iTunes Wi-Fi Sync & Back Up: Fail (& Workaround)

With the release of iOS 5, iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, iPod touches) are more “wireless” than ever. From activating an iPhone to Software Update, tasks that previously required a wired connection between an iOS device and a Mac can now be done “PC free.” Very impressive.

Perhaps the most impressive example of this shift is iTunes Wi-Fi Sync. Once set up, you can sync any of your iOS devices to iTunes without a Dock Connector. Just click the device’s Sync button in iTunes and off it goes, even if the iOS device is asleep. You can similarly wirelessly modify settings in the device’s tabs (Info, Apps, Music, etc.). Want to sync an iOS device when you’re not near your computer? No problem. As long as iTunes remains open on your Mac and the iOS device remains on your Wi-Fi network, just tap Sync Now in Settings > General > iTunes Wi-Fi Sync on your device.

All you need to do to enable this feature is connect your iOS device to iTunes (perhaps for the last time!) and select “Sync with this iOS device over Wi-Fi” from the device’s Summary screen. Now, iOS devices remain listed in the Devices section of your iTunes sidebar even after you disconnect them! 

Your iOS devices can even automatically sync with iTunes on your Mac — whenever you connect a device to a power source. However (as I previously noted in my Complete Guide to iOS 5’s New and “Hidden” Settings), getting auto-syncing to work additionally requires that you (a) disable “Prevent iPods, iPhones, and iPads from syncing automatically” in iTunes > Preferences > Devices and (b) enable “Open iTunes when this iPhone is connected” in the Summary screen in iTunes for each iOS device.

Overall, iOS 5’s new Wi-Fi syncing feature works spectacularly well. However, there is one significant glitch. With Wi-Fi sync enabled and iTunes left open, your iOS device will stop backing up to your Mac when syncing!


The Backup Dilemma

When you select to sync an iOS device in iTunes, whether wired or wireless, the first step is typically to back up the device. You’ll need this backup if you ever have to restore your device. As such, you want the backup to be as current as possible.

Even before the release of iOS 5, you may have noticed a quirk with backing up. If you leave your device connected to iTunes, a backup takes place only the first time you select to sync. After that, syncing skips the backup step. Maybe Apple’s assumption is that, if you haven’t disconnected your iOS device from iTunes, the device’s contents probably haven’t changed enough to require a new backup. In any case, to force another backup during a sync, you have to disconnect the device from iTunes and reconnect it.

This sync quirk remains true in iOS 5—even with Wi-Fi Sync enabled. This is what leads to trouble. After enabling iTunes Wi-Fi Sync, I started leaving iTunes open all the time — so I could select Sync Now from my iOS devices whenever I wished. The problem is that, if I leave iTunes open, after an initial sync of a device, subsequent syncs will not include a back up. This is because my iOS devices remain “permanently” listed in iTunes. It doesn’t matter whether I initiate a wireless sync or reconnect the device via USB and sync. There will be no update to my backup.

If you are unaware of this glitch, you can wind up merrily syncing your iOS device for weeks without realizing that you are no longer updating your backups. To check for this, go to Preferences > Devices in iTunes to find the date of your last back up. You may be surprised to find, as I was, that the date is many days older than your most recent sync. Uh-oh!

This is a situation that Apple probably did not anticipate. I expect it will be addressed in a future update. In the meantime, what can you do to work around this dilemma? You have several choices.

• Quit and relaunch iTunes on your Mac. This is equivalent to disconnecting the device. The next time you sync, it will back up. Alternatively, you can keep iTunes closed until you need to use it. However, this eliminates the ability to use the Sync Now button on your iOS device.

• Control-click on the device name in the iTunes sidebar, to bring up its contextual menu. Select “Back Up.”

• Click the Eject button to the right of the device’s name in the iTunes sidebar. Connect the device to your Mac via the Dock Connector. The device will be remounted in iTunes. The next sync will include a backup. [Note: If you select to eject a device and don’t remount it, Wi-Fi syncing (manual or automatic) for that device is disabled.]

Bear in mind that these are all one-time-only workarounds. That is, you’ll have to keep re-doing them each time you want to initiate another backup.

iCloud Backups

There is one other workaround for this backup dilemma: Give up on backing up to your computer altogether. Instead, in the Summary section for your device, switch from “Back up to this computer” to “Back up to iCloud.” Now backups will never occur during a sync to your Mac, as iCloud has taken over the job. But you will have regular automatic backups to iCloud. As such, this is more of an alternative solution than a workaround. While this works, there are two caveats:

• You may not be successfully completing a backup when you think you are. Automatic backups to iCloud occur only when your iOS device is locked and plugged into a power source. A backup, especially a new one, can take over an hour. If you don’t leave your device alone long enough, a backup will not complete. Go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup to check the date of your last successful backup. If it is older than you expected, you can tap Back Up Now to force a manual backup.

• With iCloud, you can select to enable or disable backing up of data from individual apps. If you turn off backing up for some apps (presumably to save space), you’ll never have a full backup in iCloud. As such, you’ll still want to periodically back up in iTunes.

Bottom Line

Wired syncs. Wi-Fi syncs. Back up to your computer. Back up to iCloud. You have more choices than ever in iOS 5. Unfortunately, these options can occasionally interact in unexpected and unwanted ways. It can mean, for example, that you aren’t maintaining a full and current backup of your iOS devices. The time to figure this out is before you need to restore your device. Take a moment to check the backup status of your iOS devices. If they aren’t as recent as you expected, determine what you need to do to create and maintain a current backup.