What Is ADB and How to Use It

If you’re only here to figure out what the acronym ADB stands for, you’re in luck. ADB stands for Android Debugging Bridge, which is a helpful tool that allows your Android device to perform a series of useful functions. I’m sure that sounded vague, so let’s go into more detail.

What is ADB?               

Android Debugging Bridge, or ADB, is what’s commonly referred to as a command line tool. Don’t worry, you won’t need to remember all of this for a test, and this knowledge isn’t required to use ADB’s full potential.

All you really need to know is that ADB is another way you can communicate between a PC or Mac and an Android device. Some actions you can perform with this new communication include:

  • Issue a number of commands for debugging, shell creations, port forwarding, and viewing general information about your Android device.
  • Copying and pushing files from connected devices.
  • Installing applications from one connected device to another.
  • Gain more control over your device as a developer.

If any of these appeals to you, or you were already on board from the beginning, let’s take a look at what you need to build a bridge to new possibilities.

 

What do I need to use ADB?

There are four to five things you need to take proper advantage of ABD, and you may already have most of these.

You’ll need:

  • An Android enabled device.
  • A PC, Mac, or Linux enabled computer.
  • A USB cable or a working Wi-Fi connection.
  • Android SDK tools installed on your computer.
  • An additional application if your device is not rooted.

You will need to download the Android SDK tools and have them installed on your computer if you don’t already. You will see the Android developer website with two options for download on display.

sdk tools download

You can download either just the stand-alone SDK tools or the complete Android SDK studio bundle. Either will provide the tools that you need to use ADB properly, but the bundle has useful, additional tools that any Android developer will want.

Now that you have everything you need let’s set up ADB and show off a few things you can do with it. We’ll go through everything you need to do on both devices before you can bridge connections first, and then we’ll dive into commands.

  1. Download and Install Android SDK Tools

     If you already have SDK tools installed on your computer, you can skip right to step two. If you haven’t, you’ve probably downloaded one of the two files above. In case you haven’t, here’s a link to the studio bundle and a link to the standalone SDK tools.

    The file sizes for each are fairly large, with the recommended bundle being around 1GB, and the recommended standalone coming in around 150MB.

    sdk tools download recommended

    After agreeing to the terms and finishing the download, install the exe you were provided. From this point on these instructions will act as if you have downloaded just the standalone tools, however, instructions for the studio bundle will be very similar regardless. If you would like specific bundle instructions, please view them here.

    Once finished, the Android SDK manager should be open, which is what you’ll need. More than just a few packages that want installation should appear, but navigate to the bottom of the window and hit Deselect All.

    android manager deselect

    Next, you’ll want to select Android SDK Tools, Android SDK platform tools, and Google USB Driver. After you’ve selected all three, press Install packages. You’ll then be presented with a window that will ask you to accept a license. Accept the license and then install to complete the installation.

    Additionally, you can view a video on how to install SDK tools.

  2. Enable USB Debugging

    For most, this may already be enabled, but if it isn’t, you’ll want this turned on. If you don’t know where USB debugging is located, it should be under Developer Options in your Settings.

    usb debugging

    If your Developer Options are not enabled, you’ll need to navigate through your Settings to About phone. After this, tap your Build number seven times to become a developer and gain access to Developer Options so you can enable USB debugging.

  3. Connect your device to your computer either via USB cable or Wi-Fi

    For this next step, you’ll need either a USB cable or Wi-Fi connection that both your computer and the device can be connected to at the same time. The USB cable is the easier of the two to use, but for some ADB functions, you will need to be using a rooted Android device for this method.

    The reason for this is that some ADB commands require permissions that Android devices aren’t able to perform unless rooted. If you haven’t rooted your device already, this may be the last push you need.

    Otherwise, to bypass the need for a rooted device, you can connect over Wi-Fi along with the use of an additional application.

    google-play-button

    The application is called ADB Wireless, and will allow you to make full use of ADB without needing a rooted device. There are instructions on the app page on how to use it, and to do so you’ll need to make use of the command prompt.

    No matter the method used, make sure your device is booted into Android and connected to your computer before continuing to the next step.

  4. Running the command prompt from platform tools, or from start

    This step is specifically for PC, so it may not work the same way on Mac or Linux. For setup on a Mac,  the video below explains the process for ADB as well as Fastboot:

    After you have everything set up properly, you’ll need to enter the command prompt to start using ADB. You can do this from the platform-tools folder you had installed earlier, or already have on your PC.

    The platform tools folder can be found by going to Program Files > Android > Android SDK > platform tools. Once in the correct folder, hold down shift, right click an empty space, and then select open command window here. The folder can also be found by searching your C: drive for the folder platform tools.

    Alternatively, you can just hit Start, then search for cmd to find the command prompt. Once in the command prompt, you can access ADB functions when an ADB enabled device is connected to your computer.

    Now type “ADB devices” into the command prompt, and hit enter. If everything went right, you should see your device listed in the attached devices. If no device is displayed, repeat the steps above until you can see your device listed. From there you can start using ADB commands.

Well now that it’s set up, what can I do with it?

You can now run ADB commands to your device to perform actions such as:

  • Backing up an SD card.
  • Copying data from your device or you computer.
  • Installing applications that were on your computer that are compatible with Android.
  • Port forwarding.
  • In-depth debugging.
  • And more

You can view the link above for ADB command lists, tips, and general help that may be required with general ADB use, or even ADB use for development. You can view an additional ADB commands list here.

For those not interested in Android development, backing up a SD card, and other data shifting commands would most likely be the most useful. Because of this, those that are new to ADB should stick to File Manager type commands, like the ones in the link above.

How did this work for you?

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Conclusion

The easiest way to setup and take advantage of ADB is with a rooted device, considering the ways around that requirement can be a little confusing to set up. However, the setup for these commands may not be worth it to the average Android user who won’t be diving into any of the more complex development uses.


If you plan to develop with Android, setup of the Android Debugging Bridge is essential, but for a casual user, it will save you the extra fuss to just stay clear.

Have any ADB or command line tips you’re just itching to get off your chest?

I’d love to hear about them in the comments below, and while you’re there you could even tell us your favorite uses for ADB!

Featured Image Credit

 





Comments (19)

    • Judy on

      Hi Lena,
      ADB can be difficult, but most Android users will only use it for specific purposes like unlocking a phone. Developers are the ones that use it frequently. I am sure you will be able to use it if you learn about it little by little. Thanks for commenting. =-)

  1. Dries DL on

    Hello,

    I did the installation of the three items “Android SDK Tools / Android SDK Platform Tools / Google USB Driver” exactly as described above.
    But now I don’t find the folder on my C:\ drive. I uninstalled it twice and repeated all the steps.

    Has anyone encountered the same problem? I don’t know what I did wrong.

    BR
    Dries

  2. Kris on

    Done everything right, but once I go into c drive then click android, the sdk folder doesnt appear. Only android studio folder. No platform tools nothing. What do I do next?

    • Judy on

      Hi Kris,

      If you have downloaded the AS + SDK bundle:

      By default, the SDK should be located in C:\Users\%USERNAME%\AppData\Local\Android
      If it is missing at this location, one of the following reasons apply: you have chosen a custom location, you missed to install the SDK at all, or (unlikely) they have changed the default install location.

      Note #1: the AppData directory is hidden by default. If you have a standard Windows configuration, the path I gave about should work “as is” (hit Win + R -> paste the path -> Enter).

      Note #2: you will never find the SDK in the Android Studio directory unless you have explicitly put it in there.

      If you have retrieved the standalone SDK by some other means:

      The SDK location may vary (from my experience), however (assuming the default configuration) you will most likely find it in C:\Program Files\Android or C:\Users\%USERNAME%\

      Hope this helps and thanks for commenting. =-)

  3. Miguel on

    can i unlock my phone if the USB Debug is not Enabled?? obviosly i cant activate that because my screen is broken and the tactils functions are not working

  4. Ajdar on

    There’s not any single folder called as platform-tools. Help please, because I need it to unlock my dead-screen phone.

  5. Shannon Smith on

    WtF? The whole point of this exercise was to access a “black screen” phone… how in the h are you supposed to “Enable USB debugging” if I could do that why the h would I need to do this entire process????????

    • Trevor on

      there are other uses for ADB.

      – Issue a number of commands for debugging, shell creations, port forwarding, and viewing general information about your Android device.
      – Copying and pushing files from connected devices.
      – Installing applications from one connected device to another.
      – Gain more control over your device as a developer.

      If you have a broken screen and are talking about accessing the phone with no screen, yes it is an option, but you need the debugging on already. Most phones and versions of the OS let you turn it on, but debugging is only active when you plug in a USB to the phone.

      • Tanya on

        Trevor, you stated that most phone and versions of the OS let you turn on the debugging. The person above your paragraph though asks you the obvious (which is my question too). Since this post is about unlocking a phone with a black screen, if the debugging isn’t enabled, how are we supposed to enable it? Is there a way to do this , so that SDK Android software can unlock our broken screen phones? I run all the above process and the command prompt answer I got was “no devices/emulators found” although my phone is connected to my laptop with a USB cable.
        Any more suggestions please? I would really appreciate any further help. Thank you.

        • Trevor on

          It’s sort of like having a flat tire when you are driving, if you don’t have a spare tire in your car already, you can’t change it without the help of a service center or tow truck. For most phones, the debugging is in the developers menu. To turn this menu on requires you to go to the settings of the phone and tap the build number of the phone seven times (usually in the About Phone tab).

          So, to more directly answer your question, no, there is not a way to easily turn on debugging if your screen is broken, black or otherwise not functional. The same scenario goes for items on your phone, if you have not set up a backup program prior to losing your phone, you’ll be hard pressed to get the information off of it if it’s lost or broken.

  6. Dave on

    Is there a company or organization that takes care of all this? I have a Casio C771 Commando. It is locked because my daughter attempted to get into it. It is not activated. I will not do a factory reset because it defeats the purpose. All I want is my pictures. I can’t unlock it because my google account password has changed since the phone was deactivated. I’ve tried hundreds of different passwords, nothing. I can not get past the unlock screen. Any suggestions? Companies that I can ship it to?

    Dave

    • Trevor on

      Your phone will need to see the internet for it to verify your Google account password. This connection could be Wi-Fi or cellular. To my knowledge, no there is not a service that will use ADB to remove your images. In some cases, cell phone stores have celebrite devices that allow information removal from phones. Are the images stored on an external micro-SD card?

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