How To

How to Get More Control Over Your iPhone and iPad Backups

Apple phones and tablets are generally easy to back up. Once set up, they connect themselves to Apple’s servers every night, and back themselves up—if you have enough space in your iCloud account, anyway.

But what if you want to keep your backups local? Or you only need to find a single piece of data in your backup, instead of nuking and restoring the whole thing? Or maybe you’re out of iCloud space, you’d still like automatic backup, but you don’t have much space (and don’t want to pay for more)?

Then read on! We have a solution for everyone.

The Apple way: iCloud and iTunes

The easiest way to back up your whole iPhone or iPad, as a precaution, is to switch on iCloud Backup. Grab your device, open the Settings app, tap the banner at the top (the one with your name on it) then tap on iCloud. In this iCloud screen, scroll down to iCloud Backup. If it’s not already enabled, switch it on.

From now on, your device will back itself up once a day when plugged in to power. If you charge your iPhone overnight, this is when it will probably happen. iCloud backups are easy, automatic, and easy to restore from. If you get a new iPhone (but not too soon!), you can restore from a backup during the initial setup run. After restoring, your new iPhone will be much the same as the old one, right down to the wallpaper.

Image from iCloud backup inside Finder in macOS.
Syncing an iPhone in macOS Catalina. Image credit Apple

iTunes backups of your device offer similar features, but with your data stored locally on a machine. If you’re running macOS Catalina, backups are managed via the Finder, but the experience is much the same. iTunes backups can be done wirelessly or via USB, and you can also restore from an iTunes backup. The big difference is that you need a computer to do the backup. With iCloud, backups work anywhere, as long as you’re connected to Wi-Fi. With iTunes/Finder backups, you have to be connected to your Mac or PC to restore.

Why choose one over the other? iCloud is more convenient, but it’s less secure. iCloud backups are encrypted both in transit, and on Apple’s servers. However, Apple keeps the keys, and could therefore hand your backups over to law enforcement, whereas your own computer is controlled by you. The other big consideration is storage space. Backups can take up a lot of it, and the 5GB of storage that comes with the free iCloud plan is not enough to back up much beyond one small iPhone. Nor is the $0.99 50GB plan much better. I’d advise getting the $10-per-month 2TB plan, especially as you can share it with family members, and fill it with your iCloud Photos too. This fall, you’ll also be able to sign up for Apple One, an all-in-one bundle that includes iCloud storage along with AppleTV, Apple Arcade, Apple Music and more. These plans will cost $15, $20, and $30, for 50GB, 200GB, and 2TB. The most expensive plan also includes Apple News+, which means that you will only be able to buy that plan in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia at launch.

Local backups, on the other hand, are limited only by the size of your hard drive/SSD, and you can always back up to external drives, too. If you do go the local iTunes route, please do one thing: In iTunes, make sure to check the box to encrypt your backups. Not only is this safer, but without it, none of your passwords will be backed up. That means, when you restore from a backup, you’ll have to enter every single app password manually.

Your own way: iMazing

One significant handicap to the Apple Way is that it’s either/or. You can back up to iTunes or iCloud, not both. iMazing is a third-party app that can back up your iPhone/iPad locally, over Wi-Fi, while your iPhone still backs itself up to iCloud. What’s more, iMazing lets you browse these backups: to search for individual iMessages, grab a single title from your iBooks library, find that one PDF you downloaded. iMazing is available for Mac and Windows, and costs $40 (there’s a free trial with some limitations).

iMazing packs in way more than just backups, and is—despite its dodgy-sounding name—quite an essential tool. You can transfer photos, transfer ringtones (if you still do that kind of thing), work with WhatsApp chats, and even browse the file system. But if you’re just looking for more control over your backups, that’s fine, too; I use it because it works better than iTunes.

Image of a backup using iMazing on Windows.
iMazing works on Mac and Windows. Image credit iMazing

Using iMazing for backups is easy. You just install it on your laptop or desktop, plug in your iPhone or iPad, and follow the instructions. Thereafter, backups can occur automatically, even over Wi-Fi, if you prefer. iMazing’s best feature is that it can store incremental, Time-Machine-style backups of your devices. You can browse many previous versions of your iOS backup, and restore any of these versions. And because it is keeping track of the changes, you’re not saving multiple huge backups, but just one aggregate backup that’s not much bigger than a standard iTunes one. You can keep up to one month’s worth of backups, and access any of them.

Smaller backups through iCloud

What if you want to stick to iCloud-only backups, but you want to cut them down to the minimum, to save space? There are two things to consider here. One is that iCloud doesn’t back up everything on your device. The other is that you can fine-tune things by disabling backups for individual apps.

First, what gets backed up? Apple has a support document with all the details, but the gist is that only app data and device settings are backed up. That is, all your documents inside Pages, or Ulysses, or your to-do app, etc, are stored, as are the settings for those apps. The apps themselves are not backed up. That’s because the apps get re-downloaded directly from the App Store when you do a restore (a good thing, because there might be a newer version available).

Your iMessages are backed up, unless you are using Messages in iCloud to sync them, in which case they don’t need to be. Ditto photos. If you’re using the iCloud Photo Library, your photos are already living in the cloud, and are not backed up again. Also, your music purchase details are backup up, but the actual songs are not. And so on. The general rule is that, if it’s already in the cloud, it won’t be backed up.

iPhone backing up through iCloud
Exclude apps from your iOS backups.

This cuts down on backup sizes, but if you want more control, you can prevent individual apps from backing up. For instance, there’s no point letting Amazon’s Prime Video back up all your downloaded shows and movies when you can easily grab them again any time.

To exclude apps from iCloud backups, open the Settings app again, then:

  • Tap the banner with your name on it
  • Tap iCloud
  • Tap Manage Storage
  • Tap Backups in the main list
  • Tap the name of the device you want to manage

Yes, this is an absurdly well-hidden settings page. I’ve used it many times before, and even then I had to Google it.

Wait for the screen to load, and you can then go through the list of apps and use the switch next to each to toggle the backup on and off. The list shows you how much data each app is adding to the backup, so you can quickly trim the biggest of them.

Building your backup strategy

I like to let iCloud do its thing because it’s so easy, it’s automated, and so well integrated. It’s clearly the option that Apple prefers you to use. But I also keep a local iMazing backup, because why not? iTunes is less fully-featured, and harder to use than iMazing, so I avoid it for backups or iPhone management of any kind. Also, as I mentioned above, iTunes won’t let you do a local backup at the same time as keeping an iCloud backup. And iMazing lets you grab individual items from prior backups, so you don’t have to restore your whole phone just to find that one message with the mailing address while you’re in line at the post office.

But whatever you do, make sure you are backing up. You might not want to pay for more iCloud Storage, but when you lose your iPhone, and all the photos that were on it, you will wish you’d paid out a few bucks, whether to Apple or iMazing, to have it all safe in the cloud.