Part of the appeal of Android to Windows users, I think, is that Android offers the same freedoms as Windows, and works similarly. But Android can be quirky and non-obvious too. Case in point: What happens when you connect an Android phone to your Windows PC via a USB cable.
With Windows phone, life is simple: As long as you are signed in on the phone, it will appear in File Explorer on your PC and you can navigate around its file system normally from the PC. You can copy files back and forth as expected, acquire photos from it as if it were a camera, and so on. It works exactly as expected.
The iPhone and other iOS devices work similarly, but with one additional step and one major limitation. You have to explicitly allow access to the device using a prompt that appears onscreen on the iPhone.
Once you do, you can navigate around the iPhone’s file system from the PC … but you can only see the DCIM folder, which is where the device’s photos (and screenshots and saved pictures) are stored. That is, the iPhone works like camera when you connect it to the PC.
Android does things differently. I find it needlessly complex, and what you see will no doubt vary according to your device and its version of Android. But here are the basics.
When you connect your Android phone to your Windows PC using a USB cable and sign-in on the device, the phone will enter one of several connection modes. On my Nexus 6P, which is running a pre-release version of Android N, this mode is “Charge this device.” All it is doing is charging over USB, and while you can “see” the phone in File Explorer in Windows, you cannot browse the phone’s file system.
(Don’t be confused by the Android N bit. This works exactly the same in the current Android version, M. I tested this with an original Nexus 5.)
On the Android phone, you can swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal pending notifications. And one of them will be for that USB connection.
When you select this notification, a pop-up will appear, letting you change how the phone is connected. On the Nexus 6P (Android N), it looks like so.
On the Nexus 5/Android M, it looks a bit different, but the same choices are present. (Minus “Supply power,” which requires USB-C.) Most of the other choices are self-explanatory.
Transfer files. When selected, the Android file system will appear and you can browse around normally, copy files back and forth, and so on. (You can also access the photos on the device from photo acquisition applications like Photo Gallery.)
Transfer photos (PTP). Here, the Android phone is connected as if it were a camera, similar to how the iPhone works. You can still browse the file system, but now only the photos-based folders (DCIM and Pictures) will appear in File Explorer. And you can access the photos on the device from photo acquisition applications like Photo Gallery.
Use device as MIDI. This oddball choice isn’t really aimed at PC connectivity. Instead, it’s for connecting your phone to a USB-based music peripheral. So you can safely ignore this one on your PC.
I honestly have no idea why Android works this way and is so complex. But as a general rule, I always switch immediately to “Transfer files” mode since it works with everything: It lets me access the entire phone file system and use an application like Photo Gallery to acquire photos. And since it also charges the phone, it begs the question: Why isn’t this simply the default connection mode?
Another question: Why can’t you configure one of these choices as the default? My understanding is that this was possible in previous Android versions. But I don’t see this capability in Android M or N. Weird.