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Roundup review of iOS apps to backup your contacts

There are scads of apps on the App Store which will offer to backup your contacts. I tried four: a free app, a $1 app, a $2 app, and a $3 app (all prices listed are USD). One was great, two were pretty good, and one was downright atrocious.

(Note: all of the apps I reviewed are "universal" – that is, designed for both iPad or iPhone/iPod touch. All are optimized for the iPhone 5, with one exception which I have noted below.)

Easy Backup ($0)

The trouble with finding a free app to backup your contacts is finding a free app which is really free, as opposed to several which are limited versions of non-free apps. Eventually I found Easy Backup which is actually free and does not seem to have any limitations.

When it first launches, it asks to connect to your Facebook account "to get better profile information." (Uh huh. You can see where this is going, right?) Sure enough, when I connected to my Facebook account, there was a "Who can see posts from this app on Facebook?" selector. Hrm, apparently in order to access my Facebook contacts, they häve to post to my Facebook account. I set the selector to "Only Me." Then Facebook told me "Easy Backup is requesting optional permissions" to post on my behalf. Under the "Why is Easy Backup asking for these permissions?" it says "Backup all contacts from Facebook." Well that's just a bald-faced lie, is what that is. I selected "Allow None."

(Aside: I have to admit that I'm confused by this 'business model' – you make a free app that you then want to let me post to my Facebook account. Why? So more people can find out about your free app? Also featured prominently throughout the app in the top-left corner is something I presume to be a "Like this app on Facebook" icon of a thumbs up. I tapped it once to see what it would do, and it appeared to try to automatically post a message to my Facebook account, but timed out, presumably because I had not granted it that permission earlier. To be fair, maybe it would have given me the option to edit the message before posting it. To be honest, I doubt it.)

Despite the name, I found using this app to be a little confusing. At first I found various 'sharing' options in the app, but they all seemed to be related to sharing the app not (for example) letting me email myself a copy of them. Eventually I realized that my going to the 'Contacts' tab and choosing 'All Contacts' and then tapping the "Check Mark" icon on the next screen then choosing the "Forward Arrow" it give me five options: Copy, Move, Share, New Group, Cancel. Selecting "Share" brought up a new email message with a vCard attached.

(Side note to new developers: if you have five options, don't label four of them with verbs and one of them with a noun. For example, in the above list of options, "Create Group" would have been a better choice than "New Group." Also, if pressing the button will result in something being emailed, label it "Email" not "Share." It will make things easier on your users.)

The vCard which was created by Easy Backup lacked the '.vcf' extension, so it was not recognized as a vCard file until I added it. Yet another little detail.

Summary: In the end, Easy Backup does work, and it's free. It even has a few extra features thrown in. But I didn't like it.

Backup Contacts - Easy Backup ($1)

Easy Backup app iconBackup Contacts - Easy Backup was the first app I tried. (Yes, that's the real name of the app. The whole category is flooded with keyword loaded keyword search optimization keywords. Keyword.) For only $US1, it does all that you'd expect, and perhaps even a little more. Not only will it backup your local address book, but also your iCloud or Facebook address book, or "all of the above." Once you select the address book(s) it will show you which contacts are found, and offer to let you de-select some contacts (by default, all matching contacts are selected). Tap 'Backup' and it will ask you if you want to save the backup on the device, or export it via email. If you select email, a 'Contacts.vcf' file will be created and added to a new email message, ready for you to fill in the To: and Subject: lines of the email message.

The only thing missing is the ability to backup directly to Dropbox, although that can be done by using SendToDropbox, a free service which allows you to email files and have them added to your Dropbox account. I also wish that it added the current date and time to the "Contacts.vcf" file. If I save that file from my email to my computer, I will have no reliable way of knowing when it was created. But those are both minor complaints to an otherwise excellent app.

Summary: If you are looking for a straight-forward way to backup your contacts, Backup Contacts - Easy Backup is certainly worth a look.

Contacts Backup Over Dropbox ($3, not iPhone 5 optimized)

Contacts Backup Over Dropbox was the next app that I tried. Its $3 price tag ranks it as "expensive" in the realm of the App Store, but you'd be mistaken if you think that means that you are going to get a high quality app with a rich set of features.

The app does backup to Dropbox, but probably not as you would expect. It creates a file at "/Dropbox/sunvy/abbackup/backup.ab" instead of the more standard "/Dropbox/Apps/{Name Of App}/" path that you might expect. But it gets much worse than that. The "backup.ab" file appears to be some sort of proprietary and/or encrypted format. You can use that file to restore your contacts from Dropbox to your iPhone by using this app, but if you were expecting that this app would export a copy of your contacts in the industry standard vCard format to Dropbox, you would be sorely disappointed. At least, I was.

You might also note that there is an option to "Edit backup file" from the app, via a large and prominent button in the app. I was curious what that would do, so I tapped it, and was greeted by this:

Um. What?

Because this is a "family-friendly" website, I cannot accurately describe my disdain for this. In-App Purchases should never, ever, ever masquerade as basic features. But wait, it gets worse. The "Service Code Generator" does not actually allow you to edit your contacts, at least, not on the iPhone. Instead, that code allows you to log in to their website...which appears to be written in Japanese.

Investigating further, I came across another app by this same company: Contacts Editor. Buried at the bottom of the app description are notes which tell you that you have 5 minutes to login to their website after uploading your data, or your data will be deleted from their servers. It also says: "When editing with support site (http://www.abeditor.com), if within 2 hours without any operation, all data will be deleted." I'm not sure if that means "two hours idle" or "two hours and you're still not done" and I'm certainly not about to spend $2 to check. Oh, and after your data is deleted from their servers, that "service code" will no longer work. So if you didn't realize that the 'Edit backup file' meant that you were going to spend $2 to generate a code to let you log in to a website written in Japanese within 5 minutes and finish editing within 2 hours, well, sorry!

Summary: I would avoid Contacts Backup Over Dropbox as if it were a bowl of pus which had been sitting out in the summer sun.

My Contacts Backup Pro ($2)

I have saved the best for last: My Contacts Backup Pro. The app is feature-rich and very simple to use, with the exception of the Dropbox uploading, which works very well but is a little confusing at first.

Launch the app (which is abbreviated "MCBackup" on your iOS device) and it will present you will with a screen showing you how many contacts it found, and a prominent 'Backup' button. Tap the button, it will show you its progress, and then offer to email the resulting file. Boom, done. If it stopped right here, this would have been my favorite app because it works quickly and easily.

But there is actually a lot more hiding just underneath the surface. On the launch screen are also two smaller buttons for settings and help.

vCard (VCF) or CSV Tap the familiar 'Gear' icon to open settings and you will find an option to set the 'Type' of export: either vCard or 'CSV (Excel)' format. CSV is a nice option for those who need it, or who want to use their import their contacts into another app that does not support VCF.

Multiple VCF: create separate vCards for each contact. In the settings, under 'Configure' you can choose 'Multiple VCF' which will create a separate vCard for each of your contacts and then create a .zip file of all of them. However I recommend that you do not use that option unless you have a specific need for it. Multiple VCF files are not stored on the device, nor can they be uploaded to Dropbox through the app. When saving to Multiple VCF, your only option will be to email the resulting zip file. That said, I can think of times when it would be useful to have your contacts in separate vCards, so I'm glad to have this option.

Direct upload to Dropbox. My favorite feature is direct support for saving to Dropbox. The process is a bit confusing, probably because this feature was recently added to the app, instead of being part of the original design. The key is understanding how the app works: when you create a backup, it will prompt you to email it, but it also saves a copy of the backup within the app itself. You can find this by going to the settings and pressing the "In App vCard Restore" option. There you will find all of your previous backups. You can delete them using the 'Edit' button, or tap on them and bring up a prompt to choose from 4 options: Email, Dropbox, Restore, Cancel. (Again I'll note that "Dropbox" isn't a verb. "Upload to Dropbox" would have been a more accurate label, although it might not have fit in the available space.)

If you choose "Dropbox" it will be stored to "/Dropbox/Apps/MCBackup/" with unique filenames such as "MyContacts–2013–02–17–172220–1961.vcf" which makes it easy to tell when a backup was created: the '172220' refers to the hour/minute/second when the file was created, using the 24-hour clock.

So if you want to upload to Dropbox but not via email, simply press the Backup button when you enter the app, then tap the Settings gear icon. In settings, choose "In App vCard Restore" and select the backup you want to upload. Tap it, choose "Dropbox" and voilà. Ok, I'll admit that it's a little more convoluted than necessary, but it works. If you want a simple "save to Dropbox" feature, I suggest signing up for SendToDropbox.

Local Reminders: One feature that I really liked with MCBackup is that it can use local reminders to remind you to backup your contacts. Reminders can be set for every week or every month.

Wi-Fi Access: Another unexpected bonus feature is the ability to download your vCard file over Wi-Fi. Because some email providers limit the size of outgoing email messages, a large contact database might not be able to be sent via email. In that case you can enable a web server from within MCBackup which will allow you to download your vCard backup (nice!), or upload a vCard backup to your iOS device (cool!), or edit contacts on your iPhone (what?). Yup, you read that right, you can actually edit your iOS contacts through your web browser on your Mac or PC. In fact, you can even create a new contact.

Summary: If this had been the first app I had tested, I would have stopped looking. It's a steal for $2 and does everything I wanted, and then some. It generates unique file names, uploads to Dropbox in the preferred location, and allows me to email the backup if I prefer.

Conclusion

If you write an app which works well, it is easier to overlook minor problems. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have 3 apps to delete off my iPhone.



There are scads of apps on the App Store which will offer to backup your contacts. I tried four. One was great, two were pretty good, and one was downright atrocious.