iOS 101: Set up and restore from iCloud backup

With the arrival of iCloud (s aapl) backups we are free from needing to attach your iOS device to iTunes to have it backed up. Gone are the annoying delays when you just want to sync something quick, but need to suffer through “Backing up…” first. Here’s how to get up and running with iCloud backup, and a detailed description of what it does and doesn’t restore.

Setting up iCloud backups

Go to the iCloud settings and choose Storage and Backup. Make sure iCloud backup is set to “On.”

According to Apple, this is what’s backed up: Purchased music, TV shows, apps, and books; photos and video in the Camera Roll; device settings; app data; home screen and app organization; messages (iMessage, SMS, and MMS); and ringtones. Apple’s mantra is anything that can be re-downloaded isn’t backed up, so your apps and any apps that have downloadable content aren’t stored in the cloud. If you have large amounts of app data, like PDFs in GoodReader, you may find yourself going over your free 5 GB limit. Naturally, if you do want all that data backed up, you can buy more storage: 15 GB is $20 per year; 25 GB is $40 per year; and 55 GB is $100 per year.

To specify which app data is or is not backed up, while still in the Storage and Backup section of the iCloud settings, click on Manage Storage and then your iOS device. Here, you can specify which apps iCloud backs up, and which it doesn’t.

iCloud backups happen whenever the device is plugged in, on a Wi-Fi network, and locked (meaning it’s at the Swipe to Unlock screen). If you want to check when the last backup was, or force a backup, at the bottom of the Storage and Backups screen there is a Back Up Now button.

Restoring from backup

Right now, backups and restores are done on the assumption you’ve either replaced your device, or your whole install is so messed up you had to nuke from orbit. The only way you can restore data is from the setup screen on a fresh install of iOS; you can’t just restore the specific data from a single app you accidentally deleted. This will be less of a problem once apps are updated to store their own backups in iCloud.

To reset your device, under General, choose Reset, and then Erase All Content and Settings. Your device will be restored to factory conditions and you will be prompted with this screen.

Restoration is a two-step process: first the device settings are restored, then all apps are re-downloaded from Apple’s servers. The restoration happens in order: the first app on your first screen is the first app to be re-downloaded. If you want to prioritize an app, tap on its icon. According to Apple, the restore will attempt to download the same version of the app that you had installed previously. If that version is no longer available, the latest version of the app will be restored instead.

The Aftermath

After doing several restores this weekend to try this out, I found the process relatively smooth with few surprises. I did have to re-enter a few email addresses. These all seemed to be Gmail (s aapl) addresses I had set up as Exchange accounts. However, it didn’t tell me which Exchange server it needed the passwords to. I also had to re-enter my iTunes password and my Game Center password. All fairly minor inconveniences. It did lose that I was syncing wirelessly to my MacBook, so I had to set that up again. I also recommend letting the Wi-Fi re-download from Apple’s servers completely (and not switch to iTunes syncing for apps) to ensure everything comes down clean. If you’re in a restore state, it’s best to limit the variables.

What’s nice is if you suffer a critical failure on the road you can get yourself up and running easily. This is great if your iOS device dies; you can swap it out at the Apple store and restore from backup while you’re there.

It’s important to make sure when you do this you have the time to check out that everything restored properly. It would be embarrassing to need to restore your device before a big presentation and find out the hard way Keynote or your specific presentation didn’t restore properly.