iCloud is Apple’s homegrown cloud storage and syncing service. It was finally released in 2011 after years of speculation and rumoring, and has since picked up 782 million users. Since Apple bundles the service with their massively popular iOS devices, most users know of iCloud as the thing that backs up their phone stuff.
While you may have the 5 GB of free iCloud storage by virtue of your iPhone or iPad, you may be asking whether iCloud is a good cloud service to invest in to sync your digital life. Well, we ran it through our paces so you don’t have to. Check out how it stacks up below.
- Share collaborative photo albums to other iOS or OS X users
- Live collaboration and Office support through iWork web apps
- Backup contacts, calendar, and tasks
- Automatic photo upload in apps and desktop software
- Photo Stream pushes images without taking up storage
- Decent iOS apps
- Encrypted in transit and at rest
- Extremely limited web apps
- No link-based sharing options
- Experience fractured by multiple services
- Version restoring only available for iWork files
- Confusing shared album view for non-Apple users
- Two-factor authentication not enabled by default
- Only supports iOS, OS X, and Windows desktop
- Phone support requires Apple hardware serial number
iCloud is a great solution for backing up iPhone settings, apps, contacts, and stuff like that. But beyond that, Apple’s iCloud works best when you use only Apple hardware and software and when those you collaborate with also do the same. Even then, it’s frustratingly bad sharing options and limited interfaces will still be a pain point. This is a cloud platform only for Apple die-hards, but for most, there are far better and more robust cloud platforms that we’d recommend.
The above is the landing page for iCloud, a stunning view of exactly how many functions are cordoned off into their own discrete interfaces and web apps. But, those looking for the conventional cloud storage will want to head to iCloud Drive.
Apple’s web portal for iCloud is minimalist, but to a fault. The options available are upload, download, move, and delete. Those simple features work well, with drag-and-drop movement and a nice upload queue that uploads up to three items at once. Yet entire folders cannot be uploaded.
But it’s rather shocking how the iCloud Drive web portal is missing even the simplest of features that we take for granted in cloud storage like sharing, version control, and even a trash can. Worse still, there’s no search functionality or filters, so even finding files can be a pain.
Things are a little better with Apple’s iOS app, which offers a search box, two interface views, and category filters. But the app is still pretty spartan by modern convention. The built-in music player won’t play under the lock screen. There’s no support for offline files, no sharing controls, and no file previews. The app can share by virtue of iOS’ built-in sharing tool, but all this does is attach the full file to the thing you’re sharing with, which defeats one of the major reasons cloud services were created in the first place.
Overall, the experience for iCloud Drive is disappointing, especially given that it offers the broadest view of your cloud storage.
Apple’s iCloud Photos web app is also severely lacking, with only a couple of viewing options and an album creation tool. Once you create an album though, there’s not much you can do with it, not even sharing. Worse still, Photos cannot pull images from iCloud Drive, meaning you’ll have to upload images separately, just so you can organize them in albums.
Thankfully, you never have to use the web-app to upload, since the Photos iOS app will automatically upload your photos to the cloud. You can also enable Apple’s Photo Stream feature, which will push your most recent photos for download to your Mac or PC and your 1000 most recent photos to your iOS devices. But keep in mind that photos disappear from the stream after 30 days.
The lacking web interface is made more strange by the feature-filled iOS app. It can also create albums and even share them via generated links. Unfortunately, your web-created albums will need to be re-created, as they cannot be converted to Shared Albums.
By default, the invite will require Apple’s Photos app to access, which allows your Apple-toting recipients to subscribe to the album or add their own pictures to it. But if your recipients carry Windows, you’ll want to check the “Public Website” option, which allows them to view it via a web browser. Unfortunately, they’ll still get shamed by the website for daring to not use Apple hardware.
You should also know that Apple has hard limits on sharing to make sure you don’t “abuse” the service. Most of these limits are pretty high, but the 100 shared album limit and subscriber limit prevents this service from being used for anything but casual sharing between family and friends.
Apple’s iWork Online is a web-based version of their Pages, Numbers, and Keynote software on OS X. It’s available to anyone with a web browser, and can be compared to Microsoft’s Office Online or Google Docs.
Just like Photos, iWork documents cannot be imported from iCloud Drive. However, the service does support importing Microsoft Office formats, and can export out to Office format, PDF, or ePub.
Unlike the rest of iCloud, iWork Online periodically saves versions of your documents and keeps all of them for eventual restore. Unfortunately, you only get a small preview, so you might end up doing some blind restoration.
iWork Online offers a comprehensive sharing and collaboration suite. You can set sharing permissions, turn off sharing links, and even add a link password. I liked that recipients of shared links don’t need to have an iCloud account to view, or even edit the file that’s being shared with them.
That said, only a colored caret will tell you where each user ended their edit, but not indicate what they did. Plus, if two collaborators edit with apps and upload, you’ll be asked to choose which one you want to keep. Although you can always switch between versions of the document, like with restoring versions, there is no way to preview before deciding.
The biggest downside is that unless you own an Apple computer or pay $9.99 per app, you won’t be able to view or edit your documents outside of an online interface. If you’re not all-in with Apple’s ecosystem, using iWork could be a bit frustrating.
iCloud is already integrated into OS X, but Apple also offers a desktop suite for Windows, consisting of a cloud synced iCloud Drive folder and a minimal interface for iCloud Photos.
The iCloud Drive folder will download all your cloud stored files as well as upload new files and changes made within the folder and will even sync your Safari bookmarks, reading lists, and Firefox bookmarks.
An optional add-in for Microsoft Outlook can sync your contacts, calendars, and tasks from any of your e-mail accounts with an iCloud e-mail account. Even if you don’t use the e-mail account, it’s nice to be able to unify contacts and events within a single interface.
iCloud’s Photos UI on the desktop can be a bit strange. You’re given options to upload, view shared albums, and create new ones in the same way as the mobile app. But photos cannot be immediately synced to your computer, and must be manually downloaded a year at a time to an iCloud Photos\Downloads folder in your pictures folder.
The only exception is My Photo Stream. If enabled and configured, your iOS photos will be uploaded to the stream, and then downloaded to the Downloads folder within your PC.
If you wish, you can also stick photos in the iCloud Photos\Uploads folder for automatic upload and change the upload folder to somewhere more convenient.
The software on each platform has almost no configuration options, bandwidth limits, or even a selective sync option. Yet, despite how simplistic iCloud on the Windows desktop is, it’s just as simplistic on Apple’s own desktop OS. Both are essentially drag and drop upload tools.
To my surprise, documents created in the iWork web app will actually sync down to their own folders in the Windows desktop software. Unfortunately, they will sync down as a link to iCloud.com/pages, in this case, rather than a file you can actually manipulate.
But the missing elephant in the room is sharing, as there is no way to share anything from iCloud Drive. Photo albums can be shared, but that’s it. Even Apple’s built in OS X sharing platform will only share full files, and not generate links.
Since many of iCloud functions on OS X depend on deep integration with Apple’s own applications, the Windows experience will always feel like something is missing. There’s no way to view your full photo stream, or edit iWork documents natively, for instance. Perhaps that’s by Apple’s design, but it’s still unfortunate.
iCloud’s was fast enough to hit my ISP’s 50 Mbps down and 5 Mbps upload limits.
|Average Download Speed
|Maximum Download Speed
|Average Upload Speed
|Maximum Upload Speed
That said, while upload speeds were nice and consistent, I saw a lot of spikes and valleys with the download traffic. I’ve seen average speeds up in the 60 Mbps range before with my ISP, so it’s certainly not the fastest I’ve ever tested. But it’ll probably be good enough for the vast majority of users.
Despite Apple seeing a few high profile security-related issues with iCloud, they’re security is pretty good. Web sessions are encrypted with the latest TLS 1.2 protocols as well as Perfect Forward Secrecy. Files are encrypted in transit and on disk with “a minimum of 128-bit AES encryption,” as well as optional two-factor authentication. Apple offers a pretty thorough overview of their security, should you be interested.
That said, Apple’s recent fight with the FBI proves that they have all encryption keys and are capable of sending iCloud data to the government. If you’re looking for government privacy, encrypt your own files or look elsewhere.
The most unfortunate part of their security is that two-factor authentication is not enabled by default. If you’re using the service, I recommend turning it on, as it could have stopped the very public celebrity photo leak last year.
Apple’s pricing is competitive with the rest of the industry, yet not super exciting. However, because of how much data iCloud is managing, if you are planning on using it more than just to back up your phone settings, you may want to invest in a little more storage.
Apple offers a support forum and knowledge base for iCloud.
Technically, they do offer 24/7 phone support as well. However, to receive said support, you do need to enter in an Apple serial number, meaning you have to own a piece of Apple hardware. If you don’t own Apple hardware, and you’re using iCloud, there will be no support available from Apple.
|Average Upload Speed
|6.05 Mbps (5 Mbps connection)
|Average Download Speed
|51.4 Mbps (50 Mbps connection)
|Free Online Storage
|Keep Deleted Files
|Back Up to Local Drive
Sync and Share Features
|Public File Sharing
|Data Center Location(s)