Background App Refresh Explained in Layman's Terms

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I absolutely hate blogs that tell people to disable Background App Refresh. Most of these "How to Fix Battery Drain" articles are designed to get clicks and are not very concerned with accuracy. Well I'm here to set the record straight about Background App Refresh.

Background App Refresh, or BAR (as coined by friend and founder of the MacInstructor, Rick Stawarz) is actually a great new feature of iOS 7 that allows apps to refresh with the latest information in a way that efficiently uses the horsepower of your device without affecting the way you use your device.

BAR does not give any app a blank check to run whenever it wants. It actually adds a layer of intelligence to the way your phone handles apps in the background. I believe that in some cases, it could actually increase energy efficiency of your iOS device.

To get a better understanding of what Background App Refresh adds to the iOS experience, here is Apple's definition from their "iOS: Understanding Multitasking" article:

...Apps can continue to run for a short period of time and are then set to a suspended state so they are not actively in use, open, or taking up system resources. They will instantly launch when you return to them.

Certain tasks or services can continue to run in the background. To lessen the effect on battery life, normal app background refreshing is scheduled for efficient times, such as when your device is connected to Wi-Fi, plugged into a power source, or being actively used.

When Background App Refresh is on, apps that take advantage of this feature can refresh themselves in the background. For example, an app can check if new content is available and download the updates, or retrieve the updated content in the background when it receives a push notification, so the new content is ready for viewing when you launch the app. Apps can also schedule background refreshing based on your location. If you force an app to quit by dragging it up from the multitasking display, it won't be able to do its background activities, such as tracking location or responding to VoIP calls, until you relaunch the app. 

iOS learns patterns based on your use of the device and tries to predict when an app should be updated in the background. It also learns when the device is typically inactive, such as during the night, to reduce update frequency when the device is not in use.

To summarize Apple's definition, BAR adds a layer of intelligence and efficiency to the way your apps act when you are not using them. It allows apps to temporarily open in the background, receive an update, and then freeze again so it cannot use system resources or drain your battery. The cool thing is that it will plan these little update pow-wows around times you are already using your device, in good Wi-Fi, or in a location you normally check those apps, which can make your iOS experience much smoother. Instead of opening an app you use constantly and waiting for a few seconds for it to update, you open the app and it's already ready for your eyes to feast upon.

Now you have to answer two questions when enabling or disabling Background App Refresh:

  1. Do I check this app enough/is it critical for me to have this app up-to-date?
  2. (optional) Do I trust the developer of this app to implement it correctly and not abuse it?

Question 1 is pretty straightforward. Do you absolutely need or want an app to always stay refreshed with current information? If you answer yes, then enable BAR for that app.

Question 2 is a little harder to determine unless you follow the current tech blogs and trends. If you have absolutely no idea how to answer question 2, forget about it. Stick with the first question.

For me, question 2 eliminated any Facebook- and Google-related app I have installed on my phone. I simply do not trust Facebook or Google to have my best interest in mind because I am not their customer. Both companies see me as a set of "eyeballs" to show me ads, and because our interests don't align, I'm disabling BAR for any app written by them. Simple as that. 

A good example of an app that meets both criterion is Tweetbot. I trust the developers at Tapbots, Paul Haddad and Mark Jardine, because of their track record of making fantastic apps, and I check it often enough that I would like for it to be up-to-date when I check it. I have BAR enabled for Tweetbot, and it is usually ready to go when I open it. Perfect

Background App Refresh is a great feature of iOS 7, and I hate that fear and misinformation have caused so many people to disable it. It adds a level of efficiency that other devices or operating systems do not possess. These types of thoughtful features is what makes me love my iPhone, and Background App Refresh is a great addition to the iOS feature set.