What Exactly Is an Apk File and How Do You Install One?

What Exactly Is an Apk File and How Do You Install One?

If you’ve used an Android phone at all in the past or even if you’ve just read some articles on Android-focused websites, it’s likely that you’ve come across the term APK.  What in the world is it, and how do you install one? Read on to find out.

Android Package Kit

APK stands for Android Package Kit which probably makes things about as clear as mud for you.  While it might sound complicated, the concept of APK files is very simple. If you’ve ever used Windows on your home or work PC, you’ve likely come across EXE files.  Conversely, if you’ve ever used a Mac you’ve no doubt seen or used DMG files. In either case, the function of these types of files is the same. They bundle up all the little bits that are needed for a program to run and put them into a single file.  This makes downloading and installing programs way easier for the average person. The APK file is just Android’s version of the EXE or DMG file. It puts all the files needed for an app to run into one tidy package.

The main difference between APK files and EXE or DMG files is that the average Android user will almost never see one.  Android apps are generally installed via the Google Play Store, where you literally just tap on the Install button to have the app appear on your phone and be ready to use.  However, what’s going on behind the scenes when you tap that button is that the Play Store is sending the APK file for that app to your phone and then installing it. So, if that’s the case, then why does it even matter if you know what an APK file is or how to install one?

Why it Matters

Certain apps aren’t available through Google’s Play Store.  In some cases, it’s because the app developer decided not to upload the app to the Play Store for personal reasons.  In other cases, it’s because the app can do things that Google doesn’t want to allow (like ad blocking, for instance).  As a matter of fact, you might be surprised to learn that there is an entire ecosystem of legitimate (in other words, not malware or spyware) apps out there that aren’t on the Play Store.  And some of them can do very neat things. If you come across one of these apps that you want to try, you’re going to have to download the APK file for it and install it manually.

How to Install APK Files

So, you know what an APK file is, and now you know that there are quite a few apps out there that don’t appear on the Play Store.  You’ve done some digging and found one of these apps that you really want to try. There are three steps to install any APK file on your Android phone or tablet:

  1. Download the APK file.
  2. Enable the “Install unknown apps” setting.
  3. Install the APK file.

Whether you found it on XDA, Reddit or a similar site, the first step in the process is to download the APK file.  Depending upon what Android device you have, there is likely a pre-installed file manager app that you can use to see your downloaded files (on some devices, this app is literally called “Downloads”).  You’ll need to locate the APK file you downloaded there so that you can open it.

Once you’ve located your APK file, you’ll need to tap on it to open it.  At that point, you’ll receive a security warning on your device. This warning exists for good reason.  In the early days of Android, some apps would masquerade as legitimate apps on the Play Store. However, once they were installed on your device, they would install other malicious apps in the background without your knowledge.  Thankfully, Google put increased security measures in place for later versions of Android.

Since you know what app you’re trying to install, you can safely allow the installation of it.  You should see a toggle to “Allow from this source” which will allow the APK installation to proceed.  After that, the process is very straightforward. Simply tap the Install button, wait a few moments, and you should receive a successful installation message.

Now, you’re free to use your shiny new app and enjoy some features that Google never intended you to have.  Just remember to be careful and fully vet whatever app you’re intending to install (Reddit or XDA can be a great resource for this) to make sure there are no security concerns.  

App Recommendations

If you’ve read this far and really want to try some of these apps out but aren’t sure where to start, see below for some suggestions:

  1. YouTube Vanced.  This is a modified version of the YouTube app that gives you several features that you would normally need to pay for in the standard version of YouTube.  The two most notable features are ad blocking and background playback.
  2. Blokada.  This is an ad blocker that doesn’t require your device to be rooted.  It can block a wide array of ads from different sources and is extremely easy to use.
  3. MiXplorer.  This is a file management app with an exhaustive list of features.  It can most likely do far more than the built-in file manager on your device.  Some standout features include tabbed file browsing and the ability to drag and drop files.
  4. F-Droid.  This is an alternative app store that is focused on Free and Open Source Software, or FOSS.  You’ll find all sorts of apps in the F-Droid store, including some that also exist on the Play Store.  The F-Droid app will help you keep any apps you install from it up to date as well.

XDA Labs.  This is a multipurpose app for the XDA website.  It allows you to easily access the forums there but also includes a handy app store for any apps that are hosted with XDA (such as MiXplorer listed above).

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