iCloud or iTunes? What’s the Best Way to Backup your iDevice?

Edit. This post has been updated with a fuller description of what may happen to your apps when restoring from iCloud.

The well-run and very helpful ViPhone list is a great place to discuss all things iOS as they pertain to users of VoiceOver, the screen-reader built into all iDevices and Apple TV.
On that list, we’ve been having a discussion about the pros and cons of various backup and restore methods for iDevices. I cover this topic in Chapter One of “iOS 7 Without the Eye”, but as I sat here and wrote quite a lengthy reply on the ViPhone thread, I thought readers of this Blog may find it helpful if I discuss this subject here.
There are two ways to back up your iDevice. You can store the backup locally through iTunes, or you can store a backup in iCloud. The good news is that you don’t have to choose a single method. It’s easy to use both methods, and doing so will provide you with peace of mind. For this to work, make backing up to iCloud your default method in your iDevice’s settings, but manually initiate an iTunes backup regularly. It’s worth it.
From the point of view of completeness, an encrypted iTunes backup is the only way of backing up your device completely. Enabling encrypted backups is achieved by connecting your device to iTunes, with a cable or wirelessly. Navigate in iTunes to your device, and check the box relating to encrypted backups. You’ll then need to give the backup a password. Needless to say, make this password a strong one, and don’t forget it. You will be one very frustrated banana if you do!
Encrypted backups will keep passwords and other sensitive data. If you restore from either an unencrypted iTunes backup or an iCloud backup and log into apps like Skype, or similar apps requiring you to sign in, you’ll need to sign in again. Encrypt your backup on iTunes and you avoid this hassle. I’m now onto my fifth iPhone, and the process of making a new one my own, with no loss of data at all, is a snap thanks to encrypted backups.
If you’re anything like me, when you get that new phone, you just want to get the thing set up so you can put it through its paces, right? USB 3.0 technology means restoring from iTunes is the fastest way to be up and running either with your new device, or when you’re recovering from a crash.
An iTunes backup is highly desirable from an accessibility perspective. If you keep old copies of apps for accessibility reasons, you risk not getting these old versions back if you restore from iCloud. Your apps are not backed up to iCloud at all, and when you restore using this method, the latest version of the app could be downloaded from the App Store. iCloud is sensitive to the version you are running, primarily in case a newer version of the app is incompatible with the version of iOS you are running. If the app developer hasn’t removed that particular version from iTunes Connect, you may get it back. However, many app developers don’t wish to support older versions. You have no control over whether you can keep the version you want or not, it is entirely at the discretion of the developer.
What if you have an app that has been pulled from the store, either by Apple, or by the developer because they no longer wish to support it? The answer is, restore from iCloud and you’re just out of luck. You’ve lost that app for good.
iCloud backups don’t back up your music. If all your music comes from the iTunes Store, or you have iTunes Match, this is no problem at all, but it’s a consideration if you spent lots of time initially syncing music from your computer. You can of course sync with your computer after restoring from an iCloud backup, but if you have to do that, you may as well do the whole thing from iTunes and enjoy the benefits.
Storage may also be a factor. If you have a lot of Bookshare, Bard, Audible and DAISY books on your device, and particularly if you have more than one device on your account, you may well run into Apple’s 5GB limit for free accounts. If you do, this problem can be rectified by purchasing more iCloud storage fairly cheaply.
If you ever upgrade your device, be sure once that device is up and running to delete the old backup of the device you no longer use from iCloud to save space.
On the flip side, there’s no doubt iCloud is easy to set up, and you can set it and forget it. Better to have an iCloud backup than no backup. And there may come a time when you’re away from your computer, you crash, and you just need to be up and running again. Using the method I outlined above, there’s no need to choose. Use both, and be aware of their respective strengths and weaknesses.

2 Comments on “iCloud or iTunes? What’s the Best Way to Backup your iDevice?

  1. iTunes backups most definitely do not include synced media such as music. What they do include, however, is the metadata about what media should be re-synced to your iDevice from your iTunes Library. In other words, iTunes backs up the info about what to sync, but not the synced content itself. So, if you remove content from your iTunes library thinking that it is stored in an iTunes backup, you would lose that content. However, iCloud backups include this info too, so to say that this is an advantage of backing up using iTunes is not really true in my opinion. After restoring from iCloud, media can be re-synced from iTunes and in fact this should occur the first time a sync is done.

    Also I have a clarification about re-downloading apps after restoring from an iCloud backup. In general, I agree that iTunes is the safest bet for holding on to old versions of apps, but iCloud will often let you do this too. Apple states that “If your device can’t download the version of an app that was backed up, it downloads the latest version.” (http://support.apple.com/kb/PH12521) So, Apple doesn’t always force you to update apps when you’ve chosen to hold onto older versions and you restore from an iCloud backup.

    • Hello Grant and thanks for the feedback. The article doesn’t state that iTunes backs up music, it merely states that iCloud does not, and that to get music back, one needs to sync, meaning that if one is going to do that, one may as well enjoy the benefits of iTunes.
      Regarding old apps, Apple will keep older versions of apps only if they need to for backward compatibility with older versions of iOS. Example, you have an iPhone 3GS which can’t run iOS 7, and an app has been updated to require iOS 7. In that eventuality, you may be able to get the older version back. otherwise, you are very likely to get the new version because developers tend not to like keeping old code around needlessly, and VO users have been burned by this practice a lot. I agree the article can be updated to make it clearer that it is not certain you won’t get your old version back and have done that.
      Hope this helps.