Creating a Comprehensive iOS Backup Strategy

 Turn backup on in iCloud settings

Turn backup on in iCloud settings

In last month I published a fairly popular post about creating a comprehensive backup strategy for your Mac. While we touched briefly on the topic of backup of iOS devices, I’d like to spend some more time this month covering that topic in depth. Since many of you will be getting new iPhones over the next couple of days, I figured now’s a good a time to review our own backup methods and share this information with our less tech savvy friends and family

Most of us have our data spread across a number of device. I personally have a desktop and laptop at home, a desktop at work, an iPhone and an iPad. More and more we’re putting our data and spending our time on iOS. That means if your iPhone and iPads aren’t backed up properly you’re at risk for data loss.

Last summer my family and I took a big family vacation. Traveling with my family is always an adventure and this was no exception. In the wee morning hours before our trip I receive a frantic phone call from my father. In his haste to finish packing he accidentally tossed his iPhone in the washing machine and it wasn’t until he heard it clunking several minutes later that he noticed. I figured after a lengthy dunk the iPhone was dead but I instructed him to follow proper protocol of turning the device off, drying it as best as possible and putting it into a bag of rice to sort out at a more reasonable hour.

With a 6:00 a.m. flight there was no time to get a replacement phone, but the next morning I was able to determine there were a number of Apple Stores in Seattle, where we were spending a day prior to disembarking, and I made him a Genius Bar appointment for the next morning. The Apple Genius confirmed the phone was dead and we obtained a replacement. Then came the question: “do you have a recent backup?” My dad’s face was blank and suddenly the horror struck him. Of course he didn’t. He had never thought about backing up his iPhone before.

I let that feeling sit in for a few seconds. (Okay, maybe a few seconds longer than I should.) Then spoke up and said, “Yes, I set him up to auto backup to iCloud.” Relief. We used the Apple Store’s Wi-Fi to restore his phone from his iCloud backup, taken the morning before his washing machine incident and within about 30 minutes he was up and running as though nothing ever happened.

iCloud Backup

There are two primary ways to backup data on an iOS device and of the two, iCloud backup is my favorite because of its ease of use and restore as demonstrated above. Each user of an iOS device has the option to create a free iCloud account that comes with 5GB of free data storage and access to PhotoStream. In addition to other benefits, these two features will provide you with the ability to backup your iOS devices and easily restore them when you restore or setup a new phone.

 You can customize backup settings.

You can customize backup settings.

To turn on iCloud backup, tap Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup and turn on iCloud Backup. By default, your device will be backed up once a day when connected to Wi-Fi and plugged into power. Therefore it’s important you setup your iOS device to auto-connect to your home Wi-Fi network. For most people, backup occurs when you plug your phone in at night.

iCloud backup is easy, stores backups off site, and happens automatically in the background which means it follows most of my “rules” for backup. (To review my backup rules, see last month’s article.) But there are a few disadvantages. For one, the free storage space available on iCloud accounts is limited to 5GB. If you have multiple iOS devices, store other data on iCloud or store lots of media (photos/videos) on your device you may not be able to backup all your data with the free storage plan. You can buy more iCloud storage fairly inexpensively (my recommendation) or limit what you backup to iCloud by selecting Settings > iCloud > Storage > Manage Storage. Macworld has a comprehensive guide with tips for freeing up iCloud storage space.

You should be aware that iCloud doesn’t backup everything. iCloud Backup doesn’t back up music, movies, and TV shows that you didn’t purchase from the iTunes Store, or any podcasts, audio books, or photos that you originally synced from your computer. iCloud Backup will restore your purchased music, movie, and app content from the iTunes Store, App Store, and iBooks Store during the background restore process but if that content is no longer in the iTunes Store, you’re out of luck.

Because of the ease of use and ease of restore of iCloud backup I suggest that everyone turn it on. As of the writing of this article, iCloud backup isn’t turned on by default when you add an iCloud account. I suggest that you take some time to review your own iCloud backup settings, as well as the backup settings of your friends and family to avoid digital disaster.

iTunes Backup

 Even if iCloud backup is your default, you'll want to occasionally backup to iTunes as well for fast restores

Even if iCloud backup is your default, you'll want to occasionally backup to iTunes as well for fast restores

Back in the dark ages, we plugged our iPhones and iPods into computers to sync them. Barbaric, I know. Turns out, people don’t do that anymore. In fact, Apple’s data shows that more than 50% of customers who have brought their iPhones in for service have never synced the device with a computer and I suspect based on my personal experience that number is growing. But, there are good reasons to occasionally sync your iOS device with iTunes and that includes backups. Just this month I received an email from a distraught Mac Power Users listener who went to restore his iPhone form an iCloud backup only to discover the restore failed and he was left without any of his data.

iCloud backup failures are rare, but they do happen. Backups can become corrupt, incomplete or fail for any number of reasons. These stories are particularly disheartening because you have someone who was proactive enough to backup their devices but still lost data because their backup failed. An iCloud backup also requires good bandwidth and you may be in an area without Wi-Fi or poor data access. I personally have twice replaced my own iPhone while traveling (I don’t have an Apple Store in my town) and restoring your device over Apple Store or hotel Wi-Fi can be a pain.

That’s why my second “rule of backups” is that backups must be redundant. Fortunately, we have a second method of backing up our iOS devices and that’s done using iTunes. Be aware that when your turn on iCloud backups by default, iTunes backups will be disabled. But you can always run them manually by choosing your device within iTunes and selecting “Back Up Now” in the summary menu. For good measure, I recommend that you choose the option to encrypt the backup as this will additionally restore your passwords when your device is restored.

I keep a dock plugged into my computer which makes it easy for me to sync my iPhone and iPad to my Mac and create backups. For people with large media libraries, syncing with a computer also gives you a place to offload your photos and movies. As a general rule, I will backup my device at least once a month, or any time I’m getting ready to take a trip or before any major update. But do keep an eye on the number of backups you keep because they can be quite large. Generally iTunes will only keep the most recent backup of each device, but if you have multiple devices backed up, or have updated the operating system you may find you have older or redundant backups that can be deleted. This information can be found in iTunes > Preferences > Device Preferences

Photos and Video

One of the most common concerns when discussing iOS backup is large media files, such as photos and video. Because free iCloud storage is limited to only 5GB, if you store a lot of media on your phone, you can quickly run over this limit. Photos and video are generally the culprit. As a result, many people turn off backup of their camera roll which means these photos aren’t backed up to iCloud, and unless these photos are available in your photo stream or have otherwise been synced to your computer or another sharing service, they’re gone in the event of data loss. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have taken years worth of photos on their iPhone and then lost them because they didn’t know how to transfer their photos off their device, or they didn’t have a backup.

I generally recommend that you include your camera roll in your iCloud backup and if this exceeds your free storage limit, simply purchase additional iCloud storage space to accommodate. At WWDC this year, Apple announced new iCloud storage prices allowing users to purchase 20GB for $0.99 per month and 200GB for $3.99 per month with tiers available up to 1TB. This pricing went into place with the release of iOS 8. In my opinion, with pricing this reasonable there’s no reason not to buy the additional storage once your total iCloud usage exceeds the free 5GB threshold.

 Use Image Capture to quickly pull images off iOS

Use Image Capture to quickly pull images off iOS

Unfortunately, many people are unaware that purchasing additional storage is an option, or still will simply not buy additional storage space regardless of the cost. There are a few other options. The first is simply syncing your iOS device with your computer. Plugging into your computer will allow you to sync the photos on your device with iPhoto or Aperture and presumably the new Photos App that will be released next year. But you actually have to do it on a regular basis for this to be beneficial. If you would prefer to backup to a folder instead of an application, you can use the Image Capture application, included with OS X, to download photos and video from your camera roll. As an additional bonus, you can also use Image Capture to quickly select and bulk delete images from your iOS camera roll.

Finally there are a number of third party options for syncing and storing photos and video from iOS. DropboxGoogle and Transporter all offer services that will import photos directly from the iOS camera roll to their respective services for storage.

While backing up iOS is fairly simple, but you do have to take steps to proactively enable iCloud backups and make sure all your data is being backed up. It’s a small thing to do, but a very important one.

This article first appeared in the August Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at