The Silly (But Functional) Mystery That Is iCloud Backup

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I took a leap last week and jumped onto iOS 8 beta 2, and although I was really impressed with the new QuickType keyboard and Continuity features, a few of my essential apps still aren’t compatible with the beta. Luckily, I had a double set of backups to return to: one in iCloud and one in iTunes.

I’ve tried iCloud backups before and they work well enough, but they also take up a lot of time. You’ve got to wait for all of your apps to download again, and apps that sync with cloud services (e.g. Evernote) don’t always remember your login credentials after you restore.

So this time around I decided to try restoring from my manual iTunes backup, from the night before I decided to try iOS 8. The downgrade to iOS 7 went off without a hitch, but I was a little spooked to find a very blank iPad upon my first restart. There were two pages of apps, but each screen was nearly empty, and consisted only of the default Apple apps.

That was when I remembered that I had none of my apps synced to my iTunes library on my Mac. I’ve only got 256 GB on my Retina MacBook Pro, so late last year I opted to delete all of the app files on my Mac. The thinking was that I could simply re-download any apps I needed directly from the App Store, so I didn’t need to have a local copy on my machine. So when I restored my iPad from the iTunes backup, there were simply no apps to sync over…hence the empty iPad. However, I wondered if this really meant I had lost all of my app data.

So, hoping against hope, I tried manually downloading all of my apps straight to my iPad from the App Store. I scrolled down the whole “purchased” list in the App Store and tapped on every app I remembered using. I waited a few minutes until Paper from FiftyThree finished installing, and then launched the app. To my surprise, it actually worked. All three of my books of sketches were right there, and the same went for all of my other apps. Evernote and Google Hangouts were logged in, and Reeder 2 was showing all of my feeds properly.

I’m honestly still not sure exactly where the app data is coming from — whether it was somehow stored in my local iTunes backup on my Mac, or whether it was data stored in iCloud that came down with my downloads — and I think that’s still an issue with iCloud. The details behind the backup process are so obscured that I, as a user, am left scratching my head about how the thing works. It doesn’t do much to help me make secure because it still feels like I’m crossing my fingers every time. I’m very glad that restoring from the backup actually worked, and I’m grateful that it’s a function that’s baked into the OS, but I really do wish it was easier for the end user to understand.
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Thomas

My name is probably Thomas (yes, it is). I'll be able to help you figure out why Evernote isn't syncing, or recommend your favourite new RSS reader to you. That's partly because I am enamoured with the iOS ecosystem and hardware, but mostly because I'm Canadian.

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2 thoughts on “The Silly (But Functional) Mystery That Is iCloud Backup

  1. Hey Thomas (if that’s your name)! So it sounds as if the restore using the iTunes backup, without the apps, took just as long as the iCloud backup would have (after downloading the apps again). Do you see any other differences or benefits of one over the other? At least it’s good to know that they both work well and accurately. And you know Apple is in the no see, no tell mystery marketing business. Very close to the cuff. They don’t think we need to know how this works, just that it does. I’m good.

    • Sorry for the late reply, Sally.

      I actually *do* see a difference in using the iTunes backup. I restored my iPhone this past week using an iCloud backup alone, and although it was intelligent enough to re-download all of my apps and keep the folder structures intact, I found I had to log back in to a *lot* of my apps to get them to work again.

      Restoring from an iTunes backup and then manually re-downloading apps on my iPad seemed to be easier overall. Yes, I did have to do a lot of tapping, but all of my apps re-downloaded with all of the info intact, and all of the logins preserved.