How do I fix iPhone backup/sync problem?
August 6, 2010 1:44 AM   Subscribe

How can I get my iPhone to backup or update or sync? iTunes gets stuck on "Backing up" for a very long time (hours...).

It's an iPhone 3G running 3.0.1, about 1.5 years old; the last time I updated/synced was about a year ago, on my old Windows desktop. In general I've only been interested in syncing to download large apps or software updates, so it hasn't been that big of a deal.

So a while back: I tried to update to 3.1 using my MBP. I probably tried every other day for a week, trying to be more patient each time but eventually giving up. The progress bar in iTunes didn't really move much, over a time period of a few hours.

My more recent attempts, updating to 4.0:

Plugging in the iPhone, iTunes asked if I want to update and install 4.0, I agreed, iTunes said I need to sync first, I agreed, then it got stuck on "Backing up" just like before.

Next, I used the "Transfer Purchases" feature to copy over all the apps, which worked (I guess? Is that just a way of "backing up" the apps?). Then I used the "Back Up" and it actually made some progress (about halfway the progress bar in iTunes) very slowly before getting stuck, over a time period of a few hours (I don't know how long it was before it got stuck, but it was moving slowly enough that I wanted to be sure it had really stopped before giving up). Then I restarted my MBP entirely, and gave the iPhone a cold boot (not the slide to power off kind) and tried "Back Up" again with same results.

My strategy is if I can get all my stuff from the iPhone, I can give "Restore" a try...

I've also tried selecting "Sync Address Book Contacts" and hitting SYNC, but the same thing happens, "Backing up" goes for a while then gets stuck somewhere along the way. The only difference is when I x to cancel, it tries to sync contacts, then gives an error message that it can't because the iPhone is disconnected.

I'd really like to know if there's anything else I can try before I have to nuke the whole thing... or go to the Apple store. -.-

:) Any help is appreciated, and if any other information would be helpful please ask !!
posted by and1 to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sometimes it does take a long time (particularly during a OS update) but several hours is way too long. Are you plugging the iPhone directly into the computer, or do you go through a USB hub. It's not supposed to make a difference, but plugging it into the computer always worked much better for me.

I guess another thing to try is using a different cable, perhaps your one is damaged in some way.
posted by AndrewStephens at 2:22 AM on August 6, 2010

Something is wrong. I remember one of the iPhone updates helped fix a problem where some people were having it take forever to do backups. It should only take max a few minutes to backup even if you have a ton of apps and stuff. I'm not an Apple Store Genius, but I'd be surprised of their solution isn't to do a restore.

If you do a restore* it will wipe the phone and either let you a) go back that last good backup from 1+ years ago, or b) you set it up from scratch. When the iPod comes back to life it will want to copy the music + apps + email/addressbook/photos/etc from the computer it is connected to. So if all that stuff is current on your computer, you'll be golden. If there's a significant amount of stuff on the iPhone that isn't on your computer you're in for more work so you don't loose anything. Restoring to either 3.1 or 4.0 should fix what is wrong with your current setup.

Note: as a 3G user wanting to go to iOS4 you really should do a restore from scratch. I found the apps run significantly faster after doing that. Not iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 fast, but mucho faster than the lag I was seeing before.

*if things still hang when you attempt to restore, you may have to do a restore from DFU mode. I did this recently to my iPhone 3G to restore to 4.0.1 without any 3.x.x cruft.
posted by birdherder at 2:23 AM on August 6, 2010

I've had the same problem. There might be other ways to solve, it but I did a DFU restore as birdherder says and it works again. (I was fully backed-up so nothing was lost.)

Note: as a 3G user wanting to go to iOS4 you really should do a restore from scratch. I found the apps run significantly faster after doing that. Not iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 fast, but mucho faster than the lag I was seeing before.

iOS4 seems hardly an improvement in the iPhone3. Mine now no longer works with my Bose docking station. Heck of a job Apple. The only positive thing about this is that I less reason not to try HTC.
posted by three blind mice at 2:50 AM on August 6, 2010

OP states that the Pod has things on it that the competer does not. Can you set the iPod to read as an external hard drive yank all the data off do a full restore and then shove everything back on? The last time I did that I was just dealing with music so it may not work with apps. Also you could give a licensed repair shop a try, they may have other non-restore based methods to try.
posted by edbles at 3:36 AM on August 6, 2010

Every time I have had this problem it has been a symptom of a damaged cable. Cable looks fine, but problem vanishes if I switch to a new or different iphone cable.
posted by strixus at 3:40 AM on August 6, 2010

Do you have a lot of photos in your camera roll? That can increase the backup time as well.

iPhone: Improve backup and restore times by reducing iPhone Camera Roll

posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:28 AM on August 6, 2010

Oh, other things to try include using a different computer to see if that's the problem, and if so, removing and reinstalling iTunes.

Removing and Reinstalling iTunes, QuickTime, and other software components for Windows XP. (Here's the same article for Vista and 7.)
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:30 AM on August 6, 2010

Shit, sorry, you just said you're running OSX. Here's the iTunes removal steps for OSX.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:32 AM on August 6, 2010

oh, here's another basic troubleshooting step: create a new user account in OSX (system preferences-->accounts-->click the little lock to unlock, enter your password-->click the plus in the lower left-hand corner-->change "new account" type from "standard" to "administrator" (don't worry about a password), call it something like "iPhone Testing".

Log out of your account and log into the iPhone Testing account and test it there. If it works, you know it's something up with your user account.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:02 AM on August 6, 2010

I'm sorry to keep posting these as individual posts, but stuff keeps coming to mind.

You're trying to sync, which is good. You want to transfer your data from your phone to your computer as individual files, not rely solely on the backup file created by iTunes (which can become corrupted, and then they're no good to you). Also, keep in mind that iTunes backup files don't include purchased content from the iTune store. This isn't a problem for apps, because you can download them again, but it is a problem for music/movies/ringtones/etc. You can transfer that by clicking File-->Transfer purchases, which you did, so now scan your library in iTunes to make sure that stuff actually got across.

So now that you've transferred your purchases, the only thing (usually) left are photos and contacts. Transfer the photos off your phone with iPhoto, and use the "Info" tab in iTunes to sync your contacts with the Address Book app on your Mac. Once you've done that, disconnect your iPhone and fire up iPhoto and Address Book and make sure that you see the content there. Now you won't be relying on the iTunes backup file for this information. One benefit of the iTunes backup file is that it saves your text messages, e-mail/network settings, and your call history. If you can live without that data, and don't mind entering your e-mail address/password and wireless network password again in the settings of the phone, I would recommend restoring the phone as new and then transferring the data you need back from the computer to the phone.

Now, your problem is that you can't restore/update. That's usually a fault of the computer, not the phone's hardware. I would first try creating a new user account in OSX and seeing if the restore will work from there. If not, try putting the phone in recovery mode and trying again. If that fails, uninstall iTunes per the instructions in my previous comment and reinstall, then try again.

If the restore fails, instead of just stalling, it'll give you an error message. You can look up that error message at Update and restore alert messages on iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, and that will give you some advice on why the restore is failing.

Apple is currently supporting this issue (updating to iOS4) for customers who are no longer eligible for phone support, so you could give them a call, tell them what you've already tried, and they can help you over the phone. You also mentioned taking the phone into an Apple store, so if there's one in your area, that's another possibility.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:43 AM on August 6, 2010

I've noticed that my iPhone will take an unusually long time to sync if an app that I've installed makes use of many small data files.

For instance, I bought a flashcard program to help me learn Turkish. Once launched, the program allowed me to download a spoken language pack to hear the words as they were presented on screen.

Syncing my phone without the language pack worked as normal. After downloading the pack, my first sync required several hours (overnight). Turns out that the language pack was a series of small individual mp3s.

Given this, my experience (take it however you wish) is that long intervals between sync and/or large changes to the data on the phone will just take longer - sometimes much longer. Once the big sync is done, subsequent syncs are done quickly. Perhaps sit it out for this first sync (if it's actually making any progress) in the hopes that it's just working though all of the changes since your last sync of a year ago?
posted by owls at 8:18 AM on August 6, 2010

I am not sure if this is your problem, but when my iPod/iPhone syncs were running extremely long, it was because the phone was trying to send crash reports back to Apple. If you've gone a year between syncs, this might amount to a lot of information.

Right click on your iPhone in iTunes and select 'Reset Warnings'. Next time you sync, it should ask you if you want to send warnings to Apple. Uncheck 'Do not ask me again' and click 'Do not send' (or whatever it says). That sync should go a lot faster if this was your problem.
posted by Jugwine at 10:33 AM on August 6, 2010

I haven't tried it yet, but I was coming in to suggest what Jugwine said. I'm having the exact same issue on a Vista laptop (ugh) with an iPhone 4. From what I've read, it should significantly speed up the process.
posted by inmediasres at 5:13 PM on August 6, 2010

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