Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

The life cycle of Apple Watch backups

Apple Watch

I recently had to go back to my Series 5 Apple Watch after my Series 6 met an untimely end when I slid down a waterfall at a state park on family vacation. I was fine, but my watch’s glass face met an underwater rock, and uhhh… it did not survive.

When I got home, I grabbed my Series 5 off the shelf, knowing I didn’t have time to deal with having my Series 6 repaired and didn’t want to be without an Apple Watch, as I’ve recently begun using the watch in a major way after we spent some time apart.

Getting my old Series 5 back up and running was a real journey.

First, I had to unpair the shattered Series 6 from my iPhone. While its display was a loss, my watch was still functional enough for this process to take place. Unpairing is an important step when changing Apple Watches, as that is when a backup is made of the device.

Setting up an Apple Watch from scratch is a lot faster than most other Apple devices, but I was hoping to avoid that hassle. Here’s how Apple explains it:

When you unpair your Apple Watch from your iPhone, the watch is backed up completely to your iPhone to make sure that the latest data is saved. You can use the backed-up Apple Watch data on your iPhone if you ever need to restore your Apple Watch, or when you set up a new Apple Watch.

When you back up your iPhone to iCloud or your computer, your iPhone backup includes your Apple Watch data. This means that when you set up a new iPhone and restore it from backup, your latest Apple Watch data is also restored.

(That document also outlines what is backed up, which is an interesting read.)

Once the broken Watch was unpaired, I had to set up the Series 5 Watch as a new device so I could update watchOS to the same version as my Series 6. After that, I unpaired it and was able to apply the backup. Despite the hoop-jumping, the Series 5 is working just fine now.

One thing I noticed is that several very old Apple Watch backups were present on my iPhone. Turns out, they are pretty easy to get rid of, if you know where to look. In the Settings app, go to the iPhone Storage page, then select Watch.1 On that screen, you can review and remove old backups that are no longer needed.

These backups are just a couple hundred kilobytes in size, so leaving them around surely isn’t hurting anything. There’s a Remove All Backups button at the bottom of that screen, but there were so many listed that I didn’t see it at first, so I started removing them one by one. I got tired of the Settings app kicking me back out to the iPhone Storage page each time I deleted one. Once the Settings app crashed after a few were removed, I just gave up and deleted them all.

It will only annoy me once a year, unless I smash another Apple Watch. I can’t make any promises there, apparently.

  1. Once the iPhone Storage page actually loads. It has to be the slowest screen in any of Apple’s operating systems. I’d love to know why it takes so long, even on my iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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