps determined by the CEO at your device manufacturer or wireless telco. Please leave any feedback, comments, or questions in the forum. I’ll try to help or answer any that I can.

Back up an Android application to an .apk file.

How to back up an Android application to an .apk file on your source Android device

To back up applications from one Android device and side-load them to another, begin by opening the Android Market and downloading “Astro File Manager.”

Once you’ve downloaded Astro File Manager, open the application.

In Astro, press the Menu button on your Android device and select Tools.

In the Tools menu, select “Application Manager/Backup.”

Astro will load the list of your installed packages. Check the file(s) you want to back up to side-load to another Android device. Select the “Backup” button. A status bar will display the progress of the backup.

Once the backup is complete, select the “Backed Up Apps” tab to confirm that the files you selected were backed up.

Copy the .apk file from your source Android device to your target Android device.

How to copy the .apk file from your source Android device to your target Android device

The backed up files will be stored on your microSD card. The path to this varies by device. On my Droid, the files are stored in mnt/sdcard/backups/apps.

I send my files from my source to my target Android device using Dropbox. I long-press on the file I want to transfer, then click “Send” in the dialog box that appears. (You may use other methods for transferring files, including removing the MicroSD card from the source and inserting it in the target device, or copying the files via USB to a PC. These instructions assume you are using the Dropbox method from here on out.)

In the next dialog window, I select “Dropbox.”

A window displays that allows me to select the Dropbox directory where I want to place the file. Here I have selected my “Public” folder.

Copy and install the .apk file on the target Android device.

How to copy and install the .apk file on the target Android device

Once the upload is complete, I open Dropbox on my target Droid device. I can see the .apk file in my Public Dropbox folder.

Long-press on the .apk file you uploaded to Dropbox. When the request window appears, click “Download.” The file will download to your device. Exit to your Home screen.

At the Home screen, bring up your menu and select “Settings.”

Select “Applications” in the Settings menu.

Select the “Unknown sources” check box. The following warning will appear: “Your phone and personal data are more vulnerable to attack by applications from unknown sources. You agree that you are solely responsible for any damage to your phone or loss of data that may result from using these applications.” Press “OK” to continue.

Once you select OK, there will be a checkmark in the box. Exit the Settings menu.

Find the file(s) you copied. In my case, I’ll open Astro and navigate to the folder /mnt/sdcard/dropbox/public where the files I’ve downloaded should be. Remember, your path may differ depending on your Android device.

The .apk file(s) I’ve copied will appear in the folder.

Click the file. In Astro, you’ll see two options, “Browse File” or “Open App Manager.” Select “Open App Manager.”

A Summary tab will open. Click the “Install” button.

The app permissions page will display. Review the permissions and click “Install.”

A progress bar will indicate that the installation has begun. Once complete, click “Open” if you want to launch the application immediately or “Done” if you would like to launch the application later.

Congratulations, you’ve backed up an application from one Android device and side-loaded it onto another!