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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Fun with iPad backup and restore

Note: This story has not been updated since 2021.

Portrait of the iPad home screen as a young man

Update: And would you look at that, Apple’s released a support doc outlining this very problem, along with a suggested workaround. Thanks, Apple Fanboi.

Update 2: Apple posted a note on its developer site which says that the issue has something to do with App Slicing, which is not a process used at your local deli, but rather a way to deploy device-specific versions of apps.

I decided last week that I needed a new iPad in order to be able to write about some of the fancy productivity features of iOS 9, so after polling Twitter over an iPad Air 2 vs. an iPad mini 4–and discovering, to my interest, roughly equal support for both–I opted for a refurbished iPad Air 2. The reasons being: I haven’t had a full size iPad in many years, the iPad Air 2 is still faster (though not by huge amounts) than the iPad mini, and, ultimately, if I decided I did not care for the larger form factor, I could pass this one along to my mom–who still has a fourth-generation iPad but has expressed an interest in a new one–and buy a mini 4 instead.

Fast forward to yesterday, when the Air arrived. (I’d forgotten just how big the full-size iPads are, even with the Air’s slimmer form factor, but it looks great and it’s super light.) Earlier in the day, I’d made sure there was a current backup of my iPad mini 2 in iCloud, so I went in to restore the Air 2 from the iCloud Backup.

Reminder to self: It’s never as easy as you think it’s going to be.

First problem: I’d just updated my iPad mini to iOS 9.0.1, but the Air 2 shipped with iOS 8.4.1. As a result, it couldn’t even see the most recent backup, only my last iOS 8 backup from June.

Fine, easy enough. I steamed through the entire setup process and updated the Air to iOS 9.0.1.

Take two. This time the iCloud backup showed up. Great: I set it to restore. It took a while, and I didn’t have the Air plugged in, since the battery life was pretty high. I checked back an hour later and noticed something odd: as it was re-downloading my apps, several of them seemed to be stalled. But more to the point, there were also a lot of blank spaces, including the entire bottom row of my primary home screen, where five apps were missing.

So many iCloud backups

Weird. At one point I tried to tap one of the stalled apps to see if I could get it to load, and it just upped and disappeared.

Figuring something had gone wrong with the backup, I decided to start again. I erased all contents and settings, and once again restored from iCloud, this time with the Air plugged in. More or less the same result (though the one app that had disappeared the previous time at least loaded correctly this time). I checked Settings > General > About on both the mini and the Air and found that there were about 24 apps missing from the Air.

Now, I could have opted to go and reinstall all the missing apps one by one from the App Store, but not only would that have been a pain, but there was no guarantee that I’d be able to recover the data for those particular apps, which was still stored in iCloud.

Encrypted backups

So, last ditch effort. This afternoon, I plugged the mini into my MacBook Air, and made an encrypted backup.1 Then I plugged the iPad Air into the MacBook and triggered a restore from iTunes using that backup.

After that finished and I had checked off the last few boxes (signing into iCloud, verifying an Apple Pay card, etc.), the iPad home screen opened and…ta da. All my apps, present and accounted for.2

Honestly, I was surprised at how fast the backup ran from iTunes, especially the speed with which all the apps restored. (And no, they weren’t backed up locally on iTunes–the whole backup file is just 2.5GB).

When I mentioned my backup woes on Twitter, several folks chimed in with theories about why not all the apps reappeared, and a few with similar stories of missing apps when restoring from iCloud. It still isn’t clear to me exactly what happened here, and why that seemingly random assortment of apps didn’t make the transition, but as I’m preparing for a new iPhone tomorrow, believe me: I’ll be making an iTunes backup before I head off to the Apple Store, just in case iCloud is up to its old tricks again.

  1. Why encrypted? For one thing, encrypted backups retain secure information that is otherwise not restored from backups, such as passwords. 
  2. Okay, one app was missing. Netbot, for iOS, which I think I may have had a beta version for. Also, it’s not in the store anymore, and I hadn’t launched it in years. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at or reach him by email at His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]

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