What Is iCloud? How Do I Use It?

Learn about Apple's cloud storage app

Cloud computing
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iCloud is the generic name for all of the services Apple delivers to us through the Internet, whether that's on a Mac, iPhone, or a PC running Windows. (There is an iCloud for Windows client.)

These services include iCloud Drive, which is similar to Dropbox and Google Drive, iCloud Photo Library, which is an offshoot of Photo Stream, iTunes Match and even Apple Music. iCloud also provides us with a way to back up our iPad in case we need to restore it at a future point, and while we can download the iWork suite to our iPad from the App Store, we can also run Pages, Numbers, and Keynote on our laptop or desktop PCs through icloud.com.

So what is iCloud? It is the name of Apple's cloud-based or Internet-based services, of which there are plenty.

What Can I Get From iCloud? How Can I Use It?

iCloud Backup and Restore. Let's start with the most basic use for the service that everyone should be using. Apple provides 5 GB of free iCloud storage for Apple ID account, which is the account you use to login to the App Store and buy apps. This storage can be used for many purposes including storing photos, but perhaps its best use is for backing up your iPad. If you ever forget your iCloud password, there are ways to recover it.

By default, every time you plug your iPad into a wall outlet or a computer to charge it, the iPad will attempt to back itself up to iCloud. You can also manually initiate a backup by opening the Settings app and navigating to iCloud > Backup > Back Up Now. You can restore from a backup by following the procedure to reset your iPad to factory default and then choosing to restore from the backup during the setup process of the iPad.

If you upgrade to a new iPad, you can also choose to restore from a backup, which makes the upgrade process seamless.

Find My Device. Another important feature of iCloud is the Find My iPhone/iPad/MacBook service. Not only can you use this feature to track down the whereabouts of your iPad or iPhone, but you can also use it to lock down the iPad if it is lost or even remotely reset it to factory default, which erases all data on the iPad. While it can sound creepy to have your iPad tracked wherever it travels, it also combines with putting a passcode lock on your iPad to make it quite secure. 

iCloud Drive. Apple's cloud storage solution isn't quite as smooth as Dropbox, but it ties in well with the iPad, iPhone, and Macs. You can also access iCloud Drive from Windows, so you aren't locked into Apple's ecosystem. So what is iCloud Drive? It is a service that allows apps to store documents on the Internet, which allows you to access those files from multiple devices. In this way, you can create a Numbers spreadsheet on your iPad, access it from your iPhone, pull it up on your Mac to make edits and even use your Windows-based PC to modify it by signing into iCloud.com.

iCloud Photo Library, Shared Photo Albums, and My Photo Stream. Apple has been hard at work delivering a cloud-based photo solution for a few years now and they've ended with a bit of a mess.

My Photo Stream is a service that uploads every picture taken to the cloud and downloads it onto every other device signed up for My Photo Stream. This can make for awkward situations, especially if you don't want every photo uploaded to the Internet. It also means if you take a picture of a product in a store so you can remember the brand name or model number, that picture will find its way onto every other device. Still, the feature can be a life-saver for those who want the photos taken on their iPhone to transfer to their iPad without doing any work. Unfortunately, My Photo Stream photos disappear after a while, holding a maximum of 1000 photos at a time.

iCloud Photo Library is the new version of Photo Stream. The big difference is that it actually uploads the photos to iCloud permanently, so you don't have to worry about the maximum number of photos. You also have the ability to download the entire image on your device or an optimized version that doesn't take up as much storage space. Unfortunately, iCloud Photo Library isn't part of iCloud Drive.

Apple, in their infinite *cough* wisdom, decided to keep the photos separate and, while they advertise the photos are easily accessible on your Mac or Windows-based PC, the actual usability is poor. However, as a service, iCloud Photo Library is still very useful even if Apple hasn't quite nailed the idea of cloud-based photos.

Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Notes, etc. Many of the basic apps that come with the iPad can utilize iCloud to sync between devices. So if you wanted to access notes from your iPad and your iPhone, you can simply turn on Notes in the iCloud section of your iPad's settings. Similarly, if you turn on Reminders, you can use Siri to set a reminder on your iPhone and the reminder will also appear on your iPad.

iTunes Match and Apple Music. Apple Music is Apple's answer to Spotify, a subscription-based all-you-can-listen service that allows you to pay $9.99 a month to stream an incredibly large selection of music. This is a great way to save on buying songs all the time. Apple Music songs can even be downloaded, so you can listen if you aren't connected to the Internet, and placed into your playlists.

iTunes Match is a rather cool service that doesn't get much press these days. It is a $24.99 a year service that allows you to stream your music library from the cloud, which means you don't need to put a copy of the song on your iPad to listen to it. How is it different from Apple Music? Well, first, you will need to actually own the song to use it with iTunes Match. However, iTunes Match will work with any song, even those that are unavailable for streaming through Apple Music. iTunes Match will also stream the best version of the song, so if the song has been tweaked to a higher audio resolution, you'll hear the better version. And at roughly $2 a month, it's a lot cheaper.