We carry much of our data with us, in our bags or pockets, stored in tiny devices which often continuously sync with ‘the cloud’. This abstraction of our data’s real storage location and status may be partly responsible for the fact that at least 50% of iPhones are not backed up regularly¹.
iCloud contacts, Gmail calendars, notes synced via an old Yahoo account… Many types of data are account-based, synced between multiple devices and accessible from web apps just a login away. While deliciously convenient, this ubiquity of our data carries the risk of luring us into a false sense of security: why would we need backups if our data is immaterial, available from any terminal, stored in vaporous constructs?
In reality, we are still in a transitioning phase. As it stands today, just a couple of days shy of World Backup Day 2018, all types of data are not treated equally. Some are synced across our devices and stored in iCloud incrementally. Others are only stored locally. And depending on settings, some may be replicated across signed in devices only if the conditions are right³, and not stored permanently in any cloud at all.
Recent estimates project that 1 in 3 iPhone will be stolen, lost or damaged during its lifetime². Combined with our own stats on backups, and considering the staggering near 800 million iPhones active today, that’s over 100 million potential cases of data loss.
Thankfully, Apple has baked powerful backup services in iOS which enable full backups without directly exposing our data. These services offer 2 types of backups: local backups (with iTunes or 3rd party Mac or PC software), and iCloud backups. All other backup solutions are subpar:
- iOS apps cannot back up your iPhone fully — they don’t even have access to most of your data.
- Hardware solutions face even more restictions⁴, are pricey, and lack convenience.
What data is at risk?
If your iPhone is lost, stolen or damaged today and you do not have a local or iCloud backup, the extent of data loss will largely depend on how much data you’ve manually synced to your computer, and on which iCloud sync services you have enabled:
- Photos and Videos. If you don’t import them manually to your computer, they’re at risk. Worth noting: you can enable iCloud Photo Library without enabling iCloud Backup, but you’ll most probably need to pay for extra storage. If you don’t mind Google storing (and analyzing) your pictures, there’s the Google Photos iOS app too.
- Notes, Contacts and Calendars. These sets of data are generally synced via accounts (Gmail, Yahoo!, iCloud…). Notes, contacts and events stored in the On my iPhone account aren’t synced automatically, and can very much be lost for good.
- Messages, including attachments. Without a backup, you risk losing them all. iOS 11.3 (which should go live today) introduces iCloud Messages. If you opt-in, you should be aware that iCloud Messages count towards paid storage. [Update: iOS 11.3 was indeed released that day, but without iCloud Messages which were pushed back to iOS 11.4.]
- Health and Home data. These can be synced via iCloud and don’t take much space. You can check in your iPhone’s Settings app, iCloud section. If you chose to back up locally, make sure you’ve enabled backup encryption or your precious health data will not be included.
- Voicemail. No easy way to sync these, they will be lost.
- Safari Bookmarks and History. Lost if not synced via iCloud.
- Documents & Data of Apps. Many apps today offer to store your data in iCloud Drive. You’ll lose data if you opted-out. You’ll also lose data stored in apps which don’t use cloud storage at all, of course. For apps which store your data on their own servers, like Facebook or Slack, you’ll only lose your preferences.
Having an up to date full backup of your device not only saves you from having to worry about these intricacies, but also makes it much easier and faster to setup a new device. When you restore a full backup, iOS does its best to restore not just the personal data, but also your springboard layout, your wallpapers and keyboards, your preferences and Wi-Fi passwords, etc…
iCloud or Local Backup?
The average user should not be required to care for our industry’s techological shifts. Apple clearly understands this — for the past few years, iOS has been aggressively pushing cloud oriented default presets:
- iCloud is enabled for all possible datasets
- In recent iOS versions, the possibility to store Contacts, Calendars and Notes locally (On my iPhone account) is not activated by default
- iCloud Backup is enabled by default without opt-in since iOS 9
The kicker, of course, is that iCloud only offers 5 GB of free storage⁵. Which is pretty much never enough.
iCloud storage isn’t expensive per se, but it’s yet another recurring cost to factor in. For most folks, 50 GB will be enough to back up one device, but 200 GB really is the comfort zone. At $36 per year, it’s affordable but certainly not dirt cheap.
On the other hand, local backups are faster, cheaper, and let us access backed up data granularly, bypassing the need to restore the backup to an iOS device in order to recover data. They also play a vital role in increasing data transparency and ownership: through a local backup, we can access much of iOS’ file system without jailbreaking, and thus gain key insights into how our data is being stored by both Apple and 3rd parties.
Local Backups 2.0
At DigiDNA, we’ve been focusing on local backups extensively since the release of iMazing 2. We use the same channel iTunes does to make local backups, but have essentially dialed everything up to 11:
- Backups are versioned, ‘Time Machine’ style
- Versions are fully browsable and restorable
- Backup location is configurable. Even NAS are supported
- On the Mac, our menu bar app iMazing Mini backs up iOS devices automatically, via Wi-Fi (Windows version coming soon)
And since day one, all backup features have been included in our free version. Here’s what it looks like:
Bottom line, backups are a must. And local backups, whether made with iTunes or iMazing, are absolutely free. So start backing up your iPhone now, there’s really no excuse not to!
- As measured by DigiDNA on over 100k devices in 2017
- Extrapolated from 2017 data by the British Office for National Statistics
- See the nightmarish complexity of My Photo Stream, which even Apple has trouble explaining: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201317
- SanDisk’s iXpand Base, for example, can only back up photos and contacts: https://www.sandisk.com/home/mobile-device-storage/ixpand-base
- iCloud only offers 5 GB of free storage: Apple just announced yesterday that ‘Every student that has an Apple ID managed by a school will have access to 200GB of storage space.’ (MacRumors article)