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Automatically backing up photos via cellular data
By Jesse Hollington | 02.22.13

Q: I’m wondering if there’s some way that I’m missing to get iCloud Photo Stream to work over a cellular data connection or if there’s some alternative out there. I’m on the road a lot, and snap a lot of important photos on my iPhone, and hate the idea of losing everything if something happened to my iPhone before I got near a Wi-Fi connection. I know I can manually upload them somewhere using other apps, but that seems like a big hassle to do one at a time. Any ideas?

- Dan

A: Unfortunately, Apple still doesn’t allow the iCloud Photo Stream feature to work over a 3G or LTE data connection, presumably for bandwidth reasons, so in terms of the built-in feature, you’re basically stuck waiting until you’re near a Wi-Fi network. Note that Shared Photo Streams do in fact work over a cellular data connection, but you not only have to select and upload photos to a shared stream manually, but the uploaded photos are scaled down to a lower resolution, since the feature is designed for sharing photos rather than backing them up.

The somewhat good news is that alternative solutions do exist in the form of third-party apps. However, since Apple doesn’t allow third-party apps to simply run in the background, the process is somewhat less automated than the built-in Photo Stream feature. Essentially, even apps that provide automated photo transfer capabilities require that you actually open the app in order to begin transferring your photos. Further, if you have a large number of photos to transfer or a slower data connection, you may have to leave the app running to ensure everything gets uploaded; Apple only allows third-party apps to remain in the background for ten minutes, so if you close the app and it takes longer than that to transfer your photos, the process will simply stop and you’ll basically have to open it back up again to continue.

For example, Dropbox provides this capability as part of its native iOS app. You’ll need to sign up for at least a free Dropbox account to use this feature, however that includes 2GB of storage and the ability to automatically sync your files back to your PC or Mac.

Within the Dropbox app you have the option of enabling Camera Uploads for photos over either a Wi-Fi or Cellular Data connection. Photos are uploaded by the Dropbox app in full resolution, and stored in a “Camera Uploads” folder that will by default sync back to your Mac or PC as long as the Dropbox desktop app is running. Dropbox can also upload videos automatically—something that Photo Stream doesn’t support at all—however this is only available when using a Wi-Fi connection. A badge count also appears on the Dropbox app while it’s uploading in the background so you can keep track of how many images it still needs to deal with.

 

Dropbox has also recently added one other clever feature to try and work around the ten-minute iOS background limitation—if you’re moving around a lot, you can now enable “Background Uploading” which will use iOS background location services to restart the Dropbox app and resume your photo uploads automatically whenever your location changes. It’s a bit of a cheating method to get around an Apple limitation that arguably shouldn’t exist in the first place, but it should work quite well if you’re moving around a lot.

There are other apps that provide similar automatic upload capabilities, although these are most commonly related to social networks such as Facebook and Google+. Many of these services don’t necessarily upload your photos in full resolution, since they’re designed for sharing rather than backup purposes, although it’s notable that Google+ recently began doing this in its Android app, so it’s possible the feature may be coming to the iOS version at some point in the future.

 

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