What you can and can't restore through an iOS backup in iTunes

It’s easy to be confused about what iOS backups in iTunes include and exclude.

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A terribly sad email came in from Macworld reader Sharifa:

I deleted an iPhone back up from iTunes by mistake and have been trying all day to retrieve it. I lost all my honeymoon pics!

iTunes backups of an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch don’t contain apps and some kinds of media. They contain settings and certain kinds of documents stored within apps, and may contain images stored in an iOS device’s Camera Roll. Some apps that use iCloud or other cloud-based sync mark their local content as not needing to be backed up, since it can be restored by logging back into an account or resyncing.

If you use iTunes for iOS backups, Apple doesn’t store:

  • Apps, which Apple used to let you download into iTunes, and then sync back, and which stopped being a feature in iTunes 12.7. (See our article on coping with that and reclaiming storage space.) Even when apps were downloaded, they weren’t part of a backup: only which apps were installed was noted in the backup file.

  • Music. Apple can restore music via iTunes or stream and download it via Apple Music and iCloud Music Library (with Apple Music or iTunes Match).

  • All images and videos. Depending on how you’ve synced and configured photos, only the Camera Roll (containing pictures you took on a device) may be backed up, and it’s possible to disable that as well. If you sync images via iTunes, they will be stored either in iPhoto or Photos, and synced via iTunes. With iCloud Photo Library enabled, iTunes doesn’t engage with stored images or videos on your phone or tablet at all, as they’re all handled through iCloud.

Sharifa might have a copy without realizing it if Camera Roll backups were enabled, or through syncing to one of those other places. (I’ve emailed her to check.)

If you didn’t realize that pictures and videos aren’t always or fully stored in an iTunes backup, now is the immediate time to start making a separate backup or setting up sync! In iTunes, you can follow Apple’s instructions to sync to Photos or iPhoto. And then make sure you have a Time Machine and hosted or offsite backup of your media libraries on your Mac!

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