In fact, it is not necessary to install the entire SDK if one does not want to use it for development. To be able to run basic ADB commands in the context needed by an average user, a rudimentary installation is completely sufficient. I will try to explain how to do this, and hopefully cover the most used computer systems.
First, you will need the basic binaries. These can be found e.g. in the Download area of my Android site, where I try to keep up-to-date versions available – for Linux, MacOS, and Windows.1
If your computer is running Windows, you will also need the special drivers for your device (no generic solution here, so you need to check this out yourself; usually, those drivers are offered for download on the manufacturer's website).
Linux and Mac OS users
Linux and Mac OS users might need to make their device known to their operating system. For Linux, you find the necessary steps described in my answer here. Not being familiar with Mac OS, I can not speak for it.
For Linux, this is quite easy: Simply unpack the downloaded binaries into a directory of your choice. At the time I'm writing this, this will only be two files:
aapt (the latter being used by QtADB, and not necessarily needed to execute ADB commands directly). Adjust their file permissions to make them executable (e.g. from the command line:
chmod 0755 adb aapt). Finally, it's a good idea to include the chosen directory with your
$PATH variable, so you can call
adb from wherever you are. A good place for that is at the end of your
~/.profile file to include an additional line like
export PATH="~/bin:$PATH" (if you extracted the binaries to
The Windows download holds a couple more files. Also extract them into a directory of your choice. If you want them to be callable from wherever you are, without preceding the complete path, you need to add that path to your environment variables as well. Not being a Windows user, I must leave the "how to do this" to you.
You should be done at this point, and can use the full powers of the ADB command line.
1: Also see Alex' answer for more alternative sources.