Understanding iCloud Backups of iOS Devices

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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9 replies
  1. Colin Whooten (@cwhooten) says:

    How has your experience been with photo backup? I recently upgraded to a 5s from a 4 and had lots of issues getting photos restored. Thankfully I had turned on dropbox photo uploader and didn’t lose everything. I had been assuming that pretty much every photo I took on my phone was being backed up; what I found was that at some point photos were lost. Apple told me that it backs up the most recent 1,000 photos or all photos in last 30 days, but seeing as I had less than 1,000 photos I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      I’ve always backed up my iOS devices to my Mac before upgrading. So when I got my 5s, I backed up my 5 first, then restored from the local backup. I only use the iCloud backup as emergency protection, in case I have a problem when away from home.

  2. Andrew says:

    Please help me reconcile:

    A) “Apple has a support document which explains what gets backed up:” … “Photos and videos in your Camera Roll”

    B) “But it doesn’t back up any actual apps, music or videos, so none of these will use any of your iCloud storage.”

    Which way is it on videos specifically?

    I swear I just did a restore and it put videos back.

    Where else could videos actually be? AFAIK, every time I’ve taken a video with an app, not Apple’s Camera app, they’ve ended up there.

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Yes, I’ve corrected the article to include “videos that you’ve shot.” It doesn’t back up videos that you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store, or other videos that you sync via iTunes.

  3. Dave C. Vinyl (@djghostmare) says:

    The trick with photos and videos on your cameral roll is to import them into your PC or Mac and then delete them from the device when your computer prompts you to. Then, use iTunes to sync them back into your device. In photos, these will all appear in Library and not be backed up.

    You can have thousands of photos on your device and iCloud will still back up whatever is in your camera roll, i.e. the few photos you have taken since the last import.


  4. Daniel Nabavian says:

    I wish you could have explained why Apple gives us such small storage space compared to the likes of yahoo, google, etc.

    Flickr gives users one terabyte of free storage. Their new ios app update allows you to automatically upload photos to your account, in full resolution. This kinda works as a Trojan Horse for yahoo, by pulling users to their ecosystem. Surely, Apple can not want this.

    If Apple is serious about icloud, they would give users vast amounts of free (or super cheap) storage. I’m sure they would much prefer I keep my content in their cloud and ecosystem. They have to choose between up front profits from selling additional storage, or the risk of losing users to another cloud ecosystem.

    I think the latter is very dangerous for Apple.

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      I agree, and I wish I knew why they’re so skimpy. They already cut back from the 20 GB iDisk to the total of 5 GB for storage. And, I miss the iDisk, though Dropbox has replaced it for the most part.

  5. David H. McCoy says:

    Maybe they just aren’t ready to support larger amounts of data. You lose 5gb, you aren’t complaining so much. You lose 350gb of precious moments video and pics and your’e pulling out pitchforks.


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