Backing Up: A Comparison Between iCloud and iTunes

Know what back up method is right for your iPhone!
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Backing up your iPhone is crucial to avoid data loss. Much of the data on your iPhone, or other iOS or iPadOS products, is priceless. Losing pictures you can't get back is the worst feeling. Trust me. Taking backing up seriously, and understanding your backup options is one of the most important things you can do for yourself, as an iPhone user.

Not all backup methods are created equal. Backing up to iCloud and iTunes are very different processes. Not only is the backup process different, but what data is being backed up is different too. Likely, you have data that is not being backed up, that is actually being stored differently, or is not being stored at all.

To protect your priceless data, figure out what backup method you prefer, what data you need backed up, and create a consistent plan that protects that data and prevents data loss.

In this guide, I illustrate the different backup methods and what data is being backed up. I also delve into data that is syncing to iCloud versus being part of a backup, so that you know how to best manage your data.

iPhone 11 (256GB + Green)iPhone 11 (256GB + Green) ×1

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iCloud Backups
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Backing up to iCloud is an automatic process, which you have to turn on in your iCloud settings, that allows your iPhone to backup once in every 24 hour period as long as your device is plugged into its charger, connected to wifi, and on its lock screen. Of course, it also requires that you are properly signed into iCloud and that the iCloud has enough storage space for the data your iPhone is attempting to backup.

Most people backup to iCloud because it is easier, less time-consuming, and automatic by default. Since Apple products are all about convenience, it's ideal to back up to iCloud. Usually, this is the method I recommend to most iPhone users, especially considering that physical backups take dedication and regularity. If you are, or are considering, backing up to iCloud, you should know exactly what iCloud does and doesn't back up.

The below table shows what the iCloud will back up as long as that data is not also syncing to iCloud. Data cannot be syncing to iCloud and backing up at the same time. It is always one or the other.

Data type iCloud If syncing to iCloud
App data Yes No
Device settings Yes N/A
Apple watch backups Yes N/A
Home screen organization Yes N/A
iMessage, MMS, and SMS Yes No
Photos and videos Yes No
Purchase history Yes N/A
Ringtones Yes N/A
Apple Mail data No N/A (data is syncing to iCloud)
Apple Pay data No N/A
Face ID or Touch ID No N/A
Library data (Music Library or Photo Library) No N/A (data is syncing to iCloud)

To check out a more comprehensive list visit support.apple.com. Apple has many articles available for iPhone and Apple users so that they have important information available to them.

iTunes Backups
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iTunes backups are manual backups done with the use of a PC or Mac by plugging your iPhone into the computer to backup your data onto the hard drive of that computer. This process is actually faster than an iCloud backup, but because it is not automatic, it is still taking up more time than an automatic iCloud backup. This is because iCloud backups use Wi-Fi. A wired connection will always be faster, though variables do occur.

In order to use iTunes backup, you must have a computer with iTunes installed (and up to date), your iPhone should be on the latest iOS, and your computer must have the necessary storage for the data being backed up from your iPhone.

If you have chosen this method of backing up, or are considering it, look at the table below. There is also some data that will not backup via iTunes. Remember, that if something happens to the computer you are backing up to, the data on that computer from your iPhone can be lost.

The below table shows what iTunes will back up as long as that data is not also syncing to iCloud. Data cannot be syncing to iCloud and backing up at the same time. It is always one or the other.

Data type iTunes If syncing to iCloud
App data Yes No
Device settings Yes N/A
Apple watch backups Yes N/A
Home screen organization Yes N/A
iMessage, MMS, and SMS Yes No
Photos and videos Yes No
Purchase history Yes N/A
Ringtones Yes N/A
Apple Mail data No N/A (data is syncing to iCloud)
Apple Pay data No N/A
Activity data Yes (if backup encryption is on) N/A
Health data Yes (if backup encryption is on) N/A
Keychain data Yes (if backup encryption is on) N/A
Face ID or Touch ID No N/A
Library data (Music Library or Photo Library) No N/A (data is syncing to iCloud)
Content from the iTunes and App Stores No N/A
Content synced from Finder or iTunes No N/A

When backing up to a PC or Mac via iTunes, you will be asked if you would like to encrypt the backup, so if you are wanting some of the above data to backup, note that this feature may need to be on as noted in the table.

Syncing to iCloud

This is where most people understandably get a bit confused about where certain important data is, since it is not being backed up. There is some data, that is instantaneously syncing to iCloud instead of being part of the backup process. This is true of particular data if certain features are on.

In the table below, I list those data types and their associated features to make it more clear.

Data type Feature If on If off
App data iCloud Syncing Syncing Backing up
iMessage, MMS, and SMS iCloud Syncing Syncing Backing up
Photos and videos iCloud Syncing with Photo Library Syncing Backing up
Music Libary iCloud Syncing Syncing Backing up
Notes iCloud Syncing Syncing Backing up

To see if your data is backing up, or syncing to iCloud, follow these steps:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Click your name at the top of Settings
  3. Click "iCloud"
  4. Scroll through the list of apps and data types

If the green toggle is on to the right, or it says "on," that data is syncing to iCloud. There are a few downsides to this and a few perks:

  • This data type is instantaneously going to iCloud.
  • This data type is not a part of a backup process.
  • If this data type is deleted from the product with the feature on, it will delete from iCloud and all associated products it's syncing to.
iCloud Vs. iTunes Comparison

There are some major differences in how the backup process works via iCloud versus iTunes. To illustrate the differences, view the table below:

Factors iCloud iTunes
Storage size Up to 2TB Dependent on size computer hard drive
Storage location iCloud Computer hard drive
Encrypted backups By default with the use of Apple ID and password By turning backup encryption on
Backup location and access iCloud and iCloud.com Computer hard drive and files
Time Dependent on Wi-Fi and data size Usually minutes
User Effort Automatic so minimal effort Can be accomplished in a few minutes with a good connection

To view a thorough comparison of the above data from Apple visit support.apple.com

Note that the decision you make to back up your data is based on your personal preferences, tech skill level, and convenience. As long as you have a backup of your data that is safe, choose the method that works best for you and trust the process.

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