Find out how to use the full potential of Google Photos on the original Google Pixel (2016) phone in order to automatically provide full quality backups from any other Android phone. You’ll need an original Pixel or Pixel XL for this to work. Skip straight to the guide.
When the first Google Pixel phone (which I’ll call the Pixel 1) was announced back in October 2016, Google offered “free unlimited storage for life, for full-resolution images and videos uploaded from the Pixel”. Some people noticed that there was no mention of photos needing to be taken on the Pixel, just uploaded from it. This got me thinking about uploading photos from my DSLR, and I found it was indeed possible.
By the time the Pixel 2 was released in 2017, this had been quietly reworded and an end date was ultimately put in place: “You get unlimited free storage at Original quality for all photos and videos uploaded to Google Photos from Pixel 2 through January 16, 2021”. The latest Pixels only offer free backups in High Quality. All Original Quality backups will consume your Google Drive space.
On this Google Support page it states for the Pixel (2016) “You get unlimited free storage at Original quality. You won’t be able to upload in High quality”.
Google Photos Backup Quality Options
Google Photos offers two backup quality options – High Quality and Original Quality.
High Quality uses advanced compression algorithms to dramatically reduce the size of photos and videos without causing much visible degradation. It does a fantastic job of saving space whilst preserving image quality as outlined by PhoneArena and PetaPixel. However, photos above 16 MP (4920 x 3264 pixels), and videos above 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) will be scaled down to those sizes, as well as being compressed. That’s not a huge problem with the original Pixel, as it only has a 12 MP camera. But DSLRs can take much larger photos, and modern phones and cameras can record video in 4K, so you’ll lose a noticeable amount of pixels if you stick to High Quality.
Original Quality does what it says on the tin. There’s no further compression beyond the initial JPEG compression that occurs when the photo is taken and stored on the phone. Photos and videos are uploaded to Google Photos and stored at their full, original quality. 4K video and high frame rates are supported.
Since the first Pixel, I’ve owned the Pixel 3 and Pixel 5. The Pixel 3 allows unlimited Original Quality backups until January 31, 2022, after which it reverts to High Quality. The Pixel 5 (along with the 3a, 4 and 4a) only allows unlimited High Quality backups. Any Original Quality backups will use space from the Google Drive (or Google One) account.
I wondered if it would be possible to automatically transfer photos from my Pixel 5 to the Pixel 1 and upload from there, so I hunted around on the Play Store and found a couple of apps to build a solution.
The first one is Solid Explorer File Manager by NeatBytes. I’ve been using this since ES File Explorer started using some rather shady practises and ultimately got banned from the Play Store. Solid Explorer is an excellent app, and amongst many other things allows you to easily create an FTP Server from one of your phone’s directories.
The other app is FolderSync by Tacit Dynamics. I bought the pro version (with funds from Google’s Opinion Rewards) which removes adverts, but they’re otherwise functionally identical. This clever app lets you create folder pairs and then syncs them, and offers a whole host of options. We’ll be using this to sync the photo folder of my Pixel 5 with that of the Pixel 1.
I realise these instructions might look daunting, but I’ve documented every tap you need to make in order to be as clear as possible and not assume any previous experience. Take a deep breath. You’ll have it all set up and working in five minutes if you follow these steps:
- Disable Google Photos backups (current phone)
You won’t be backing up from this phone anymore, as the Pixel 1 will be taking care of that.
- Open Google Photos
- Tap your profile image at the top-right
- Tap “Photos Settings”
- Tap “Back up & sync”
- Tap the toggle to disable backups
- Install Solid Explorer (Pixel 1)
- Set up the FTP Server (Pixel 1)
- In Solid Explorer, tap the hamburger menu icon at top-left
- Scroll down to the bottom and tap “FTP Server”
- Tap the three dot menun at top-right then “Change Directory”
- Browse to Internal Memory > DCIM and tap “Select DCIM” at the bottom
- Tap the three dot menu at top-right then “Change Port”
- Enter a valid port number (I used 1024)
- Tap the three dot menu at top-right then “Set User”
- Enter a username and password and make a note of them
- Tap the three dot menu at top-right then untick “Anonymous access”
- Finally, tap the “START” button to activate the FTP server
- Install FolderSync (current phone)
- Set up the FTP account in FolderSync (current phone)
- Tap on the Accounts icon (middle icon on the bottom bar)
- Tap the circular + icon at bottom-right and choose FTP
- Name it “FTP Pixel 1” or whatever you want
- Enter the credentials you created earlier under “Login name” and “Password”
- Enter the IP address under “Server address” – this will be something like 192.168.1.128
- Tap “SAVE”
- Set up the Folder Pair in FolderSync account (current phone)
- Tap the Folder Pairs icon (second icon from left on the bottom bar)
- Tap the circular + icon at bottom-right and choose “FTP Pixel 1” or whatever you called it
- Under “Sync type”, select “To remote folder”
- Under “Sync options”, make sure “Sync subfolders” is enabled and “Sync deletions” is disabled
- Tap “Advanced” and set “Overwrite old files” to Never”
- Enable “Move files to target folder (source folder will become empty)”
- Tap “Connections” and make sure only “Use WiFi” in enabled
- Optionally enter your home WiFi’s SSID under “Allowed WiFi names” to stop it attempting to sync when you’re away from home (and therefore your PIxel 1)
- Tap “OK” then “SAVE”
- Testing (current phone)
- Take a photo with your current phone
- Open Google Photos to confirm the new photo is there.
- Open Folder Sync and tap the home icon (first icon on the bottom bar)
- Under Sync Status, tap “SYNC ALL”
- You should see a window appear with “Syncing Pixel 1 FTP Sync” at the top
- Tap “HISTORY” – the top entry “Pixel 1 FTP Sync” should have a 1 after the search icon
- Tap the top entry and expand “Uploads” and “Local file deletions” to check that your photo appears in both
- Testing (Pixel 1)
- Open Google Photos on the Pixel 1 and check that the new photo appears
- Make sure the PIxel 1 is set to backup to Google Photos
- Browse to Google Photos on the web to confirm that your new photo has been uploaded
- Schedule Syncing in FolderSync (current phone)
- In FolderSync, tap the Folderpairs icon (second from the left)
- Tap your Pixel 1 FTP Sync entry
- Under “Scheduling”, enable “Use scheduled sync”
- Set the “Sync interval” to whatever you like (I use daily)
Is this illegal / breaking the Terms of Service / going to get me assassinated by the Google Police?
No. The Google Photos app says that “photos and video that you back up from this Pixel device are free and unlimited”. Nowhere does it state that the photos and video you back up also need to have been shot on the Pixel. Here is confirmation from Ronald, a product manager on the Pixel team. He states that “all photos and videos uploaded from the Pixel phone are stored for free at original quality, whether it was taken by the camera, captured in a screenshot, or downloaded from another app.”
I don’t have a first generation Pixel – can I spoof my phone’s device name to appear as one?
I’ve heard tell of such things on the XDA forums, but even if it is possible it is definitely breaking Google’s terms of service. I wouldn’t risk it personally, as breaking the ToS could lead to your Google Account being suspended, and potentially losing access to your backed up photos and videos.
Can I buy a second-hand Pixel 1? Will this still work?
Rumour has it that only the early batches of original Pixels have the free, unlimited for life Google Photos backup. Apparently Google changed their marketing materials at a certain point, and removed this feature from later batches of the Pixel 1. I can’t find definitve proof of whether (or when) this happened. I can tell you that I originally bought my Pixel in November 2016, and it was replaced under warranty with a refurbished unit in 2018. The replacement is what I’m using today, and it works perfectly.
How can I back up photos from my DSLR / point-and-shoot camera?
You can use the USB Type-C (male) to USB Type-A (female) adaptor that came in the box with the Pixel phone. Plug this into the phone and plug a standard USB card reader (as you might use on a PC) into the other end. Then simply put your memory card into the card reader and you’ll be able to copy photos across to your phone. You can then set Google Photos to back up the folder you copied the photos into. More modern cameras will allow you to plug the camera directly into the USB C-A adaptor.
Can I also upload RAW files / DNGs?
Yes, but there are a couple more steps involved. You’ll need to change your FTP Server in Solid Explorer to point to the Internal Memory root, rather than the DCIM folder, adjust the existing folder pair to point to /storage/emulated/0/DCIM/ and set up an additional FTP connection and folder pair in FolderSync, pointing to /storage/emulated/0/Pictures/ or wherever your phone stores its RAWs.
What about my old Pixel’s battery life?
My first-gen Pixel’s battery life is poor to say the least. I used it heavily for two years, and my son used it as a Pokémon Go device for another two. I’m lucky to get three hours of screen on time. As a result, I’ve decided to leave it plugged in to a charger at all times. This may not be good for long term battery health and I’d rather not have to go to the trouble of replacing it. One option is Chargie which is a hardware dongle that fits between the charger and the phone, and a companion app that allows you to configure how much to charge and for how long. It currently costs just under £30 and looks like a good choice (now ordered see update). The other option would be to use a smart plug along with Google Home (or Alexa) Routines to switch on for an hour a day or 15 minutes every three hours, or whatever is needed to keep the phone going. This would require a bit of trial and error, but would also do the job. You could accomplish the same thing with a simple timer socket if you don’t use smart home tech.
What’s the point? Why not just use High Quality or pay for more Google Drive space?
When Google launched the Pixel range, the free (for life) photo and video backups were a major selling point. It was one of the main draws for me and a lot of others. High Quality is great, and I don’t really have a problem using it, but some of the photos and videos I take are precious memories that deserve to be kept in the best possible format. As good as HQ is for photos, video quality is nowhere near as impressive, even when you’re shooting at 1080p. I do subscribe to Google One, and currently have 100+ GB of space, but with kids and kittens, my photo and video library grows ever larger. I’d rather take advantage of Google’s original offer than be lumbered with yet more ongoing (and growing) subscription costs. I’m also a tight-fisted git.
Can I use this method to back up photos from my iPhone?
I have absolutely no idea. Good luck!
Update 17 May 2021: Chargie Device Ordered
I have now ordered a Chargie A Gold Edition (for £29.16 including delivery) with the aim of keeping my Pixel’s battery in the sweet spot between 40 and 70% to prevent further battery degradation. I’ll be using it with a fairly slow charger rather than a QuickCharge or USB Power Delivery to lessen the the heat damage. According to AccuBattery the battery is at 52% health with an estimated capacity of 1,439mAh, compared to the original design capacity of 2,770mAh. I’ll update with feedback on the Chargie device when it arrives.
Update 30 May 2021: Chargie Arrived and Working!
I’ve received the Chargie unit, and it’s working as described. See my review.