Background App Refresh Explained in Layman’s Terms

Background App Refresh Explained in Layman’s Terms

Background App Refresh allows your apps to check for new information in the background in an intelligent and controlled manner. Because of Background App Refresh, apps do not get a blank check to run in the background, but instead are only able to refresh at certain times, locations, and battery levels.

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. I happened to have written an article about how to fix iPhone battery drain that has received over 2 million+ hits in the last two years.

BAR [^1] 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 own definition of Background App Refresh.

…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 the best Twitter app for iOS, 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.

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.


[^1] A term coined by my friend, Rick Stawarz, who founded the great Apple consultancy, Appinstructor.

What is Wi-Fi Assist?

What is Wi-Fi Assist?

Wi-Fi Assist makes your iPhone more aggressive in jumping off of Wi-Fi and onto 4G LTE.

There are a few exceptions where Wi-Fi Assist won’t work:

  • If you’re already data roaming.
  • If the app trying to use it is in the background. Basically, it only works for apps that are in the forefront and active.
  • Doesn’t work with most third-party apps that download audio, video, or large attachments such as a video app, music streaming service, or an email app that might download big documents or photos.

Why It’s Awesome

Wi-Fi Assist solves this annoying problem in real life: you’re just on the outer edge of terrible Wi-Fi signal, so your iPhone is desperately trying to use Wi-Fi even though it’s too far away to actually go through.

It happens all the time to me when I’m leaving my apartment, just as I’m getting in my car I have just enough Wi-Fi signal for my iPhone to try to use Wi-Fi instead of LTE, but not enough Wi-Fi for anything to actually work. Sometimes I’ve sat for minutes, even driving around the parking lot before my iPhone will connect to the Internet, which is when I need to be playing my Apple Music playlist or navigating. I often resorted to simply turning Wi-Fi off and back on just to get my iPhone to connect to LTE.

Some people don’t like having Wi-Fi assist enabled because it can majorly run up your bill if parts of your house have weak Wi-Fi signal, like this poor kid who ran up a $2,000 cellular data bill. Ouch. Some people even tried to sue Apple because the feature was enabled in the iOS 9 update without customer consent.

How to Enable or Disable Wi-Fi Assist

It’s incredibly easy to enable or disable this feature if you know where to look.

Settings > Cellular > then scroll ALL the way to the bottom, and you’ll see the switch. Green is enabled, grey is disabled.

You can also see how much cellular data your iPhone has used if you have at least updated to iOS 9.3 or later.

What Devices Can Use Wi-Fi Assist?

According to official Apple documentation on Wi-Fi Assist, any device running iOS 9 or later can use Wi-Fi Assist except the following devices:

  • iPhone 4s
  • iPad 2 (with cellular)
  • iPad 3 (with cellular)
  • iPad mini 1 (with cellular)