iPhone & iPad External Drive Backup Solution

Data Loss Problem

Just like with any other computer it is a good idea to backup your iPhone and iPad. If your device fails or has a software upgrade problem you will face an unpleasant situation without recourse where you will lose some possibly irreplaceable data .

Inadequate Apple Solutions

Apple tries to make it easy to protect against this problem by providing two options:

  1. Backup to iCloud
  2. Backup to your Mac’s internal hard disk

but there are problems with both these options due to the large amount of data to be backed up from devices that can store as much as 64GB or 128GB of data.

Backup to iCloud

iCloud is available for free but with only 5GB of storage which is only enough for syncing some data. To use it for backup, a storage plan must be purchased which costs approximately $5/month. This is affordable for most people but saving and restoring from the cloud uses the Internet which can have noticeable limitations in speed for large data transfers and depending on your ISP data plan the potential for extra overage charges when exceeding data quotas.

Backup to your Mac’s Internal Drive

Backup locally to your Mac’s internal hard drive can solve the remote data transfer problems but only if your Mac’s internal hard drive has sufficient capacity. With the modernization to SSD storage to increase speed and the slim design of mobile ready laptops like the MacBook Air the Mac may have a shortage of internal disk space. Unfortunately this scenario, which is quite common, isn’t provided with a workable option because the only way to increase storage is through an external USB connected disk drive and the iTunes software will only save backups to the internal drive.

Mac External Drive Backup Solution

An investment in a high capacity (multi-TeraByte) USB connected disk drive for backup could be a lifesaver for your iPhone and/or iPad and also could function for Time Machine backup storage if you don’t already have a solution for that. The best way to use your external drive for both of these backup functions would be to partition the disk into two virtual disks. One dedicated to iPhone and/or iPad backup and the second to Time Machine backup. If you need help with disk partitioning that would be the subject of another article.

To use an external drive to backup your iPhone and/or your iPad you need to trick iTunes into thinking it is backing up to the internal disk while sending the data to the external disk using a symbolic link.

Preparing External Drive Backup

There are several steps in preparing for an external drive backup because you have to trick iTunes into thinking it is backing up locally when the files actually will be transferred to an external drive:

  1. Locate the internal drive backup location
  2. Make these files and folders visible in the Finder
  3. Create the backup destination directory on your external drive
  4. Transfer existing backup files from the internal drive to the external drive
  5. Erase internal drive backup files
  6. Create a symbolic link from the internal drive to the external drive
  7. Test that when the iPhone or iPad are backed up in iTunes that the backups are saved to the external drive
  8. Clean up by turning off the file visibility of the normally hidden files

Let’s do it!

1. Locate the internal drive backup

The internal drive folder which iTunes uses to backup iPhone or iPad data is hidden deep in a normally invisible Library folder:

~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup (The ~ symbol represents your user directory name).

2. Make these files and folders visible in the Finder

On the Mac some important directories, that are normally not to be tampered with, are hidden in the Finder file manager. Library is one of those directories. To view any existing iPhone backups on your internal drive you can toggle the visibility of files like the Library folder and its contents using the Mac’s Unix command line interface that is accessed in the Terminal (or use the command line interface to do the file management commands). We will just use terminal for toggling the file visibility and use the Finder to do the file management. The terminal is hidden away in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder.

Terminal command:

defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles -bool TRUE

3. Create the backup destination directory on your external drive

My suggestion is to make a folder named MobileSync on your external drive that will contain a Backup folder for the data files.

<Your External HDD name>/MobileSync/Backup

4. Transfer existing backup files from the internal drive to the external drive

Check the age of the backups to see if they are worth keeping and either delete them if they are old or save them externally. Drag your Backup folder on your internal drive into the MobileSync folder on your external drive.

5. Erase internal drive backup files

Erasing the internal drive Backup folder frees up a lot of disk space that your overworked internal drive could really use for more important things.

6. Create a symbolic link from the internal drive to the external drive

In the terminal use the magic of the Unix command line to create a symbolic Backup link that saves to the Backup folder on the external drive:

ln -s /Volumes/<Your External HDD name>/MobileSync/Backup ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup

of course you need to replace <Your External HDD name> with the actual name of your external hard drive.

7. Test iPhone or iPad backups in iTunes are saved to the external drive

Now when you do a backup in iTunes the symbolic link should transfer the files to the backup folder on your external drive. Do a backup to confirm this.

8. Clean up by turning off the file visibility of the normally hidden files

To reverse the file visibility of normally hidden files use the same command as was used in step 2 and just set it to FALSE.

Terminal command:

defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles -bool FALSE

External Drive Backup Solution for IOS devices

By following these steps you will have peace of mind knowing that you can backup your IOS devices without using up the precious storage on your Mac’s internal drive. There are a few steps to configure your system but once it is done you can easily backup your IOS devices each time you connect them with your Mac.

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