Living in iCloud: Features explored

For a long time the biggest criticism of the iPhone has been the lack of a comprehensive, free, cloud element. Pulling everything together is iCloud, along with the online portal through iCloud.com, which has rolled out with iOS 5. But iCloud isn't just a fancy phone backup solution, it is much more ambitious.

We've been playing with iCloud using the developer build of iOS 5, before moving over to the final iOS 5 release across a range of devices. iCloud also depends on OS X 10.7.2, pushed out at the same time as iOS 5, along with updates to iOS versions of various apps to get everything in place. Finally we have most of the pieces in place so we can see what it is all about.

iCloud

Apple iCloud is a new service that picks up some of the paid-for MobileMe services and provides them for free. It encompasses syncing across the Apple devices and backup as well as offering some new neat features.

Apple break iCloud down into the following sections: iTunes in the Cloud; Photo Stream; Documents in the Cloud; Apps, Books and Backup; Calendar, Mail and Contacts; Find My Friends and Find My iPhone. It's great to have this range of services offered for free, something that other mobile platforms have had on offer in various forms for a while, but not always drawing in your desktop at the same time.

The syncing side of things is obviously something that Android users with Google accounts take for granted, whilst manufacturers like HTC have their own backup and phone finding service. Windows Phone 7 also has some of these elements on offer, through Windows Live and the SkyDrive, as well as a range of cross-platform services that will offer some of the same features. You can see a comparison of cloud services here for an overview.

The importance of iCloud is that it brings everything under one roof and makes it natively Apple, with the Apple look, feel and in most cases, simplicity. It also links your devices, so you can do away with the wires and know that your content is not only backed-up, but available to your other iOS devices, your Mac and online too in some cases.

iTunes in the Cloud

This will allow you to purchase music with iTunes on one device and have it pushed to all your other devices on the same account. Essentially, this means that if you buy a track on your iPhone, it will appear in iTunes on your PC or Mac automatically (without the need to sync) and it will also appear on your iPod touch or iPad. This can be controlled in the settings of both iOS 5 and iTunes 10.5 and applies to apps, books and music. 

An additional service called iTunes Match will be available in the US, but not in the UK, so we haven't been able to look at it. Essentially, this deals with music that you didn't buy from iTunes, for example a CD you ripped. It is fairly clever because it doesn't copy all your music into iCloud (as Google Music does), instead it just detects what you have and gives you access to it from Apple's existing iTunes collection. If it can't detect it, then the offending tracks will be moved to iCloud, so you still get access to everything. The catch is that this service will cost you $24.99 a year.

Sadly there isn't an iCloud interface for music, so you can't just log-in on any computer to play your music through a browser. 

Photo Stream, Documents in the Cloud

Photo Stream will bring your photos from one device to all devices using their native photo applications. There isn't a cloud viewing option as such (as you get with Google+ and Android) although that's slightly different as iCloud isn't a social network. 

You'll get a Photo Stream album appear in your Photos app (and iPhoto or Aperture) from which you get the normal options to use the image, as well as the option to save it to your Camera Roll. This gives you the option to save the image locally, rather than relying on the iCloud version.

 

You'll need iPhoto 9.2 (or Aperture 3.2) to enable the Photo Stream to your Mac, which is available as an update if you have a relatively new edition of iLife. This then gives you a Photo Stream on your Mac so you can drag and drop additional images you want on other iOS devices. You'll also find Photo Stream access on Apple TV.

The iOS versions of Pages, Keynote and Numbers are all now iCloud enabled, so you'll be able to move documents around incredibly easily.

Again, iCloud.com doesn't let you view documents like Google Docs does, but it will let you upload documents from your computer so that you can then access them through the iOS apps. Similarly, if you create a document on your iDevice, this will then sync with iCloud, so you can login and download to your PC to continue working.

Ironically we tested Pages with a Word docx file. We uploaded it to iCloud.com, opened it on the iPhone and made an edit which was then reflected back on iCloud. The dab of polish that lets you know that Apple is behind this is that the text on the thumbnail is the actual document content, so we could see the change had been made. You can download from iCloud and thoughtfully you get the option of Word, Pages and PDF. It's incredibly simple, slick and clean, but looks better suited to those using a few documents, rather than hundreds.

So far we haven't seen a change to the actual iWork desktop applications to let you save or share directly with iCloud. 

Apps, Books and Backup

iCloud.com doesn't visually show you the apps you have installed, or give you access to books or backup. Instead it just holds the data for your device(s) to access. The immediate benefit is the link between iTunes and your iOS devices. If you install an app on your iPhone, it appears in iTunes instantly and vice-versa (again controlled via the settings detailed in iTunes above).

It is quicker and easier than the iOS 4 method which involved searching for the app and going through the purchasing process, only to be told you've already paid for it and can have it for free. 

Syncing of Books gives you functionality similar to Kindle, making Books available to all your iOS devices, so if you are reading on your iPad at home and find yourself with only your iPhone on the bus, you can pick it up and keep reading the same book - it's pushed out automatically, along with any notes or bookmarks you might have made. Again, if you browse and buy in iTunes on your PC the book will appear on your iOS device automatically, but there is no reading option on either iCloud.com or in your desktop iTunes. 

Backup literally backs-up all the important things that normally get missed - including messages from iMessage, SMS and MMS. It also claims to backup your apps, purchases and photos, but as we know those things are covered by iCloud already. Interestingly it backs-up your app data too (although you get control options if you don't want it to), so restoring to a new device should give you everything as it was. We haven't tested this yet, but once we have a new iPhone, we will. 

But note, backup only automatically works when on Wi-Fi and connected to power, so it's most likely to happen at home when you go to bed. There is a manual backup option you can force, if you feel the need to make a change and want to preserve your data - changing your handset, for example.

Calendar, Mail and Contacts

For us this is the real meat in the iCloud sandwich and all three have a presence on iCloud.com and thanks to OS X 10.7.2, on your desktop Mac too; so it ties in Address Book, iCal and so on.

The Calendar is presented in normal Apple style, looking like an open book lying on a desk, with the usual options to view: day, month, year. You can opt to show the different calendars that are syncing with iCloud and toggle them, as well a tray for reminders. Controls for iCloud syncing of calendars reside in your iOS device and in the iCloud System Preferences on your Mac.

Appointments made in the native iPhone calendar quickly sync with iCloud and vice-versa, which is a useful tool to access calendars on a PC (any PC with a browser) to add appointments. These calendars then sync with iCal.

Within that simple system we didn't find any problems, but we quickly found that the additional calendars we subscribed to (which happen to be Google calendars) didn't appear in iCloud. Of course, you can sync calendars from Google within iOS and iCal, but these then didn't appear in iCloud. This will probably become the new puzzle for sync fanatics, to only have one sync route, rather than multiple.  

Mail lets you set-up a @me.com address, effectively giving a webmail account that you can access on iCloud as well as appearing in your device. If you already have a @me.com account, you can still use it. If you don't have an email service already then this might be welcomed, but we suspect that many will stick to their existing email accounts outside of iCloud. After all, pretty much all can be accessed already both on devices and online with very little effort.

Contacts syncing between your iOS device and iCloud.com is very simple and quick. Bringing that into Address Book also worked well, but when enabling iCloud syncing with Address Book in OS X, we were given a warning that Google Sync would no longer work (you can't sync with Google and iCloud at the same time). Again, thwarted in our efforts to sync everything. 

Visually, iCloud.com Contacts looks the same as OS X Lion Address Book, with a top search bar that will search all text, rather than just the name, so you'll be able to find people by company or from data in the notes field and so on.

Of course, we will be searching for the best method of getting iCloud to play nice with Google's existing offering, which we'll update you with as soon as we can.

Find My Friends and Find My iPhone

Find My Friends isn't really an iCloud app as such - we couldn't find any way to find friends through iCloud.com, for example. But the app does offer up a way to find those you are tracking. Whether this will be popular or not we can't be quite sure. Google Latitude offers the same basic functionality and has been around for some time and it has never really piqued our interest.

Find My iPhone is a feature that has rolled over from MobileMe and works nicely in iCloud.com. You have to enable it in your iOS device settings first (in the iCloud menu) to be able to use the features and similarly if you want to find your Mac, you'll have to turn that on.

Then you are given a map showing where your devices are, all being well. You can click on the point on the map to bring up your menu of options: play a sound or send a message, remote lock and remote wipe, or an email option when the device appears. Playing a sound will help you find your phone around the house and cleverly it will also work if you have your phone on silent.

MobileMe

Previously there was MobileMe, a paid-for service, that gave you some of the syncing options that iCloud now offers. Most of MobileMe is moving over to iCloud, but we can't gauge the success of how well that will work. If you are a paid-for user of MobileMe, your subscription will have been extended to 6 June 2012, after which it will no longer be available.

The services that you will miss out on are iWeb publishing, Gallery and iDisk, but you will get the advantages of not having to pay for the service any more. You will be able to keep your MobileMe email address, if you use it, but some of the other services will cease to exist. Apple has kindly detailed everything on this page, so if you are a MobileMe user, head over there for all the details of how you'll be affected - in some cases you'll have to rescue your content before switch off on 6 June 2012, a very literal D-Day.

Storage

iCloud gives you 5GB of data which might not sound like much, but that only has to cover your mail, documents, Camera Roll, account information, settings and app data. It doesn't include music, apps, books, TV or your Photo Stream. 5GB should be ample for the average consumer, but you can upgrade your storage if you need more. 

Increasing your iCloud storage is pretty straight-forward, with a "Buy More Storage" option in the Storage and Backup menu; 10GB will cost you £14 a year, 20GB is £28 a year, 50GB is £70 a year.

You can also control what gets backed-up in some detail, all of which is hidden in the Manage Storage>Info menu. There you can turn off some apps' data, so if you don't want Spotify or Facebook to backup, you can turn them off.

And finally…

iCloud is a welcomed offering, but like all cloud solutions there will always be things that it doesn't do. iTunes in the Cloud is a real benefit and makes it simple to add things to your iOS devices remotely. Document handling, surprisingly, has got us excited because it is so simple, bringing docs right to the app in iOS. You could do exactly the same via Dropbox, but as this is baked right in, we suspect people will use this method.

Syncing without the need for a cable comes with the caveat that you might not be able to get it to sync in all the ways you want it to - but that's syncing for you. The warning that Google Sync was going to cease is a concern and something to be cracked, but with all cloud solutions, making it work the way you want is the most important thing. 

It's early days for iCloud and there is plenty to play around with. We like that fact that it integrates deeply into existing applications. This isn't just a separate service to move your content through, or a fancy mobile phone backup option, it's an integrated service that binds devices together. It's not unique, but it's cleverly and cleanly implemented.

Impressed with iCloud? Concerned about iCloud? What do you think is missing? Let us know in the comments below...