Android is easy to use out of the box, but it packs lots of hidden features for power users. Many of these are hidden in the Developer Options menu. As the name implies, these features are vital for developers building Android apps, but they don’t have many uses for the average user.
One of the most well-known Android developer features is USB Debugging. You may have seen this name floating around and wondered whether you should enable it. Let’s take a look at what this mode is for and whether you need it.
What Is USB Debugging?
In short, USB Debugging allows an Android device to communicate with a PC running the Android SDK to use advanced operations.
When you develop Android apps, you have to install the Android Software Developer Kit (SDK) on your PC. The SDK includes a suite of tools that’s vital for any developer, such as a debugger for fixing problems and sample code. Libraries are another key component of the SDK.
These allow developers to perform common functions without having to re-code them. For example, Android has a built-in printing function, so when writing an app, you don’t have to come up with a new way to print. You simply call the built-in method included in the library when it’s time to do so.
You can do a lot with Android from the device itself. But developers need more options, especially when collecting detailed error logs. It would be a huge pain to locate and move these files manually from the device, so they use tools built into Android Studio and the Android SDK to make them painless.
Enabling USB Debugging allows your phone to communicate with a PC so you can take advantage of these tools.
What’s USB Debugging Used for?
Without USB Debugging, you can’t send any advanced commands to your phone via a USB cable. The most common reason for enabling USB Debugging is developers pushing apps to their devices to test.
Whenever you create a new build of your app in Android Studio and want to test it, you can push it to your connected device with just a few clicks. After building, it will run and pop up on your device right away. This is way faster than downloading the APK file and installing it manually!
Non-developers commonly enable USB debugging to root their phones. Rooting varies by device, but most methods involve some program that you run from your desktop. Once you enable USB debugging and connect your phone, you can use a root tool to send the root instructions to your device without even touching it. Installing a custom ROM involves a similar process.
You also need USB Debugging turned on to use Android Debug Bridge (ADB) commands. These let you install APKs located on your PC onto your phone, move files back and forth, and view device logs for debugging errors. ADB commands and Fastboot can also save your bricked device even when you can’t turn it on normally.
In the old days of Android, you needed USB debugging for some other functions too. Most notable of these was taking a screenshot over USB, which was just as annoying as it sounds. This was before Android had a standard command for taking a screenshot. Now, you just need to hold your device’s button combination (usually Power and Volume Down) to grab a screenshot — rendering this method obsolete.
How Do I Enable USB Debugging?
On modern Android devices, you’ll find USB Debugging in the Developer Options menu, which is hidden by default. To unlock it, head to Settings and scroll down to About phone. Scroll down here, and you’ll see a Build number entry. Tap it several times and you’ll see a notification letting you know that you’re now a developer.
Jump back to Settings, and scroll back down to the bottom where About phone is. You’ll see a new entry, Developer options. Tap this, and look for USB debugging under the Debugging header. Hit the slider to enable it, and confirm Android’s warning that you understand what this feature is for.
That’s it — now you just need to plug your phone into a PC with a USB cable. When you do this, you’ll see a prompt on your phone asking if you want to authorize USB Debugging for that specific computer. This is a security feature designed to keep your device safe from attack.
Is USB Debugging Safe?
In theory, with USB Debugging enabled, plugging your phone into a public charging port could cause problems. If someone had access to the port, they could potentially steal information off your device or push malicious apps to it. This is why Android displays a confirmation prompt, so you don’t connect to a PC you don’t trust. However, an unsuspecting user could accept the prompt without realizing what it’s for.
Additionally, leaving USB Debugging enabled makes your device open to attack if you were to lose it. Someone who knew what they were doing could connect your device to their computer and issue commands to it over ADB without knowing your PIN. That’s scary, and a good reason you should have Android Device Manager set up so you can remotely wipe your device.
Unless you regularly use ADB and connect your Android device to your PC all the time, you shouldn’t leave USB Debugging enabled all the time. It’s fine to leave on for a few days while you’re working on something, but there’s no need to have it enabled when you’re not regularly using it.
How Do You Use USB Debugging?
We’ve taken a tour of what USB Debugging does and what you can use it for. In summary, this feature allows you to access advanced Android features when connected to a PC. USB Debugging is vital for developers but still holds some useful tricks for power users. While you should feel free to enable it when needed, we recommend keeping it turned off when you’re not using it to increase the security of your device.
Looking to go deeper with Android? Check out some advanced hacks that don’t require rooting.
Do you have USB Debugging enabled or disabled on your phone? What do you use it for? Tell us your uses down in the comments!
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