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.

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