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

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!

Tips of the day will range from beginner-level 101 to advanced-level ninjary. If you already know this tip, keep the link handy as a quick way to help a friend. If you have a tip of your own you'd like to suggest, add them to the comments or send them in to dailytips@tipb.com. (If it's especially awesome and previously unknown to us, we'll even give ya a reward...)

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

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

30 Comments

"Make sure you backup and regularly."
I'm definitely following this now as I just restored and forgot to back up my stuff. Now all my text messages are gone, some of them being meaningful :(

Wish this article was available a couple months ago. My 220 GB drive was suddenly full. I looked into it using WinDirStat and found iOS backups taking up a lot of space. So, I ended up deleting the random files thinking they were corrupt. Afterwards, my iPod Touch 4 was acting funky. Third party apps had no animation when launched ( meaning I would see the app highlighted then the load screen), the "updates" tab in the App Store constantly reloading, and keyboard lag. Sigh. Tried restoring but no luck.

~/Library/Application Support/Mobile Sync/Backups
Should read
~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backups

Wow! I was down to about 25GB free on my laptop, and I'm holding out upgrading for new iMacs to be announced. After this tip I now have 73GB free. I love you TiPb!!!

For some reason on iTunes I only ever have one backup showing (the last one done) in the devices tab.
Is there some setting that makes it keep multiple backups?

I wish Apple would allow us to change the location it saves the backups to. My roaming profile gets backed up to our DC so everytime I sync my iPhone it takes 10 mins to write the 2gb backup to the server...

Have been doing this for a while and yes, it is a great space saver. Essentially you only need one backup per device (in my case I have an iPad 2 and an iPhone 4 backup). Any more than that and I delete them. Certain activities like restoring, setting up new device, etc. will create additional backups which take up space. It's a good practice (every month or so) to check this and see if there are more backups being stored than you need (and that can be deleted to free up space).

Yeah. Great tip. I have been putting this off till I came across a little light on the subject. Here it is. Now all I need is how to get around authorized devices. It shows I only have 1 authorized computer left. I'm sure I will have more than 1 from now till whenever.

For those who will attempt to cut & paste the info in Finder, please use this as the above has an errant space:
~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/

What about the new iOS downloads every time there is an update? Are these stored somewhere also and can be deleted once the updates have been run? At around 666MB a time these things will add up too

iTunes automatically discards older firmware when you download newer firmware. My 4.3 firmware showed up in the trash after I downloaded 4.3.1 - come to think of it, I just downloaded 4.3.2 last night - and now 4.3.1 is in the trash.

Weird. Mine has three backups: My iPad, my iPhone 4 and my old iPhone 3GS I no longer have. All together only about a gig of space.

absolutely GREAT tip!!! never even thought of this!! was running way low on my MBP... couldn't figure out where all my space was going... recovered almost 40 GIGS!!! by deleting all but my 2 most recent backups...

i had various iphone backups all the way back to my original iphone from 2007!! lol between iphone, 2 iphone 3GS's, an AT&T iphone 4 and most recent VZW iphone 4... i had WAAAYYYYY too many backups... explains the massive 40 gigs of wasted space i was able to recover! so happy!! :)

How come iTunes is showing only backup for my iPhone? Even in the explorer directory I could only two. Is that it?

I log in because I just want to thank you for your tip. Free lot of space in hard drive after iTunes back up, every times I restore the data back to iPad, and use lot of space until it left 0 bytes to my main OS hard drive !!! THANK YOU.