Chances are, if you have your iTunes preferences set up to sync automatically with your iPhone/iPod touch, you might think it’s doing a full backup beforehand every time. Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, this may not be the case.

The Incident
As usual, I learned this the hard way earlier this week. My main computer was being attended to by our awesome Service Department, and so I had a temporary machine with an older clone of my data on it. I made the bad decision to plug in my iPhone to get a photo off of it (thinking I’d transfer the photo to my MacBook Pro later), and it—gasp—synced automatically, leaving me with no current data (and a piddly iTunes music library).

When I got my main MBP back, I figured I’d plug my iPhone in and restore from my most recent backup (the last time I synced was about a week ago, so at worst, I’d only lose a couple days of data entry, right?). However, when I plugged in, I found that the most recent backup iTunes had was August 5th. August 5th?? Sure, that was only about a month old, but how was it not doing a full backup all of those times I plugged it in after August 5th?

Found in iTunes > Preferences > Devices.

My first thought was that I should just go back to the temporary machine, plug my iPhone in, and restore from the backup it must have made on that fateful day before I synced it in the first place. I took a look, and unsurprisingly, there was no recent full backup there either—only one from March (the last backup I made before the settings were cloned to that machine).

Dude, Where’s My Backup?
Apparently, the backup process is tricky and somewhat convoluted. When researching the ins and outs of an iPhone backup/restore, all the results I came across were about a year old, in that people were complaining about the fact that iTunes/iPhone OS 2.0 backed up every time, causing syncs to be slower. Apple has obviously since upgraded the OS to 3.0, where the backup speed has been much improved, but at what cost?

It seems that the automated full backup is not in effect in 3.0, and essentially it will just sync your apps, music and info (Contacts, Calendars, Notes, Mail, etc.). That’s all well and good, but I already have my contacts, calendars et al. stored elsewhere (and often, thanks to a regular Time Machine backup on my MBP). Plus, I could always redownload any apps I’ve lost, even though that may be a pain. What I care about the most is the stored application data.

The stored app data is a part of the iTunes backup file itself; however, the actual data files are buried in Users > [Your User] > Library > Application Support > MobileSync > Backup. These files make no discernible sense to most people (read: anyone who isn’t a coder or developer), so I didn’t find them to be very useful. They’re already being backed up by my Time Machine preferences, anyway, since my entire User folder is included. (Also unfortunate: I didn’t have a more recent Time Machine backup than August 5th to even try, and my machine was in service in the first place due to complications from an almost-full hard drive. Take note, kids: that’s bad, too.)

If you want to understand more about those files and the backup/restore process, Erica Sadun has written an informative article over at Ars Technica about how to better manage your iPhone apps.

A particular part of the article stuck out to me, though:
“Be aware that there is, at this time, no way to re-insert your data back into applications after you delete and restore it. You can recover the data for other uses, like looking at it from your desktop or archiving it, but Apple does not offer a restore data feature for applications that have been removed and later replaced.”

So, What Now?
What’s the moral in all this? The backup settings in iTunes are not as sophisticated or customizable as a Time Machine backup (or similar backup program), so it’s up to you to do it. Even though many people seemed to complain that automatic backups were slow or annoying (at least with 2.0 software), I can attest to the fact that it’s a bummer to lose your data, and they are well worth it.

Here are some tips to ensure you’ll never be without a backup when you need it:

  • If you have more than one computer, sync your device with just one; to be extra cautious, you can turn off automatic iPhone/iPod touch syncing on the other machines by disabling it in iTunes’ preferences. See screenshot above.
  • Ensure a full backup on your device by right-clicking on it in iTunes and selecting Back Up. See image at top right.

View Apple’s Support document about backing up, updating, and restoring iPhone/iPod touch here.

I have all my backup processes in place now, as I hope not to have a repeat. I’m on the hunt for more information on how I can automate my iPhone backups in the future, because I know that’s the only sure-fire way to keep everything I need safely protected. I’ll write my findings in a future Kibbles & Bytes.


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