Understanding iCloud Backups of iOS Devices

10/10/2013

With the recent demise of free iCloud storage for MobileMe users, many people are wondering whether they need to pay for more iCloud storage to keep their iOS devices backed up. A free iCloud account comes with 5 GB storage, and paid upgrades are available. But how much of that 5 GB do you really need? (To be fair, 5 GB is really stingy; Yahoo! is now offering 1 TB of storage for its email; not that you’d ever use anywhere near that amount…)

You can check by looking on your iOS device. Go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Storage. You’ll see how much space is used by your different devices, by different apps (Documents & Data), and by iCloud email.

2013-10-10 11.39.18.pngIn the screenshot to the right, you can see my 64 GB iPhone; it’s almost full with music, so why is the backup only 188 MB? This can be confusing; from some emails I’ve gotten recently, people think that iCloud backs up is all or most of the content on your iOS device.

Apple has a support document which explains what gets backed up:

  • Purchased music, movies, TV shows, apps, and books
  • Photos and videos in your Camera Roll
  • Device settings
  • App data
  • Home screen and app organization
  • iMessage, text (SMS), and MMS messages
  • Ringtones
  • Visual Voicemail

Your iCloud backup includes information about the content you have purchased, but not the purchased content itself. When you restore from an iCloud backup, your purchased content is automatically downloaded from the iTunes Store, App Store, or iBookstore based on iTunes in the Cloud availability by country. Previous purchases may be unavailable if they have been refunded or are no longer available in the store.

Your iOS device backup only includes data and settings stored on your device. It doesn’t include data already stored in iCloud, for example contacts, calendars, bookmarks, mail messages, notes, shared photo streams, and documents you save in iCloud using iOS apps and Mac apps.

2013-10-10 12.08.05.pngAs the above says, iCloud doesn’t actually back up that much; it backs up settings and links to apps and other iTunes Store content, as well as photos and documents. But it doesn’t back up any actual apps, music or videos, so none of these will use any of your iCloud storage.

The main case where your iOS device backup will be large is if you have a lot of photos or videos (that you’ve shot) on your device. If you’ve already moved those photos to your computer, you can turn off photo backups to save space. In the Manage Storage screen, tap on your iOS device, then toggle off Camera Roll. While you’re at it, you can turn off backups for other apps too; just find them in the list, and toggle their backups off. This will not only save space, but make iCloud backups quicker.

You may also have some apps that store large documents; in that case, these documents will get backed up. If you don’t need backups of a specific app’s documents, you can turn that app off in the above settings. (For example, you may have an app you use to view PDFs or photos, that you use for work; if you have copies of the files on your computer, there’s no need to back them up to iCloud.)

Also, if you use Mac apps that store documents in iCloud – notably Apple’s Pages, Keynote or Numbers, but many others can as well – you may need more storage space for them. Also, if you have a lot of iCloud email, that will take up space. (You can always cull your email, moving some of it to your computer.) But if you don’t use iCloud for large documents, and don’t have a lot of email, you may find that 5 GB is enough for a couple of iOS devices.

So check what you need to back up. You might be able to trim your backups and save money on iCloud storage.

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