Why I Backup in iTunes and Backup to iCloud

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Kelly Heffner Wilkerson

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I backup and restore my iPhone a lot. Like, ten-times-a-day a lot. Our software pulls information from iPhone backups and fixes corrupt backups, so I'm frequently experimenting to reproduce broken backups and then making sure my fixes work by torturing my own iPhone1. Friends and family often ask us how we backup our iPhones, so as a self-proclaimed iOS backup expert, I thought it would be interesting to discuss how I backup and why.

TL;DR: I backup using both iCloud and iTunes, because both have their merits. Local iTunes backups are on my computer so I have total control over them. iCloud backup is a nice to have in an emergency, but I don't like it as a primary backup strategy.

iTunes Backups: Tangibility and Control

My preference lies with iTunes backups for our iOS devices in the house, because of a handful of great things:

  • Both iTunes and iCloud usually only keep one backup, and update it as things change. I like my local iTunes backup, because I can go in and rename or move the backup folder, and keep as many backups as I like2. Given the nature of my work, I have about 43 backups on my iMac right now, all named year_month_day_device — that is extreme, but helpful if you're hard on your iPhone!

  • If I'm feeling paranoid, I can go and dig around in my backup, and see that there are a lot of files there. I can see gigabytes worth of files, and the four meta-data files (Manifest.mbdb, Manifest.plist, Info.plist, and Status.plist) to know my backup is mostly sane.

  • If I'm feeling sentimental, I can go and dig around in my backup, and see that there are a lot of photo files in there. If your backup is NOT encrypted, flipping through the files in your backup folder will show you a large amount of pictures, some of which are a lot older than you're probably expecting :) Very fun if you have kids.

Tangent: To Encrypt, or Not To Encrypt?

With a local iTunes backup, you have the option to encrypt your backups with a password. I make both encrypted and non-encrypted backups (although I don't recommend flipping between the two often, as it can break your backups.)

  • Encrypted backups store passwords and wifi networks which might be helpful for you. iCloud keychain is improving and making this less important.

  • If you share a computer, encrypting your backups will make sure that only someone with the password can access the data in your backup. The backup files are stored in the user document folder, so if they are not encrypted, someone can sift around your data.

  • There is one downside to encrypted backups: part of the decryption information is stored in the backup, so if your backup breaks and is missing the decryption information for a file, there isn't much we can do to get that specific file back. This is rare, and we're working to do more in this case, but it does happen.

iCloud Backups: Nice to Have for Emergency

  • As I mentioned, iCloud keeps one copy of your backup, updating it with new information as you make new backups. This is excellent for making a backup quickly and with minimal network communication. But, if there is something wrong with that backup, or it accidentally gets overwritten or deleted, there aren't a lot of options.

  • I'm a fallible human being, so I like having the automatic daily iCloud backup sitting there in case I need it. If my iMac breaks or I accidentally erase all of my iTunes backups, it's nice to have a "backup plan" (ha) sitting waiting for me.

  • iCloud restore doesn't require me to be at my computer. I can imagine breaking my phone on vacation, replacing it, and then needing to restore to setup the new iPhone. With iCloud, I wouldn't need to wait to be back at home to have myself up and running again.

iTunes Backup: How to Make a Local Backup

1) Plug your iPhone into your computer using the iPhone USB cable.

2) Open iTunes, and click on your iPhone under Devices or click on the iPhone icon in the bar of icons to bring up the summary page about your iPhone.

3) Click the "Back Up Now" button to make a backup.

iCloud Backup: How to Schedule a Daily iCloud Backup

1) From the Settings app, choose iCloud and then Backup.

2) Turn the switch iCloud Backup on if it isn't already.

3) If you want to force a backup now, tap Back Up Now.

  1. I do also use test iPads, iPod Touches, and other iPhones, but I like to make sure our software works well, and I see no better way to do that than to use it on my own iPhone backups and make sure all works well long-term. 

  2. If you use Time Machine or another computer backup system, you can then backup your backups :)!