iCloud review

The cloud became a bit of a buzzword this year, with more online storage services popping up, but Apple believes its service, iCloud, is of course: "The cloud as it should be".

iCloud is a catchall phrase that covers Apple's entire suite of wireless synchronisation and backup services, which aim to keep your all devices, including iOS and desktop computers, on the same page. There are four main areas covered: document and data sync, mobile backup, location awareness, and purchase management.

Setting up iCloud

Any customer (Mac or PC user) can create a free iCloud account, which provides 5GB of storage; synchronised contacts, calendars, and iWork documents; a photo stream; Find My iPhone and Find My Mac; an @me.com email address; and iTunes in the Cloud, giving you access to everything you download from the iTunes Store on all your devices.

Set up iCloud in Settings on your iPhone or iPad, and in System Preferences on your Mac

To set up your iCloud account on your Mac you need to be running Mac OS X Lion and iTunes 10.5. Go to System Preferences > iCloud and log in using your Apple ID or create one. Select the services you want from the list: Mail & Notes, Contacts; Calendars; Bookmarks; Photo Stream; Documents & Data; Back to My Mac; and Find My Mac. You'll see a bar showing how much of your free 5GB of iCloud Storage is available and a Manage button which offers the option to Buy More Storage.

To get iCloud running on your iPhone and iPad go to Settings > iCloud and sign in with your Apple ID. Now your devices will share calendar, contacts and iWork documents.

You can also access iCloud on any computer at www.icloud.com, again just log in with your Apple ID. Here you can view your @Me Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Find My iPhone (with Find My Mac) and iWork documents.

With iCloud being linked to your Apple ID, you may think it could cause complications if you and your family share one Apple ID for iTunes purchases – perhaps you don't want to share a calendar with your other half. Luckily, you can all have separate iCloud accounts from which to sync data, each with a free 5GB of storage. Start by setting up iCloud on each device with an individual account for iCloud syncing, then you can add your Store credentials separately. On your iOS device go to Store. If you've added your iCloud account to the device, you'll see those credentials logged in, log out and input the Apple ID you use for purchases. On a Mac, open iTunes, go to Store > Sign Out, then Sign in with your Apple ID for purchasing.

You can also sync additional Mail, Contacts and Calendars on a device hooked up to iCloud. To set this up go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Add Account > iCloud. This works to a point, but it gets complicated if you share a Mac. Only one iCloud account per Mac can sync documents, bookmarks, photos, etc.

If you have a MobileMe account you need to merge your account through the iCloud website at www.icloud.com in order to take advantage of the services. Before your switch, make sure you know what you’re loosing. While iCloud shares many of the features of MobileMe it’s axed a few: iWeb publishing, Gallery, iDisk, syncing of Dashboard widgets, keychains, Dock items, and System Preferences. If you are ready to move your account, go to www.me.com/move. MobileMe accounts will stop functioning next June.

If your MobileMe account is run from a separate Apple ID there is no solution to merge the two at the moment, but you can add your Store credentials separately once you have converted your MobileMe account. If you have more than one MobileMe account, and wish to keep them all, you can convert them to iCloud, but set up iCloud on your devices with the account you previously used for MobileMe syncing. If you want to sync with multiple IDs you can hook up your primary account to your iOS device, and add a secondary account for calendar and contact syncing using the Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane in Settings.

Backup via iCloud

Once you have iCloud set up on all your devices, you can take advantage of its syncing and backup capabilities. Open iTunes on your Mac, go to the Backup section of the Summary pane and choose Back Up To iCloud. On your iOS device it's Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup. Then switch iCloud Backup to On.

Your iPhone or iPad will now back up to iCloud whenever it’s connected to a WiFi network (Apple says it needs to be plugged in, but it doesn’t, it will drain your battery though). You can also force a backup from your iDevice by going to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Back Up Now.

Confronted with the idea of backing up your iPhone or iPad into iCloud you may well be thinking 5GB is never going to be enough. You may be surprised, however. You can review the size of your iOS device's backup in Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Storage. Our iPhone backup size was 1.7GB. This is because the content you have purchased from iTunes and the App Store doesn't count towards the storage limit – Backup just keeps a log of what you have purchased. iCloud backs up your Home Screen and how your apps are organised, photos and videos in the Camera Roll, Messages, and your app data. It also stores @Me email, contacts, calendars, documents for syncing purposes. If you feel you are reaching your limit you can turn off any of these options, or select individual apps. If you do need it, additional storage can be purchased for a yearly fee of £14 for 10GB, £28 for 20GB, and £70 for 50GB. Buying these plans is simple: on an iOS device, head to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Buy More Storage. On your Mac, open the iCloud pane in System Preferences, and click Manage.

One big problem with backing up to the cloud is the upload speed of your internet connection. Until now you probably focused on your download speed, but now it’s the upload that matters, and in the UK its probably only
1-2Mbps. The distance from your telephone exchange and old household wiring may also slow down your upload speed. Our iPhone told us its first 1.7GB upload would take 22 hours.

The good thing about iCloud backup is that it happens without you having to do anything. Previously backups happened infrequently as the only real reason to plug in your iOS device was to update the software. You can still make a manual backup your iOS device on your Mac, handy if you have an exceptionally slow connection. However, you can only use one of Apple’s two methods of backing up at a time, so it’s iCloud, or iTunes.

After the first backup iCloud will only back up what has changed on your device. According to Apple’s website, and in our experience, it doesn’t back up every time you are in the presence of WiFi and plugged in. However, when it’s performing a backup there is no indicator on your iOS device (you can see when the last backup was made by looking in Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup) and there is no way to schedule an iCloud Backup.

The advantage of backing up to iCloud is it enables you to access your backup even if you are on the road and can't access the Mac to which your device is linked.

Syncing documents and more

Had we been heavy users of the iWork apps, the backup size may have been far larger. Currently you can only sync documents created in an iWork app. All your iWork projects are accessible on all your iOS devices, so you can start entering information in the Numbers app on your iPad and then pick up where you left off on your Mac or iPhone.

To enable iCloud to work with your iWork documents you need go to the Settings app on your device. Scroll down to Pages, Keynote or Numbers from the list of apps. Once there, slide the Use iCloud switch from Off to On. It’s an all or nothing approach: you either sync all of your documents with iCloud, or none of them.

Once iCloud is enabled for an iWork app changes are saved to iCloud automatically as you work – as long as you’re online. If you're not online when you amend a document you will need to remember to sync later. If you edit your document on multiple devices at once, iCloud will inform you if your copy of a document becomes out of date. If you make simultaneous edits on your iPad and iPhone, iCloud doesn’t know which changes it should sync so it will show a Resolve Conflict alert. You must then choose which version to keep as the master.

To access an iWork document from your Mac you need to log in to www.icloud.com/iwork. Once you sign in you’ll be able to see your iOS documents and download them to your computer (in iWork, Microsoft Office, or PDF format). To share a document with your iOS device you’ll need to drag and drop either an iWork or an Office file from your computer into the iWork apps on the web browser.

Apple has released APIs to developers so it's only a matter of time before this is on offer in other apps that have counterpart Mac applications. Before iCloud, working on a document on multiple devices, and in particular getting it from one to the other, was a headache, so this is a welcome addition. We're wondering when Apple will offer the same service for GarageBand and iMovie files.

iTunes syncing

With iCloud Apple has removed the need to plug your iOS device into your computer, instead data is stored in iCloud and seamlessly pushed out to all devices. If you buy music from iTunes, or apps from the App Store, on your iPhone, the purchase will download to your iPad and Mac. To enable this to happen you need to turn on Automatic Downloads. Access this on your iPhone or iPad at Settings > Store. iCloud also gives you access to your purchase history, so you can redownload past purchases.

But what about the music you rip from CDs? You still don't need to plug your iPhone or iPad into iTunes. To set up WiFi syncing of your iTunes library, plug the iOS device into your computer, open iTunes, select the device in the left-hand column, and under Options tick Sync with this iPhone over Wi-Fi. Then go to Settings > General > iTunes Wi-Fi Sync on your iPhone or iPad and tap Sync Now. We had a hiccup here because our iPhone wasn't seeing our computer, but after a bit of troubleshooting we reset our router and that fixed it. From this point on, when you open iTunes on your Mac you can edit playlists and add tracks and they will eventually appear on your device.

There may soon be another way to share music between your devices. iTunes Match has launched in the US and will hopefully be offered to the UK in 2012. It will, for a price, match your non iTunes-bought music with tracks in the store, so that you can access it on any device.

Photo Stream

One of the most fun features of iCloud is Photo Stream. With Photo Stream you can snap a picture with any iOS device and have it pushed to all your iOS devices and computers (it requires iPhoto 9.2, or Aperture 3.2, PC users only need to set up a folder on their computer). Photo Stream also auto-imports any newly added photos from your computer. The good news is that these photos don’t count as part of your 5GB allowance. Apple does set a limit, however. It will sync a maximum of 1,000 images for 30 days at a time (the number of photos that sync to your computer is unlimited).

On your iOS device, the Photo Stream photos appear in an album in Photos called Photo Stream. There’s a delay in taking the photo and it appearing in Photo Stream, plus you will need to be on a WiFi or 3G network. Once a Photo Stream image appears on your iOS device you can edit it, but the changes you make will be saved to Camera Roll rather than Photo Stream. You can’t delete individual Photo Stream photos, the only way to delete images is to reset your entire Photo Stream at www.iCloud.com (access your account, select Advanced > Reset Photo Stream). This will delete all the images from Photo Steam. Deleting them from the Camera Roll won’t remove them from the Photo Stream (although they will disappear after 30 days).

In iPhoto and Aperture all the photos taken with your iPad or iPhone will appear in a Photo Stream album and you can edit them and share the ones you want. It’s a far easier way to get photos from your iPhone onto your Mac, previously we rarely imported them before, however, we’d like the option to delete the ones we don’t like so much.
You can also view your latest Photo Stream on your TV screen using an Apple TV.

OUR VERDICT

iCloud has a lot of potential. Once app developers build in the functionality into their own apps, syncing on iOS devices will become a pleasure rather than a chore. Photo Stream is a bit of a gimmick, made annoying by the fact that you can't select theimages you don't want appear. Backup via iCloud makes backups hassle-free, as long as you have a fast connection. Apple says it's the cloud as it should be; after a few tweaks it probably will be.