Fresh iOS install and apps without sync

The only gadget I own that I upgrade regularly is the iPhone, and every time I get a new one I do a fresh install.

There are three reasons why I do this instead of just restoring from a backup:

  1. Culling Old Apps. I'm a shiny-new-app junkie and like trying out new ones all the time. I often download more apps than I have the time to check out, so eventually my iPhone becomes a graveyard of apps I never properly tested or that just didn't stick and I don't use anymore. My yearly fresh install gives me a chance to check them out and only re-download the ones I use. With the iPhone 5s I went from over 300 apps installed to under 80.
  2. Being a new user. By installing the phone I get to experience what a new user goes through when they set up their iPhone for the first time. I like to see what's changed and I'm amazed how much easier it is every time. I also like to go through all the settings and set them again.
  3. It's just fun (to me). I'm from the generation that got into the habit of regularly doing a nuke and pave on our computers to "remove cruft". I guess old habits die hard, but even on the Mac, I still do this with every new OS. I know it's no longer necessary, but for some reason I actually enjoy the process. It feels good to have a fresh start once in a while.

I still use iCloud backup, but to me it's just a backup and nothing more. Meaning it's there in case something goes wrong. I've only restored from iCloud once when I had an iPhone replaced after I smashed the liquid inside the display. But for a new device with a new iOS, I do a fresh install.

In previous years, doing a fresh install of iOS required more manual work than it does today. Hardly any apps synced or stored data in the cloud. Most kept everything local and iTunes was the the only way to back up the data. So with a fresh install you either lost data in some apps or had to manually restore the data files via iTunes.

Last year I noticed that a lot of the apps I use most often sync to the cloud via iCloud, Dropbox or their own servers, which made the fresh install so much easier.

This time, I expected most, if not all, apps to have some sort of cloud component that would allow me to re-download my data without any fuss. It was especially important now since I no longer connect my iPhone to iTunes.

Turns out I was right, almost. Out of almost 80 apps, only 6 stored the user data exclusively on the device, and one offered sync and backup to the cloud but via a paid yearly subscription. I should note that I didn't check games. That's just not important to me, but it may be for you.

Here's what I found:

  • Sleep Cycle: Data is stored locally. If you want cloud back up and sync you need to pay $10 per year. This also gives you web access with more graphs and detailed data, but since I don't care for that it seems pretty steep and not really worth it.
  • Goal Streaks: I've tried pretty much every goal setting/habit forming app out there and Goal Streaks is my favourite. Unfortunately it has no sync or backup, which is weird since it's a universal app. With no sync the iPad version is effectively useless to me.
  • Frameographer: A beautiful app for creating time-lapse videos. You can keep projects in progress in the app, but no cloud back up. All I could do is finish them up and export the final videos.
  • Collect: I use this app daily to manage a "photo a day" or 365 project. This one is the one that really annoyed me that it didn't sync. And even more maddening is the fact that they advertise this: "Protected with iCloud Backup. Photos and data backed up securely when connected to iCloud backup service." Which means it does exactly nothing. It's just backed up in iCloud as everything else on the phone. This is not a feature of the app and I'd suggest is borders on false advertising.
  • VSCO Cam: My favourite photography app. You can upload your photographs to the vsco grid or save them to the camera roll, so you don't loose your finished work. But VSCO Cam has its own photo library that I would've liked to migrate across. Not a huge deal in this case.
  • Figure: The only ways to back up and restore your songs is via iTunes or by emailing each one to yourself and then opening them up again. iTunes is a no go (who syncs with iTunes these days anyway?), and the email is just too much work.
  • Voice Memos: This one surprised me. Apple's own built-in app doesn't sync with iCloud. Really?

Of all the apps I truly like and use often, these were the only ones that caused some friction while installing iOS 7 from scratch. For some, the experience has motivated me to go looking for alternatives and I'm considering a few at the moment.

To be clear, I'm not specifically looking for sync as it doesn't make sense for some apps. What I want is a way to export and import the user data. Some do that inherently because they sync with desktop or web applications (e.g. Day One, OmniFocus, Byword), or are pulling from a feed (e.g. Reeder, Pocket, Twitter), so the master database is in the cloud. But for the ones that don't need to sync, or shouldn't, it would be great if they'd allow me to export all my data and re-import it again later. Figure could've added an option to save all files to Dropbox or at least email myself the whole database instead of one song at a time.

I bet by next year any app that doesn't back up it's data in the cloud, has a sync service, or export/import option will be left behind. I now look for that as a feature in any new apps.