How To

Should You Back Up Your iOS Device to iCloud or Your Mac?

Posted on September 17th, 2020 by

You probably know how important it is to back up your data, and there are a number of different backup options for Mac.

But it’s also important to back up your iPhone or iPad. While you may not have a lot of documents on these devices that aren’t stored on a cloud server—which you can easily retrieve if necessary—you are likely to have photos and videos which, if you haven’t backed up, could be lost. Additionally, it can take a long time to re-create the setup of your iOS device; re-downloading all your apps, entering your user information, and organizing them on home screens can be a tedious process.

If you have a problem and need to restore your iOS device, it’s easy to do from an existing backup. But if you haven’t backed up your iOS device yet and want to prepare ahead of time, you might be wondering: should you back up your iOS device to iCloud or to your computer? If you use a Mac, since macOS Catalina, you back up your iOS device in the Finder. If you use Windows, or are running a version of macOS prior to Catalina, you back it up in iTunes. While these are different apps, the backup interface is the same.

Backing Up to iCloud

Backing up your iPhone or iPad to iCloud is simple. This happens automatically, when your iPhone is plugged in, locked, and connected to a Wi-Fi network. You can also manually initiate a backup to iCloud.

To turn on iCloud backups, go to Settings, tap your name, then tap iCloud. Scroll down a bit until you see iCloud Backup, and tap that. Tap the iCloud Backup toggle to turn this feature on. If you want to back up your device right away, tap Back Up Now. An iCloud backup can take a while the first time, especially if your network bandwidth is limited. But subsequent backups are quicker, because the device only backs up files and settings that are new or that have been modified.

By default, you have a free 5 GB iCloud account. You may wonder how you can backup, say, a 64 GB iPhone in such a limited amount of storage. The device actually doesn’t back up many files; it backs up photos and videos, and settings, but mostly it stores a record of the apps installed on your iOS device and any other purchased content.

Here is what gets backed up when you use iCloud:

  • Purchase history of music, movies, TV shows, apps, and books
  • Photos and videos in your Camera Roll
  • Device settings
  • App data
  • Apple Watch backups (iPhone only, if you have an Apple Watch)
  • Home screen and app organization
  • iMessage, text (SMS), and MMS messages
  • Ringtones
  • Visual Voicemail password

Apple explains further in a support document discussing iCloud backups:

“Your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch backup only include information and settings stored on your device. They do not include information already stored in iCloud such as Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, Notes, Voice Memos3, Messages in iCloud, iCloud Photos and shared photos. Some information is not included in an iCloud backup but can be added to iCloud and shared across multiple devices like Mail, Health data, call history and files you store in iCloud Drive.”

Nevertheless, you may need to trim your backup to store everything on iCloud (or buy additional storage). To do this, go to Settings tap your name, then iCloud, then Manage Storage. Tap Backups, then tap on the name of your device. (If you have more than one device linked to your iCloud account, you’ll see them all here.) On this screen, the Choose Data to Back Up section lets you choose exactly what gets backed up to iCloud. In most cases, the biggest share of your backup will be photos and videos that you’ve shot; these are shown as Camera Roll. Think about offloading some of these photos to your Mac from time to time to make backups smaller and faster.

If you tap Show All Apps, you’ll see all the apps that get backed up to iCloud. Tap any of the toggles next to the apps listed on this screen to turn off iCloud backup for their data.

You can exclude lots of apps from your iCloud backup. This will not only save space, but it will make backups quicker. However, think about not excluding apps where you have entered specific settings, such as a user name or other information: if so, you will have to re-enter the settings if you restore your device.

Backing Up to a computer

Backing up an iOS device to a computer – either via the Finder or via iTunes – is easy, and much quicker than backing up to iCloud, because the data just goes over the cable that connects your iOS device to your Mac. However, these backups only occur when you sync your device. With Apple Music and other streaming services, and with much of our data stored in the cloud, it’s less common for people to sync their devices at all. If you sync yours regularly, then it’s a good idea to back up your device to the Finder or to iTunes. If not, you should consider syncing at least once a week, or at least before any major iOS update.

When your iOS device is connected to your Mac, click on it in the Finder sidebar or in iTunes, then click the Summary tab. In the Backups section you’ll see this:

If you have checked This Computer, iTunes will back up your device every time you sync it. It’s quick and easy, and since you generally have plenty of storage on your Mac, there are no options to exclude specific apps.

Two Backups Are Better Than One

So which is better: backing up to iCloud or to your Mac? Actually, it’s best to use both. Having a local backup is much more efficient; if you have to restore your device, you’ll save a lot of time restoring it from your local backup. You also have all of your content synced to the device when you restored – not only what has been backed up, but also music, podcasts, and books that you didn’t buy from Apple (if you’re not using Apple’s cloud for these media types).

However, if you’re on the road, far from your Mac, and you need to restore an iOS device, it’s good to know that you have an iCloud backup. This lets you get your apps back quickly, so you can use your device.

The best solution is to regularly backup your iOS device to iCloud, and occasionally—say, once a week—back it up to your Mac. With both types of backups, you’re fully protected. Should you need to restore your device, you’ll be able to do so quickly and easily if you have access to your Mac, and, if not, iCloud can step in.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast and PhotoActive, and a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →