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The dark iCloud of backups: Why Apple is still having trouble on the web

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Shortly after I installed iOS 7.1.1 I experienced horrible battery life with my iPad 3. My iPad would run hot and my battery life plummeted. The final straw was when I used my iPad to take notes during a 2-hour meeting. My battery dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent during that period. Clearly something was wrong.

During the iOS 7 beta period, if I had battery performance issues, erasing all data and settings usually fixed the problem. So, when I got home I nuked the iPad from orbit and started over. Unfortunately, restoring my data underscored a lot of the problems I have with iCloud.

iCloud backups

I always back up my iPad to the cloud. Usually, when I get a new iPad I’ll restore the last backup. What I am finding is that I’m not a good use case for the backups.

I keep my 64gb iPad fairly full. When I restore from iCloud it’s the digital equivalent of drinking from a fire hose where all the apps come down at once. While I can adjust the order a little by clicking on apps to change the download priority, the restore takes too long before my iPad is truly usable. Instead, since I just wanted to finish reading my book, I reset the iPad again and started as a new iPad. It would have been nice to just download my photos, iMessages, and my Mail settings while my Kindle book was downloading. I don’t mind manually installing the apps since it’s a good time to clean house.

I’ve also found that if I download a lot of apps at once I experience a lot of failed downloads. Even the next day when I mass-downloaded a lot of apps I still got errors and had better luck only downloading 1 or two. Apple needs to do a better job at app download queue management.

Problems with iCloud Documents

When I tried to reconnect my 1Password to iCloud, I got an error message that said “Data folder exists in iCloud Container exists but it is missing important vault information (profile.js)”. A quick Google search showed that waiting for the iCloud downloads to finish seemed to solve the problem. Unfortunately, 12 hours later I still had the same problem.

Fortunately, I did have 1Password on my Mac and iPhone so I was able to use one of them to switch my data sync to Dropbox. In hindsight, keeping my 1Password file in the inaccessible regions of iCloud was a bad idea. I’m going to keep it in Dropbox from now on.

I also had a minor scare when my iWork apps showed “No Documents” when I opened them for the first time, but after a few minutes and a few app restarts they showed up again.

While I haven’t had too many problems with iCloud lately, the 1Password scare reminded me that keeping crucial files in a sandbox I don’t have direct access to is a bad idea. While I can get to some iCloud documents by going to ~Library\Mobile Documents, it’s best keeping absolutely crucial files in a cloud service where I can download older versions if I need to.

What Apple can do to fix this problem

Apple needs to make some hefty changes to iCloud. It needs to allow you to backup and take advantage of the full size of your iPad (128GB max) inexpensively. In my case, since most of my data is strung between four cloud services (OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud), I didn’t need to back it all up. However, for a while I used iBooks to store my side-loaded ePubs and PDFs. In this case, I had to stop backing it up to iCloud because of space concerns. Loosing all of those in the case of a system failure led me to put my PDFs back on Dropbox and use Goodreader to access them. Being able to keep them all in iCloud (about 50g of data) would be very nice.

Because my iCloud mail, document data, and backups all share the same storage pool, I have to balance if I want data accessible via iCloud or a robust backup of in-app data (like my iBooks). Backing up in-app data tends to lose that fight.

For restores, I’d like the option to just restore some settings, only restore data from a few crucial apps. The fire hose (and subsequent download errors) isn’t a happy moment in restores.

I’m not sure what could have been done about the 1Password problem. It seemed that clearing out 1Password iCloud data from my Mac’s Mobile Documents folder may have solved the problem, in this case the data was too valuable for me to risk loosing.

iCloud backups are good for people who have a small amount of apps and data. In this case, a restore is quick and painless. It’s not good for people like me that tend to jam their devices full, or want to selectively choose what they restore.

16 Responses to “The dark iCloud of backups: Why Apple is still having trouble on the web”

  1. While I did not have any issues restoring my iPhone from iCloud (battery lasts 3 hours, and resetting does not fix this), I do think the whole documents in apps paradigm is flawed. Storing documents in apps instead of folders has to be the most ridiculous idea in years.

    • rannxerox

      Totally agree. Hiding the file structure in iOS is about the most absurd “feature” in the OS. I mean people don’t seem to be confused with FInder in Mac OS.

      • PXLated

        “people don’t seem to be confused with FInder in Mac OS”
        Let me introduce you you a bunch of my novice friends – They never use the finder, if they need to find something they use spotlight. They have no clue where anything is save – usually to the desktop.
        For me, I would like a finder on iOS – For them it would be just as big a disaster as their Macs.
        I’ve given up trying to explain it all to them and just let them go on their merry way and hope they don’t call me to figure something out.

  2. Garnet Wolseley

    Very helpful article, but I was distracted by you repeatedly confusing the spelling of “loosing” with “losing.”

  3. barryallard

    iCloud needs to be a vital feature of iDevices, not just a backup mechanism. This means changing CoreData and other APIs maybe even the FS to allow streaming to reduce time to using an app, with the ability to eventually fully restore to work offline as well.

    Bottom line: there is no reason why a device should not be usable while a data restore is underway… Time is precious and waiting for a restore is technically avoidable.

  4. Silversee

    Oddly enough, I actually like the way Microsoft handles this. When migrating to a new Surface or other Windows device, you can opt to restore all of your synced settings, favorites, passwords from OneDrive, and data from network storage if you previously used File History. Your Start Screen layout and installed app list are restored too, but the system only installs shortcuts to the apps; tapping any app’s tile causes it to immediately download from the Store. This is nice since you may not always want to restore the same sets of apps on every device, and you have the option to remove the shortcuts you don’t want. Of course, you can also set up your tablet as a “new device”, in which case just your synced settings, passwords, browser favorites, and Start Screen layout are applied, while the app list remains set to the default arrangement.

  5. pjs_boston

    I’ve restored from iCloud dozens of times, whenever I buy a new iPhone or,iPad, and when installing iOS beta versions for testing. While I have had some minor issues with iCloud restore while running beta versions of iOS, I have never had a problem restoring against a released version of iOS. For me, iCloud restore has fulfilled Apple’s promise, it just works.

    Not sure why the author has so many complaints over a service that exceeded expectations, but I think I tight be user error.

  6. Alex Yuriev

    This is the curse of Apple. The better the they make a product the dumber the users of the product become. I’m waiting to hear someone whine that he does not understand why he or she needs to actually put gas into a car when the gauge says “E”

    • taojones2013

      same thing with time machine my drives are too big and old stuff is not deleted as it is set for so new backups simply fail .the land of multiple terabytes is fraught with pitfalls !

    • Mark Crump

      I’m not sure your analogy is the same. I usually get ~10 hours battery on my iPad. If I go through almost an entire charge in 2 hours, something’s wrong.

      To use your analogy: A typical back and forth to my day job is 1/4 tank of gas. If I fill up on Monday and need to fill up on Wednesday (with no difference in driving length), something’s wrong, too.

        • PowerPositive

          Do you have anything positive to say, or are insults all you know??
          Everything Apple does, including iCloud, is now dumbed down so even people like you can use the stuff.
          What Apple has forgotten how to do is make gear for power users, such as the author of this article.
          ICloud is slow, inflexible and clunky.
          Likewise, Maps, Siri, iWork, iLife, etc etc all are subpar,
          A company with $150b+ in the bank should be able to do better for all its customers, not just the novices.

  7. Reblogged this on Taste of Apple and commented:
    I’m having this exact issue with my own 3rd generation iPad. I ended up resorting to a fresh reset which helped. But Apple definitely does need to fix what’s happening in these cases. From what I hear, changes are coming with WWDC and iOS 8/OSX updates.