It’s almost time for iCloud’s second birthday. The service has had its ups and downs since it was first announced by Steve Jobs himself at WWDC 2011, but personally iCloud has been indispensable in my work and family life. For this reason, I want to highlight the things that iCloud does best.
1. Easily Restore Settings, Contacts, and Messages on Your New iOS Devices
Starting iOS 5, iCloud allows you to back up your device settings, ringtones, contacts, messages, and voicemails. This makes it easier to restore data onto your new iOS device. Simply by entering your iCloud account and password, you can restore any of the last three backups.
Even though iCloud allows you to back up the photos and videos in your Camera Roll, I choose to turn this option off. Mainly because the size of Camera Roll tends to reach multiple GBs. In addition to the Camera Roll backup setting, you can also define for each app on your device if you want to backup their local data to iCloud.
iCloud comes with a free 5 GB storage for each account, which is usually enough if you have one or two devices. If you turn off your Camera Roll backup, each iOS device would take up less than 2 GB of storage space. If you need additional storage, you can purchase them at $20/year for an additional 10 GB, $40/year for an additional 20 GB, or $100/year for an additional 50 GB.
The iCloud backup feature requires you to plug your iOS device to a power outlet, have it connected to a Wi-Fi network, and put it in locked condition. If your home or office has a Wi-Fi network, this condition can be triggered as you put your device away for charging.
2. Sync Your Contacts, Calendars and Reminders across All Devices
Backing up to iCloud and syncing via iCloud are two different things. You can turn off the iCloud backup altogether, but you can still have iCloud syncing for the data that you selected. You can define which data that you want to sync via iCloud inside the iCloud tab on Settings app.
On the screenshot above, I turned on the iCloud sync for Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders. This allows me to sync the contents of my Contacts, Calendars and Reminders across all my devices. I do not use iCloud Mail, Notes, or Passbook.
Since I have set up my wife’s iPhone to use the same iCloud Login ID, we can share Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders with each other. Sharing our Calendars also works well even though we also use a third-party Calendar app, such as Fantastical.
One more thing, since I set up my Mac to use the same iCloud Login ID, the Contacts, Calendars and Reminders are also synced to my Mac. Just make sure that you’re using OS X 10.7.2 or later to enable iCloud on your Mac.
You can also connect your Twitter and Facebook accounts to your Contacts. Facebook requires you to temporarily share the email addresses and phone numbers on your Contacts in order to match them with your Facebook friends data. For each matched data, you can import and link them to your existing Contacts. Using a similar approach, Twitter can link matched accounts and import their usernames and photos to your Contacts.
3. Easily Share Photos across Devices using Photo Stream
Even though I do not back up photos and videos from my Camera Roll to iCloud, I choose to turn on the Photo Stream feature of iCloud sync. Photo Stream allows you to upload all the photos that you take using your devices to iCloud. Once they’re uploaded, iCloud will sync them to all of your other iCloud-connected devices.
Photo Stream also allows you to sync your photos on iCloud to your Mac and Apple TV. Each photo I take with my iPhone will be synced to my wife’s iPhone, the two iPads that we have, my Mac, and the Apple TV at home.
Photo Stream will store a maximum of 1,000 recent photos and will keep them for a period of 30 days. This should give you enough time to back up the photos to a more permanent storage. The storage space that your Photo Stream take up in iCloud does not count towards your storage capacity.
You can delete photos from your Photo Stream. If you do, iCloud will automatically remove all copies of deleted photos from all your devices’ Photo Stream.
You can also create a Shared Photo Stream. It's a special collection of photos that you want to explicitly share to a list of email addresses. You can even share photos with people who do not have an iCloud account.
4. Sync Your Safari Bookmarks, Reading List and Opened Tabs across All Devices
I always try to keep a list of websites that I frequently visit. Mostly these are sites that do not have RSS, or sites that have tools or referential information that I may need to refer to quite frequently. All of them are stored in my Safari Bookmarks on the Mac. iCloud allows you to sync these bookmarks so that they’re also available on your iOS devices.
Safari also has a feature called Reading List. It’s a read-later feature that you can use to save the URL that you want to continue reading in the future. iCloud allows you to sync your Reading List across your devices. If you do most of your browsing and reading in Safari, this feature would perfectly suit your workflow.
One final feature of Safari and iCloud is the ability to access all your opened tabs across devices. You can access the opened tabs on your Mac from your iPhone, and vice versa. This allows you to have a better and seamless browsing/reading experience even when you have to switch devices along the way.
5. Sync Your iWork Documents across All Devices
As part of my day job, I use iWork apps on the Mac quite frequently. So when they were released for iOS, I immediately bought them all. Not only do you get to view your documents exactly as they would appear on your Mac, but you can also make modifications to your documents.
While it’s true that you typically do most of the work on your Mac, being able to make tiny and timely adjustments while you’re on the go is priceless. iCloud allows the syncing process for these documents to be a seamless one. You can visit iCloud website to see your iWork documents and download them in the format that you need.
6. Allow Third-Party Apps to Sync Their Data
Even though many apps developers still have problems with iCloud data sync, there’s still a lot to be thankful for. For example, I write most of my posts in iA Writer, and use its Documents in the Cloud feature all the time. It allows me to have all my changes synced to all my devices. This is essential if I have to switch from my iMac at work, to my iPhone while I'm away, and to my MacBook at home.
Another example is how I use Tweetbot on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I have set up plenty of mute filters, and all of them work perfectly regardless of the platform I use. That’s because Tweetbot syncs the mute filters and direct messages read/unread status via iCloud.
To ensure that your apps can use this iCloud sync feature, you need to enable the Documents and Data setting in the iCloud tab.
7. iTunes in the Cloud
This is probably one of the most under-appreciated feature of iCloud, yet I believe it’s one of the most essential ones. Two years ago, I have bought more than 4,000 free and paid apps, which I had to keep in my iTunes library. When iCloud introduced the Purchased section, I could safely remove them from my hard drive, knowing that I can always re-download them whenever I need them.
With iTunes in the Cloud, I can safely delete apps, books and music that I have purchased from my iTunes library and my iOS devices whenever I need to free up some storage space. If you turn on the Automatic Download feature on your iOS device, you can even have your contents be downloaded to all your devices each time you make a new purchase.
This means I almost never need to sync my iOS devices with iTunes on my Mac. I simply download the apps I need on any of my iOS devices, without having to transfer it via iTunes. The only exception is when you’re dealing with apps that have been pulled from the App Store. In this condition, you need to have the .ipa file stored locally in your iTunes library before you can install it on any of your devices.
8. Other Great iCloud Features
iCloud has plenty of other great features, such as two-step verification, iTunes Match, and Find my iPhone. Two-step verification is available in selected countries and Apple continues to add the number of countries that they support. With two-step verification, you can have an extra layer of security where even if your Apple ID and password are somehow compromised, an attacker would not be able to use it unless he/she also has access to your trusted device.
If you have a large music collection, you can also subscribe to iTunes Match. With $25/year, you can match up to 25,000 songs from your collection with more than 20 million songs in the iTunes Store. For each song that matches, you can download or play a 256 Kbps AAC DRM-free copy from iCloud, even if your original copy was of lower quality.
One last thing that you can activate is Find My iPhone feature of iCloud. Even though the service is named as Find My iPhone, it’s capable of tracking all of your Macs and iOS devices. Once you activate this feature and turn on the Location Services on your devices, you can track their locations. You can instruct selected devices to play a sound, display a message, lock itself remotely, or wipe its entire data.
9. Check iCloud Service Status Online
Once you use iCloud services, you might want to check whether they’re available or not. If you experience any problem with your iCloud data, backup or sync process, you can check this status page to see whether your selected iCloud services are available.
The status page includes all of the iCloud features I mentioned above and more. For example, if you’re using iPhoto on iOS and have created or published iPhoto Journals, you can also check whether that service is available or not.
In addition to the iCloud services, you can also check whether the App Store, Mac App Store, iTunes Store, or even Apple Online Store is available or not. You can also check the status of services such as Maps, Game Center, iMessage, FaceTime and Siri. It’s one of the pages that I bookmark and check whenever I feel a glitch in any of Apple’s web services.
10. Complementary to Dropbox
A lot of people tend to compare iCloud services to Dropbox. I believe they are very different and they have their own use cases. I even think both services are complementary to each other.
Dropbox is good for file storage, sharing the same data across different apps, and even syncing your data to non-iOS/Mac platforms. You can also use Dropbox to share files with others. There are also great apps, such as 1Password, that rely on Dropbox to sync their data and offer a web service that you can access via any browser.
Personally, I use iCloud to store and sync my Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders — the things that I would never share with others. I use Dropbox to store and sync my work files — the things that I frequently share with others. I also use iCloud for the types of data that don't have to be opened by multiple apps. And if they do, there are APIs that apps could use without me having to manage them manually.
iCloud has been instrumental in the way I work and live. A lot has changed in my life over the past 18 months. I believe iCloud has the right approach when it offers services instead of just files syncing. I have high hopes that Apple would improve many of iCloud services and add new ones on top of the existing services.