Android is easy to use right out of the box, but it includes many hidden features for advanced users. In particular, you may know about the hidden developer options menu. As the name suggests, these features are useful for developers building Android apps, but they are not that important for the average user.
One of the best known features for Android developers is USB debugging. You may have seen this term around and wondered if you should enable it. Let’s take a look at what Android’s USB debugging mode is for and whether you need it.
What is USB debugging mode in Android?
USB debugging allows an Android device to communicate with a computer running the Android SDK for advanced operations.
When you develop Android applications, you must install the Android Software Development Kit (SDK) on your computer. An SDK gives developers the tools they need to build apps for a given platform.
Usually you install this along with android studio, which is a development environment for Android applications. It includes a set of tools that are vital for any developer, such as a debugger for troubleshooting and a visual editor.
Libraries are another key component of the SDK. These allow developers to perform common functions without having to recode them. For example, Android has a built-in print function, so when writing an app, you don’t need to find a new way to print. Just call the built-in method included in the library when it’s time to do it.
You can do a lot with Android from the device itself. But developers need more options. It would be a huge pain to manually move files between devices, run commands and similar tasks on the phone while developing. Instead, they use tools built into Android Studio and the Android SDK to streamline these processes. And you need to enable USB debugging to do it.
If you don’t need all of Android Studio, you can install just the Android SDK. You will need to do this for many common rooting methods, as well as other advanced tasks.
Enabling USB debugging allows your phone to fully communicate with a PC so you can take advantage of these tools. However, there’s no need to enable USB debugging if you just want to connect your phone and PC via Bluetooth or a USB cable for simple tasks like syncing photos.
How do I enable USB debugging on Android?
On modern Android devices, you’ll find USB Debugging in the developer options menu, which is hidden by default.
To unlock it, go to Settings and scroll down to About of the phone. Scroll down again in the next menu and you will see a build number entrance at the bottom. Tap this a few times and eventually you’ll see a notification letting you know you’re now a developer.
Then go back to Settings and scroll down to the bottom again. Open the System entry and (if necessary) expand the Advanced section. Here you will see a new entry titled developer options.
Depending on your version of Android, these steps may differ slightly. You may see the developer options entry listed in the main Settings page instead, for example.
Regardless, once you’re inside the developer options menu, search USB debugging under the depuration header. Tap the slider to enable it and confirm Android’s warning that you understand what this feature is for.
You have now enabled USB debugging. To use it, you just need to connect your phone to a PC with a USB cable. When you do this, you’ll see a message on your phone asking if you want to allow USB debugging for that specific computer.
This is a security feature designed to keep your device safe from attacks, so make sure you trust the connected computer before agreeing to this. If you ever accept a notice for a device by mistake, select Revoke USB debugging authorizations from the same Developer options page to reset all trusted computers.
What does Android USB debugging do?
Without USB debugging, you cannot send any advanced commands to your phone through a USB cable. Therefore, developers need to enable USB debugging so that they can push apps to their devices for testing and interaction.
When 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 appear on your device immediately. This is much faster than manually downloading the APK files each time.
A common reason for non-developers to enable USB debugging is to root their phones. Rooting methods vary by device and change over time, but most methods involve some program you run from your desktop. Once you enable USB debugging and connect your phone, you can use a tool to send root instructions to your device without even touching it. Installing a custom ROM involves a similar process.
You also need to enable USB debugging to use the Android Debug Bridge (ADB) commands. With these, you can install APK files stored on your PC on your phone, move files back and forth, and view device logs for debugging errors. ADB and Fastboot commands can also keep your device locked even when you can’t turn it on normally.
In the old days of Android, you also needed USB debugging for some other features. Most notable was taking a screenshot via USB, which was as annoying as it gets. This was before taking a screenshot on Android had a standard command and was easy.
Now, you just need to press and hold the button combination of your device (usually Can Y volume down) to take a screenshot, making this method obsolete.
Is USB debugging safe?
In theory, with USB debugging enabled, plugging your phone into a public charging port could expose you to risk. If someone had access to the port, they could steal information from your device or send you malicious apps.
That’s why Android shows a confirmation message, so it won’t connect to a PC it doesn’t trust. However, an unsuspecting user might accept the notice without realizing what it is for.
Also, leaving USB debugging enabled makes your device open to attack if you lose it. Someone who knew what you were doing could connect your device to your computer and send commands to it via ADB, without knowing your PIN or other lock screen security.
That’s scary, and it’s a good reason why you should have Android Device Manager set up so you can factory reset your Android device remotely.
Unless you use ADB regularly and connect your Android device to your PC, you shouldn’t leave USB debugging enabled all the time. It’s fine to leave it on for a few days while you work on something, but you don’t need to have it enabled when you’re not using it regularly. The risks outweigh the benefits in that case.
If USB debugging doesn’t work
In case you have enabled USB debugging and it is not working, it is likely that your USB cable or some setting option is to blame. See what to do when your Android phone won’t connect to your computer to fix your problem.
In addition to confirming that your USB cable is good, make sure that you have successfully installed and updated the Android SDK on your computer.
Is node tree debugging the same as USB debugging?
In addition to USB debugging, Android offers a similarly named option called Node Tree Debugging. This is buried in a separate menu, so you’re unlikely to find it naturally, but it’s still useful to know the differences.
Node Tree Debugging is a developer option within TalkBack, which is Android’s screen reader. This tool enables your phone to read screen content aloud, helping visually impaired users navigate their devices.
Low Settings > Accessibility > TalkBack > Settings > Advanced settings > Developer settingsyou will see an option called Enable node tree debugging. It sends information about the content of your screen to your device logs.
The purpose of this feature is to help developers design their apps to be accessible, and for this it’s important to know exactly what TalkBack tells users.
If you’re not a developer, debugging the node tree is useless. You don’t have to worry about turning it on.
How do you use Android USB debugging?
We’ve taken a tour of what USB debugging does and what you can use it for. In short, this feature allows you to send advanced commands to your device when you connect your phone to a PC.
USB debugging is vital for developers, but it also unlocks 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. This will increase the security of your device.
Meanwhile, USB debugging is just one of the useful features available in the developer options menu.