How to delete old iOS device backups form iTunes and reclaim lost gigabytes of hard drive space

How to reclaim lost gigabytes of hard drive space in iTunes

You probably have gigabytes of wasted space in your iTunes library, and you don't even know it. Here's how to reclaim some of it

If you routinely download apps through iTunes, think twice about what you're doing. You probably have wasted a lot more space than you need to. Here's how to get some of that space back, and why it disappeared to begin with.

For me, it was just a bad habit that I started when I first started downloading apps from the App Store, years ago. I used to browse the App Store on my Mac through iTunes, then I'd download apps that I thought looked interesting, syncing my iPhone or iPod touch (and later the iPad) when the mood struck me.

For years it wasn't a problem - I had a large hard disk drive, storage wasn't an issue. What's more, my Mac was the hub of our household Home Sharing network, so my wife and kids would often copy new downloads from my iTunes library rather than having to retrieve a copy from the App Store themselves.

The fact is, though, Apple keeps track of what you download from the App Store. You can redownload those apps on any authorized device.

As a result, my Mac contained literally gigabytes of downloads I no longer needed - because those apps are available, whenever I need them, on demand through the App Store.

When I switched over to a Retina MacBook Pro, I suddenly found storage space at a premium - I had only a fraction available of what I had previously. At that point it made sense to delete the lion's share of the apps I'd downloaded. Many of those apps, large games especially, occupied hundreds of megabytes or a gigabyte or more. The net result is that I got literally dozens of GB back on my hard drive after I was done.

To delete apps you don't need anymore:

  1. Open iTunes
  2. Click the Apps icon in the Library sidebar.
  3. Select the apps you want to delete, and press the Delete key on your keyboard.
  4. When prompted, click the Move to Trash button.
  5. Don't forget to empty the trash once you're done.

Now, there are a few caveats. If you're a tightly metered Internet service, you may run into trouble if you have to download the same app onto multiple devices, because you're downloading the same data over the Internet multiple times.

What's more, if you're concerned about keeping an app that's been pulled from circulation - as some have, for various reasons - it may be wise to keep a local copy handy that you can restore if you need to.

You can also save space by deleting unneeded iOS device backups that iTunes has created. To do so:

  1. Go to the iTunes menu and click on Preferences.
  2. Click on the Devices icon at the top of the window.
  3. Select the backup you want to delete, and click the Delete Backup button.

How do you know if a backup is unnecessary? Some backups may have been sitting around for a long time. Take this one, for example. It's from when I last backed up my iPhone 5, the night before I bought my iPhone 5s.

I don't need that file any more. And as it turns out, I just got 1.8 GB of hard drive space by deleting it.

Tomorrow I'll talk about what happens when you have to sync a device that contains apps you've deleted from your iTunes library.

If you're like me and a constant grazer on the App Store, you can get back tons of hard drive space this way. Give it a try and tell me what you think in the comments!

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Peter Cohen

Mac Managing Editor of iMore and weekend Apple Product Professional at a local independent Apple reseller. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

How to delete old iOS device backups form iTunes and reclaim lost gigabytes of hard drive space


Inspired me to prioritize what I have been meaning to do for a while… delete apps I no longer use/need. I'll back them all up on an external and clean up what I don't need. Then TV shows and movies. Just checked, and I have 383 mostly HD movies. Granted, I have a three TB drive just for iTunes, but that is a bit crazy.

Sent from the iMore App

If you want to find even more gigabytes of savings, look for the hidden movies on your hard drive. Sometimes when I rent a movie from iTunes, I copy it to my iPad. iTunes calls this "moving" the movie to the iPad. But it seems that it doesn't really delete them from my hard drive. If the movie expires when it's on my iPad, it seems that iTunes never deletes the original copy, but it removes it from my library.

To find these movies go into your iTunes library folders and explore some of the sub folders, and you may find some surprises. I got about 30 GB back by deleting a whole bunch of these movies that were not tied to iTunes anymore. They were not watchable either, as they had expired.

It's better to save them off to an external drive or DVD instead if just deleting them. While Apple tracks your downloads and you can re-download them in the future, that only works if that app is still available in the AppStore! I've run across at least two apps that weren't available anymore, and I was able to install them since I still had a copy!

I totally agree. I always move unused apps for both iOS and OSX to an external hard drive. It doesn't make sense to just delete them. Even copying them to a USB drive is okay, if you don't have an external hard drive. Then follow the steps in the article to delete the files from your Mac.

While cloud technology is very convenient, I prefer to also physically back up. Even though the family's iDevices automatically back up each day to iCloud, every couple of weeks they all also get backed up to their respective Mac. Some space just isn't worth the risk of saving.

Sent from the iMore App

Don't forget to clear out iOS software update files, especially if you upgraded and don't have those particular devices anymore.

Wow thanks for this, I'd been wondering whats been eating my space since the new iPhone and iPad mini.
Reclaimed 3.04 gigs!

What I want to know is that sometimes I go a week or two before a Time Machine backup, but have don't nothing but Internet browsing on my machine since the last backup. But when the backup kicks in, it has multiple gigs of info to back up. I wonder if my iTunes apps are part of this, auto-updating on the iPhone 5S and then re-syncing and auto-updating on my MBP. Might be time for me to see if I have the iTunes app as "no sync" folder for Time Machine!

Sure enough, my "Mobile Applications" folder was NOT an exception and I had 8 GB of data backed up via Time Machine.

Good find!

I don't back up my iTunes library. Mainly because I subscribe to iTunes Match, so music is covered. Any other purchases should be covered (unless as some have said, the app disappears from the store). But I routinely outgrow my external, and just yesterday found a 1TB portable I forgot about (upgraded my iTunes library to a 3TB about a year ago)

Plugged it in and what do you know? My nearly full 1 TB iTunes drive. So I guess in some aspects, I have a year old backup, only missing the 500 GB from the past year.

Sent from the iMore App

I only try to keep apps that I want to be aware of new updates that may not be on my device but may be on my kids' iPads. Then I can be apprized of what is updated. (Their devices are quite stuffed and use if "auto update" will not work.)

Sent from the iMore App

I'll consider this if memory becomes an issue, I already managed to free up over 30GB by deleting duplicate apps that occurring from backing up my iPhone and using Home Sharing. Backups are not an issue right now, I have iCloud backup turned on and I try to backup to iTunes once a week. I would like to keep my apps in iTunes for syncing purposes, but I will delete if it becomes necessary.

Sent from the iMore App

A couple years ago I deleted old backups and got back gigs and gigs of space. Since then I've stopped syncing with iTunes and gone all in with iCloud and I've kept the excess weight off nicely :)

I'm one of those people who prefers to download apps via iTunes probably because of the same reason you mentioned above about limited internet connectivity plus the fact that some of my nephews & nieces tend to copy some of the new apps I got. And I just checked my iTunes folder, there's 189gb for the apps alone. I'm actually in the process of cleaning up my apps as well. Some of the apps I have have the same functions as the others, e.g., I have about more than 5 apps just for PDFs, so what I'm trying to do now is to try out each of those apps then decide which app to keep and which to delete. And by the way, I always check the best-of app lists from iMore to help me decide which app should I keep/delete.

Again thanks for this article, as one who tries to reclaim as much data space as possible I am so happy you did this article. As previously posted for the life of me I couldn't figure out where my disk space was going.
I had Real Racing The Walking Dead Series GT Racing etc still on my HD from loading them on iPhone.

You can also save GB of datas when deleting old software updates stored on the drive at the following path :
/Users/<account name>/Library/iTunes
Then delete .ipsw files stored in the folders :
- iPod Software Updates
- iPad Software Updates
- iPhone Software Updates
Each file is generally more than 1 GB, so don't hesitate :)

Recovered 12GB. I had some lousy old apps in there.
Had done this in the past, but obviously needed a reminder... thanks!

I did this on my Mac, but when I looked on my iPad I was hopping they would all be deleted too. I could still see them on my iPad just in the cloud, any to delete them on iPad and iPhone?

Um, "duh". I thought there'd be something more profound, like the other post about deleting lower quality duplicate movie files.

Thank you for your post I will start on deleting the apps right away but really what I was looking for is can I take all my preschoolers tv shows off my macbook pro & just keep on the iphone & Ipad2? I really need the space but don't want to lose all that investment. I know I can get them on the phone from icloud (but I really don't know how to use Icloud so I don't know if I've backed up etc). Just wondering if when I plug in to my mac to sync whats gonna happen... I saw you may have posted about syncing so I will go look. I gotta find more space as I can't even copy one picture or download email anymore :) Thanks

Jesus, I must have been a hoarder, between the backups dating to 2011and copies of apps I cleared out 107GB !!! Nuts, thanks for the tip.

Just gained about 60 gigs back! Comsidering I'm on a Retina MacBook Pro, that's significant! Thanks, Peter.

If you delete these apps off your computer, and let's say you want to download them again, will you have to buy it again?