Daily Tip: How to reclaim disk space by deleting old iOS backups

Sync and backup your iPhone, iPod touch, and/or iPad to a laptop or small PC drive, starting to run low on disk space, and wondering how you can reclaim some of it? If you consider that iOS devices can hold anywhere from 8GB to 64GB of space, and that some of us have multiple iOS devices, all that data can add up. Even though iTunes will often do incremental backups, new devices, restoring as new, updated devices, or a lot of new content can create hefty backups, especially over the course of several months and years.

If you need to get some of that space back and you're not afraid to delete files -- and you should be afraid in many cases, so consider this expert/ninja-level only! -- then follow on after the break!

I recently ran out of space on my laptop drive and, after investigating, discovered I had about 200+GB of iOS device backups taking up the largest slice of my storage pie. I'd never thought to look there, so I was surprised to say the least.

Now, over the last year or so I've synced a couple generations of iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad to my laptop, and had my iPhone replaced both this and the previous generation, for a total of 8 devices in the last 12 months. I've also restored several of them as new and radically changed their contents a couple times. That no doubt contributed to the size of my backup directory. Whether yours is that big or not is worth checking it.

Deleting backups in iTunes

Here's how to delete backups inside iTunes

  1. Open iTunes on your Mac or Windows PC
  2. From the menu, Click on Preferences
  3. Click on the Devices Tab
  4. You'll see a list of all the iOS devices backed up to iTunes, along with the data of the backup. Click on the one you want to delete.
  5. Click on Delete Backup...
  6. You'll be prompted to confirm the deletion. Click Delete.
  7. Repeat for any other backups you want to delete. Just remember not to remove all of them, or the most current ones, or you won't be able to restore your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad until you backup again.

This is by far the easiest way to delete a single or a few backups if that's all you want to do. However, if you'd rather delete a ton of them it can be tedious, and if you'd rather archive the backups to another drive or disk, you're out of luck...

...unless you turn to the file system.

Where iTunes stores iOS backups

  • Mac: ~/Library/Application Support/Mobile Sync/Backups
  • Windows: ~\Application Data\Apple Computer\MobileSync\Backup

(If you're new to computers, ~ represents your user directory, for example mine is HD/Users/Rene Ritchie/Library)

Inside those directories you'll see a bunch of folders with seemingly random characters for names.

Archive/Delete older backups

Deleting files is never without risk so think twice before you do it. Then think again. When you're absolutely sure you'l never -- not ever -- need that information again, think a final time before deleting it.

If you have any doubt whatsoever, don't remove the folders but copy them off to an external hard drive or burn them to a DVD so you can always copy them back later if you discover something you needed.

What I did was sort by last modified date, and then removed anything that was more than 2 months old. That gave me back about 150GB of space but still left me with about 70GB of backups. (Again, I've backed up over a half-dozen devices.)

Note: Don't stop backing up!

Reading this, you might flirt with the idea of stopping iTunes backups to save disk space. Don't. Backups exist for a reason. No one ever thinks they need backups until something bad happens, and it always does, and by then it's always too late.

If you upgrade your device, if you update your firmware, if you swap out your device at an Apple Store, if you lose your device and get a replacement, if for any reason you need to restore that backup will make sure you have the same content you had when last you synched with iTunes. That might include messages, photos, and other personal information that doesn't exist anywhere else and can never be replaced.

Make sure you backup and regularly.

Have any other space saving tips for us? Leave them in the comments!

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