iCloud, iPhoto, and CrashPlan – My iPhone Backup Strategy

The iPhone 4S was my first iPhone. It was also my first experience wading through the definitions, differences and tradeoffs between iCloud backups, iTunes backups, syncing with iTunes, syncing with iCloud, Wi-Fi synching, backing up photos and video to iPhoto, and iTunes Home Sharing.

Initially, I thought I would be able to simply turn on iCloud backups and never think about it again. It turns out it is not that simple, unless you want to pay for more space.

I’ve explained a hybrid approach I am now using to backup my data to a few friends and coworkers, so I figured I’d share it in a post to see what others are doing. A lot of this is probably common knowledge for many iPhone users, but required some reading and experimenting to get up to speed. Hopefully, I can save a few iOS newbies some time and confusion.

Here is the executive summary of my current, free backup strategy that minimizes how often I have to plug my iPhone into my MacBook:

  • iCloud backs up everything except my Photo Roll
  • Photo Stream is On
  • Monthly, I plug my iPhone into my MacBook to save my pictures and videos to iPhoto
  • Wi-Fi Sync is enabled (to backup any on-device movie purchases to a computer)
  • For long term backup of my photos and videos, I backup my entire user directory on my MacBook with CrashPlan

Apple could simplify the process above by allowing your Camera Roll to sync to your computer over Wi-Fi or by including videos you capture in your Photo Stream (less likely).

Read on to understand some of my reasoning for ending up with this backup approach. I will be assuming you are using iOS 5.

Definition of Terms

The focus of this post is on backing up your device and all the content on it, which requires a quick definition of terms – the first hurdle to understanding your data management options with iOS.

Backup this is exactly what it sounds like. You are backing up your device, so that you can restore it if you lose it. You can save your backups on your computer with iTunes or on the web with iCloud (or both if you really want to). Some media does not get backed up, like media that was synced to your device from a computer and not purchased on the device (in theory you would restore that from the computer again if you lost your device). Movies you buy and download on an iOS device are also not backed up. Make sure you sync those to a computer for long-term storage.

Syncing with iTunes this is a little confusing. Synching “backs up” some stuff in a way, but is mainly focused on synchronizing content between your computer and iOS device. Things like your devices settings, and email accounts are not “synced” – you have to backup to save that info. If you buy media from iTunes on your phone, it will get sent to your computer. If you buy media on your computer, it will get sent to your phone. One pain point is that syncing does not backup your devices’ photos or videos that you have captured with the device. You need to use iPhoto for that (or something else if you are on a PC). Photo Stream halfway helps with this…

Wi-Fi Syncing – same as syncing with iTunes, except you don’t have to plug your device into your computer. Once you set it up, it just happens magically when your iOS device and computer are on the same wireless network, iTunes is open, and your device is plugged into power.

iTunes Home Sharing – enables you to stream iTunes content from your computer to your iOS devices when they are on the same network. Home Sharing does not permanently sync or backup anything. It just gives you the ability to share content by streaming it to devices or between computers. All devices and computers must be using the same Apple ID.

Photo Stream – is a collection of the last 1000 photos you have taken that are stored online in your iCloud account (although you can’t view them online) and pushed down to all your devices and computers. Photos will automatically upload from your iOS device to your Photo Stream when you are on a Wi-Fi network. It is important to note that Photo Stream does not apply to videos you capture with your device.

 iCloud – Think of iCloud as a place on the web where you can wirelessly backup your devices, use to automatically share photos between your devices (Photo Stream), and use to wirelessly “sync” your content between your devices via the web. Also, unrelated to backing up your data, iCloud gives you web based email (yourname@me.com), calendar, and contacts – this is exactly like Gmail, Google Calendar, etc. For backups, you get 5GB of storage for free. Your purchased music, apps, books, and TV shows, as well as your Photo Stream, don’t count against your free storage.

Cutting the Cable… Almost.

I’m a Sprint guy (note about this at then end), so for the few years prior to my iPhone 4S, I was a webOS user and developer. While webOS lacked solid hardware and momentum to catch up with iOS or Android, it was ahead of the game (at the time) when it comes to backing up your data and managing your contacts. When you setup a new webOS phone, you create a Palm Profile. The device then backs itself up everyday to the web. If you lose your phone, you simply log into your profile on the new device and your apps, contacts, and device settings start getting restored to your new device.

Fortunately, iCloud came to iOS when the iPhone launched on Sprint, allowing me to continue this use model, freeing me from backing up to my computer completely… for a while. After a few months of using my iPhone with iCloud as my backup method, I started seeing an error message every morning – something like “Failed to backup to iCloud. Not enough space available. Purchase more space in Settings.”

“How the heck have I used up my 5GB?”, was my first thought. Remember, your purchased music, apps, books, and TV shows (anything Apple is storing on a server somewhere anyway), as well as your Photo Stream, don’t count against your free storage… that sounds like everything, so what is taking up so much space? I tapped my way into Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Storage > This iPhone to find out.

Disable specific backups in the iCloud Settings

Videos. Beautiful, crisp, 1080p, full HD videos. Since videos are not included in your Photo Stream, they do count against your free 5GB of storage when your Camera Roll gets backed up to iCloud. I have an 18-month-old son that is quite entertaining, so I have a ton of videos on my iPhone. As you can see in the screenshot above, my Camera Roll was up to 8.2GB, which was causing my iCloud backups to fail. By turning Camera Roll off, I could my get backup down to only 450MB.

So, I am out of space, I don’t want to delete any videos, and I want to keep them backed up. That leaves me with a few options

  1. Buy more iCloud space
  2. Turn off the Camera Roll backup in the iCloud settings and periodically save my photos and videos to iPhoto (requires a cable)
  3. Bail on iCloud and use iTunes to do a cabled backup periodically

After a little thinking, I decided to go with #2 over #3 (#1 didn’t really have a chance).

iCloud & iPhoto – The Hybrid Approach

When deciding between approaches #2 and #3 above, there are a couple conundrums.

Consider going with #2 – if you are going to periodically cable your iOS device to your computer to save your Camera Roll to iPhoto, why not also do a full backup to iTunes and forget about iCloud backups all together?

Now consider going with #3 – when you do a cabled backup to iTunes, your Camera Roll is not imported into iPhoto. It is backed up somewhere on your computer, so that it could be restored to your iOS device, but you can’t view it anywhere.

Ok, so let’s step back. What do I think I want?

  • Frequent backups of my iPhone (apps, settings, contacts, etc.)
  • Backups of my Camera Roll
  • The ability to view my Camera Roll on my MacBook

The best way to accomplish this is to go with #2. By turning off my Camera Roll backup in the iCloud settings, my iPhone is able to back itself up every night if it is connected to Wi-Fi and a power source. Then, using the Reminders app, I have a monthly reminder set to import all my photos and videos to iPhoto. I also keep Photo Stream turned on as a way to keep my photos “backed up” between iPhoto saving sessions.

Worst-case scenario, I lose my iPhone right before saving my videos to iPhoto one month. Using this backup approach, the videos from the last month should be the only thing I can’t recover.

Backing Up the Backup

My parents have photo album after photo album of pictures from all phases of our lives growing up. Short of a house fire, these albums will last a lifetime. Digital media has countless benefits over physical photos, but it is definitely easier to lose. I’ve had most of my photos and videos on my MacBook for a couple years now and have been one harddrive crash away from losing it.

Backing up to external drives is good, but what if that drive crashes? Over 20 or 30 years, I don’t want to take the chance with two harddrives… although I guess there will be new, more reliable storage media over that timeframe 🙂 Anyway, for now, enter CrashPlan.

CrashPlan installs a service on your computer that incrementally backs up unlimited data to the cloud for $5 per month. I am currently backing up my entire user directory (~120GB), which includes my iPhoto library and a ton of other stuff.


While iCloud greatly simplifies the whole backup process, 5GB goes quick if you are shooting a lot of video. Apple gives users an easy option to buy more space (of course), but with a little effort you can keep your device backups current, with the exception of captured video.

Here are a few ways Apple could help its users out:

  1. Include videos in your Photo Stream
  2. Instead of 5GB, give users as much iCloud storage as their devices’ internal storage (if you have a 16GB iPhone, you could get 16GB of iCloud storage)
  3. Allow your Camera Roll to sync to iPhoto over Wi-Fi

How do you back up your iOS devices? Let us know in the comments.

Lastly, the note about Sprint – It’s a bargin. We pay $47 per person (taxes and fees included) for effectively unlimited iPhone use. Find five people, including yourself, that want to start a Friends & Family Plan and sign up for the $129 plan that gives you 1500 Anytime Minutes. These minutes only get used if you are roaming or calling a landline. Calls to other cellphones don’t use minutes. You also have unlimited data and messaging. Split the bill.


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