Chances are, you rely on your smartphone an awful lot—so what would happen if it fell off a cliff or down a well? What would you do if you left it in a different country or it got lifted out of your pocket? You should always have a phone data backup in place should the worst happen, and we’re going to talk you through the best options currently available.
The good news is that backing up a phone is a lot less stressful and tedious than it used to be, as the majority of apps (and Apple and Google themselves) have come around to the idea of keeping copies of everything in the cloud. The bad news is it can still be a chore to figure out which app preserves data in the cloud and which does not.
Apple wouldn’t leave you without a backup option for your precious iPhone, and if you go to iOS Settings then tap your name, iCloud, and iCloud Backup, you can have a backup automatically sent to the cloud on a regular basis. If you turn this option off, you can still back up your device to macOS (via Finder) or Windows (via iTunes) whenever you connect to a computer.
iCloud backups are easier and more convenient, but they also count against your iCloud storage (so you’ll need to pay if you go over 5GB), and they can also be decrypted by Apple, if requested by law enforcement agencies. Local backups are more secure, as long as you turn encryption on (the Encrypt local backup check box on the main screen), but you have to do them manually.
Apple backups include data such as device settings and home screen layouts, but how much app data they back up really depends on the app. Apple apps such as Contacts and Calendar use iCloud anyway, and the Messages app gives you the option to use iCloud to sync between devices—apps like this that are already making use of iCloud on their own won’t be included when you run a backup, because they don’t need to be (from iOS Settings, tap your name then iCloud to see which apps are using the cloud storage).
As more apps become cloud-based and sync data between devices, it can be confusing about what is and isn’t included in a backup—even the Apple support documents can’t be definitive, because it depends on your own configuration. Your best bet is to do an audit of your apps and work out how each one saves and stores data (think especially about messaging apps, where a lot of data is stored locally).
iPhones being iPhones, third-party access to the system is limited, so you won’t find a host of alternatives to the cloud backups and local backups that Apple itself provides (any apps that promise iPhone backups are usually talking about backing up the local data dumps that you save to your computer).
There is one new contender to talk about: Google One. The upcoming storage app for iOS will now back up your iPhone if you want it to, covering photos and videos plus the Contacts and Calendar apps on iOS. It’s hardly the most comprehensive option in the world, and it ignores other apps and device settings, but if you like to keep everything Google-ified (including your iPhone) then it’s worth a look—the iOS app will be available soon, Google says.
Android being Android, there are tons of third-party options here, but we’ll start with Google: If you’ve got a Pixel phone you can go to System, Advanced, and Backup to backup your phone to Google Drive in encrypted form. This includes data from Google Calendar and Google Contacts, as well as photos and videos up to your Drive storage limit (you get 15GB for free). Apps and app data (up to 25MB per app), call history, phone settings and SMS texts (but not MMS messages) are included too.
Rather confusingly, Google One for Android will also back up some of this data to Google servers too (this used to only be available to those who were already paying for Google One storage, but now it’s available to everyone). Inside the app, tap Settings and Manage backup settings—in this case MMS data is included, as well as device settings and photos and videos (via Google Photos).
As on iOS, individual apps are a bit of a free-for-all—a lot of your apps will already lean on the cloud for backups, some will have backup settings built into them, and others (such as WhatsApp) will make use of Google Drive but must be configured individually. Again, it’s worth going through all of your apps and working out what’s saved where.
Android apps can get much more access to the system than iOS apps, and you’ll find a number of Play Store apps that will do quite a comprehensive job of backing up different parts of your phone. The freemium Autosync is a good example: It makes use of the storage you’ve got in Google Drive to sync any file or folder on your device with the cloud, working like Google Drive does on the desktop to keep your Android phone and your Google Drive storage account mirrored at all times.
Another popular and well-known option is the freemium Super Backup & Restore, which can cover app data, contacts, call logs, SMS messages, files stored locally, and more. Accepted backup locations are Gmail, Google Drive, or an installed memory card—which is a reminder that to be as safe as possible, you should really have your most important data stored in three different locations, not just two.
Assuming Google Photos is handling your photos and videos, and your messaging apps are being backed up somewhere, you should have the majority of bases covered—file management apps such as Google Drive and Dropbox already store everything in the cloud anyway. Certain information, including the apps you’ve downloaded and bought from the Play Store, is automatically linked to your Google account, no backup needed.