Apple iCloud Review & Rating | PCMag.com

Apple iCloud Review & Rating | PCMag.com

Apple iCloud

  • Pros
    Works with Macs, Windows PCs (in a limited way), and iOS devices. Automatic data back-up for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Excellent music backup with iTunes Match. Automatic Photo backup for iOS devices.
  • Cons Very "app"-centric. No folder system for uploading files of all kinds. Ideal for Apple-only users, not hybrid OS users. Confusing to learn to use.
  • Bottom Line
    Every Apple user should have iCloud, which dutifully backs up your Mac and iOS devices, and can synchronize a lot of data between them. However, don't mistake it for a true file-syncing service.
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When I heard that iCloud (free to $100 per year; $24.99 for iTunes Match), Apple's free data-syncing service, supported Windows machines, I was at first slack-jawed--and in a good way. Was it true? Could Mac users now access their Calendar, Contacts, iTunes music, photos, and other files from a PC? My open mouth tightened to a mere smile when I realized the answer was, "Well, sort of."
Apple's iCloud is a great service that does a number of things very well—namely, automatic back-ups of iOS devices—but shouldn't be confused with other file-syncing services along the lines of SugarSync (4.5 stars) and Dropbox (4 stars). Those two services, both PCMag Editors' Choice products, give you access to any files you mark to be synchronized from virtually any machine. For example, you can create and save a presentation on your office computer, sync it, and then access it from your home computer or mobile device by simply logging into the service. But what they don't do that iCloud does is synchronize your Apple apps, like Calendar, Contacts, and iTunes.
Apple's iCloud does synchronize some document files, but not any old thing you want. iCloud doesn't think about syncing documents per se. It thinks about syncing the data you have associated with an app. For example, iCloud can synchronize office files made with Apple productivity software iWork and let you access them anywhere an iWork app is installed. It also syncs images across your iPhone, iPad, Mac, and even a Windows PC. iCloud makes music you buy through iTunes accessible to you from any iTunes player, and with the optional add-on service iTunes Match ($24.99 per year), it will sync and store up to 25,000 music files (no matter how you got them) that you have in your iTunes library. But iCloud doesn't synchronize many other files that you create or edit in other apps.
Once you understand what iCloud can and can't do, you'll likely find that it's a valuable and worthwhile service nevertheless, but that doesn't mean you don't also need another file-syncing service. All Apple device owners should sign up for iCloud as soon as humanly possible, but know that it won't meet all your file-syncing needs.
iCloud Sign Up and RequirementsTo get iCloud, you need an Apple ID plus at least one of the following devices:
  • Mobile device running iOS5 (iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad, iPad 2, iPod touch 3rd or 4th generation; see How to Get Apple's iOS 5 for help)
  • Mac computer running OS X Lion 10.7.2
  • A Windows PC running Windows 7 or Vista SP2.
From a Mac running Lion, look under Preferences for the iCloud logo. Select it to dig into the options. On a Windows desktop or laptop, you'll want to surf over to apple.com/icloud/setup to download and install the local software. Additionally, there is a Web interface at iCloud.com where you can access some of your backed up information online, but it's not a very comprehensive system (more on that later).
For iPhones and iPads, look in Settings for the new iCloud icon that will appear after you update to iOS 5.
Tips for Backing Up Your iPhone and iPadOne part of iCloud that you should definitely take advantage of is automatic backup. From the iCloud page of the Settings panel, look toward the very bottom of the screen for the option Storage and Backup. Make sure "iCloud Backup" is switched on. Then, you'll want to poke around in the Manage Storage section, especially if you have a lot of apps, to further determine what should get backed up and what doesn't need to be. By turning off apps that are not important, you can save a lot of space. If saving space isn't your thing, you could just buy more space. Apple gives iCloud users 5GB to start, but you can buy up to 50GB more (making 55GB total) for $100 per year. iOS devices only back up over Wi-Fi so there's no worry about the service hogging data from your data plan.
A second feature to jump on upon installing iCloud is Find My iPhone or Find My iPad. Turn it on, and it can help you locate or remotely wipe a lost or stolen phone or tablet. There's also a Find My iPhone/iPad app, which you can use to locate lost devices, including Macs, provided you set up Find My Mac on your laptop or desktop.

What Syncs?As mentioned, you can't exactly use iCloud to sync any file you want. In pushing toward an apps-centric platform, Apple tries to get you to think about app data syncing, rather than files. For example, iCloud says, "I'll sync all your iWorks files..." at the application level. The way other syncing services work is they give you a folder (or you can choose from existing folders, or make new ones), and anything in those folders syncs. The difference is more a matter of mindset. Your iWorks documents are in fact going to a folder; it's just that Apple dismisses the location in favor of getting you to think about the app.
So, because of how it's structured, iCloud is best suited to syncing data from specific apps, such as Contacts, Calendar, Photos, and a few others.

Calendar. Turn on iCloud syncing for Calendar, and all the events you have or create in an Apple Calendar will automatically appear everywhere else you use your Apple ID. Events you typed into your iPhone will show up on your Mac schedule, and vice versa. Using iCloud.com, you can log in to your Apple Calendar from virtually anywhere, even if one of the devices you have synced with iCloud isn't with you.

Contacts. Much like Calendar, the Contacts app turns into a universal address book when you use iCloud to sync it. Add or edit someone's contact information from your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and the changes will appear in your other devices automatically. The Contacts app lacks a good merge function, which could potential create some clean-up work when you first sync your devices.

Photo Stream. The Photo Stream option is more advanced than Calendar and Contacts, and it works on Windows PCs where you install iCloud, as well as on Apple devices. Enable photo syncing on an iPhone, and you'll get a new album called Photo Stream in the app. Enable Photo Stream on an iPad, and a Photo Stream tab will appear in that app, too.
Mac users need to be running Mac OS X Lion to use Photo Stream, and Windows users need Windows Vista or 7. In Windows, Photo Stream automatically creates a Photo Stream folder under your My Pictures folder (you can change it if that's not the folder you want), with a subfolder for uploads. Anything put in the upload folder will automatically sync to other Photo Stream devices. On a Mac running Lion, you can sync images from iPhoto or Aperture—it's your choice—but you don't have an easily accessible folder because iCloud syncs at the app level, meaning it's designed so that you can interact with your images through iPhoto or Aperture, rather than a folder on the Mac. (Of course, the files are in a directory, but the programs keep those directories mostly hidden from you. You can get at them, but that's not really how the programs were designed to work.)

What's valuable about the Windows version of Photo Stream is it's more flexible than using it on the Mac. You get a clearly labeled folder and can use whatever app you want to open photos, whereas on the Mac you're restricted to iPhoto or Aperture.

There are a lot of rules, settings, and options for using Photo Stream, and it can take a while to figure out how to use it the way you want. One smart feature of Photo Stream is that it can make camera raw files viewable on your iPhone or iPad. Advanced photo-editing users might appreciate the ability to upload camera raw files, such as a Canon .CR2 file, from a Windows machine running iCloud, and have them appear in Aperture on the Mac—even though the PC can't necessarily open the raw files.

The caveat mentioned previously about not being able to upload files to a folder, thankfully doesn’t apply here. In other words, you can drop files into your "to be synced" folder, and they will sync to Photo Stream and appear on your other devices. iCloud does limit the contents to image files though: JPEG, TIFF, PNG and most RAW photo formats are
supported. If you sneak an Excel file into that folder, it's not going to show up anywhere else.

Email. The iCloud email app is nicely designed and implemented. Its three-panel window has folders on a collapsible left sidebar (Inbox, Drafts, Sent Archive, Trash, Junk, along with any custom folders you create), message headers and preview running vertically down the center, and the message contents in the largest area on the right. Along the top is a search box, as well as icons for creating folders and using email (compose, delete, archive, and so forth). You can get a lot more out of other, free, Web-based email services, like Gmail, Yahoo!, and Hotmail, which all work on multiple devices (including iOS devices) but if you do use Apple's email, it's nice that it does sync across devices.

iWork. The iWork section of iCloud on the Web is a weak link. If you don't have Keynote, Pages, or Numbers installed anywhere, all you see on the Web app are ads to get them. If you do have use iWork, you can download files from iCloud.com in their native format, as PDFs, or in the equivalent Microsoft Office format.

Similar to how it works with Photo Stream on a Mac, iCloud working with iWork doesn't give you a folder where you can upload documents to sync. iCloud only syncs documents saved using iWorks. You can easily figure out where your documents are being saved (the default is ~/Library/Mobile Documents) and just plop some extra files in there to sync, but that's not how the app or iCloud service were designed to work. And in any case, why bother? For syncing documents of all kinds, you're better off with a service made to do just that. But any files you make with iCloud-supported apps will always be accessible from any device running that app so long as iCloud is enabled and you've saved the documents to the default location.

Find My iPhone/iPad/Mac. There isn't much new to say about the feature Find My iPhone except that every Apple device owner should have it and know how to use it. It was previously available as part of MobileMe, and it works pretty much the same now as it did then. Once you've set it up on your Apple devices, you can locate them on a map anytime they're powered up and connected to Wi-Fi or 3G. You can remotely wipe a device, or have it play a sound, lock, or flash a message. If the device is off when you misplaced or lost it, you can even set up an alert so that you receive an email when iCloud locates it. The map that shows the location of devices was accurate when we tested it in and around New York.

iTunes. There are two levels of service that you can get with iCloud regarding iTunes. The first, which is included in whatever storage space you buy (or get for free) with iCloud, and that's iCloud's ability to store all music you've purchased through iTunes on Apple's servers, where it's accessible to you from up to ten iOS devices or iTunes installations. That service is only good for music purchased from iTunes—not music or audio files you've bought, burned, or borrowed from elsewhere.

The second level of service is iTunes Match, which costs $24.99 per year for up to 25,000 tracks. iTunes Match syncs and backs up your music files in an interesting way: by determining which songs you have in iTunes already and effectively giving you license to download them from its own database any time to any device where you log in with your Apple ID. If your tracks don't already exist in Apple's database, you can upload the files. But if it does have a match, there's no need to upload anything, and, if Apple's copy is of a higher fidelity than yours, you'll get that better version in the bargain. For more details, read "Hands On iTunes Match."

Use iCloud, But Add a Syncing Service, Too

I wholeheartedly recommend that Apple device owners sign up for iCloud, as it's an essential back-up tool and does provide you with some extremely useful services. While iCloud has some integration with Windows machines, it's really best suited to the Apple-exclusive crowd.

Even then, don't confuse it with full-fledged file-syncing. Many of the best syncing services, such as Dropbox, SugarSync, and CX (4 stars), allot users ample free storage space—2GB, 5GB, and 10GB, respectively—just for signing up, meaning there's virtually no barrier of entry for using both a file-syncing service and iCloud. Use iCloud for keeping your Apple devices backed up and apps synced to each other and a file-syncing service for storing current documents and collaborating with others, and you'll be all set.

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