iCloud is a cloud-based computing and storage service from Apple, Inc. Like similar file sharing/storage services, iCloud enables users to synchronize their digital content across all Apple applications and devices, including Mac, MacBook, iPad, iPod, iPhone, and Apple Watch.
Although an Apple ID (and by extension, an iCloud account) is not always required to access Apple devices or software, many features or functionalities are limited without one. iCloud is accessible from iCloud.com in addition to the general settings/preferences pane of any supported device or application. For an iCloud user’s storage to be enabled, the user must be logged in to the corresponding Apple ID. An Apple ID is a username (often email address) and password combination and the credential for an iCloud account.
iCloud storage is intended for personal or family file storage, not enterprise storage. Enterprise storage providers offer much larger storage sizes. Because it has limited capacity and lacks multiple backup locations, iCloud is not viewed as adequate business cloud storage.
iCloud was unveiled in 2011 alongside Mac OS X Lion and iOS 5 and was made publicly available with an iTunes update. It replaced MobileMe, a paid service that had targeted Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, iPhone, and iPod Touch users since 2000. In less than a week, iCloud had 20 million users, and it has since been expanded to include a number of native applications and functionalities.
Today, users of Apple devices (like iPhones) and Apple software (like iTunes and Apple Music) are strongly encouraged to create an iCloud account, which comes with 5 GB of free storage for mail, documents, photos/videos, backups, music, apps, TV shows, and books.
There are two types of storage on an Apple device (your iPhone, for example). Device storage is simply how much space you have on your phone for applications, both purchased and native, and other items such as photos, videos, songs, and podcasts. iCloud storage refers to backup space. Not all of the things on your phone are backed up to iCloud. Apple automatically gives five gigabytes of free iCloud storage (i.e., data backups) to new Apple device owners. They can also purchase additional storage.
iCloud backups and how to do them
To simply back up your current iCloud storage on an iPhone, go to Settings>iCloud>iCloud Backup and then select the option to perform a backup.
iCloud will not permit a backup if you don’t have enough free space in your plan. If you aren’t paying for storage, then once you exceed the 5 GB-limit, you will no longer be able to back up your data.
To back up your iCloud-stored data onto a Macbook:
- Connect the iPhone to the Mac with the charge/sync cable.
- Click the tab for “User’s iPhone” in the first application that opens.
- Select the Device tab.
- Under Backups, click the option to back up your data to this computer.
To back up newly purchased music from your phone to iTunes on your computer:
- Connect the iPhone to the Mac with a cable
- Open iTunes or Music app if it doesn’t automatically open
- Select “User’s iPhone”
- Select File>Devices>Transfer purchases
iTunes will then sync recent purchases, putting them into your computer’s music library.
When Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs announced that iCloud would be replacing MobileMe, he also gave an overview of the new apps and functionalities that would be introduced in the new iCloud user experience. While many of the announced features have remained constant since the launch, many subsequent launches and updates have molded the current iCloud environment, including:
- Backup and Restore, which automatically creates a data backup of all files and settings that can be restored in the event of system updates, hardware failure, or device upgrades.
- iCloud Keychain, a password manager for storing and streamlining passwords; Keychain is available for Safari but also has a Chrome extension.
- iTunes Match, a paid service for scanning CD tracks and matching them to music in the iTunes Library (now bundled into the Apple Music subscription).
- Find My (formerly two separate apps, Find My Friends and Find My Device), an application for locating Apple devices and other iCloud users; it allows changes to the device from a distance, such as locking it for safety.
- Handoff, a functionality for accessing an application that has recently been used on a different iCloud device.
- Photos (formerly iPhoto and My Photo Stream), an application that uploads a copy of every photo taken on every iCloud-enabled device to iCloud Drive.
- iMessage, which replaced the previous iChat application and incorporated SMS messaging from mobile service providers.
- Contacts, which stores all saved contact information from iMessages and FaceTime.
- Calendar and Reminders, which manage Apple users’ schedules and send notifications for certain events and dates.
- iWork apps, which include Numbers, Pages, and Keynote and allow document collaboration between multiple computer users.
- Purchase history, which allows users to see and track all of their Apple purchases and billing records.
- Voice Memos, which users can choose to show on multiple devices by enabling Voice Memos in Settings.
- Bookmarks, which is also available as a Chrome extension so that users can access their Bookmarks on Windows.
- Apple Health data, which is encrypted when users are signed into their Apple ID.
iCloud for Windows
If you own a PC with a Windows operating system, Apple does offer iCloud functionality. If you navigate to Apple’s Download iCloud for Windows page, Apple gives instructions for downloading iCloud on Windows 10. Users should click the download link while in their Windows browser, prepared to enter their Apple ID details. Apple also has a link for users who only have Windows 7 or 8. If users enable certain iCloud apps, such as Photos, on their Windows computer, they can then access the same photos on their Apple devices.
What is iCloud Drive?
iCloud Drive, an Apple-native storage and file sharing service, provides 5 GB of free storage to iCloud users. It is one of the products iCloud offers. Users can access iCloud Drive from the application on their devices or sign in using their Apple ID on a web browser.
iCloud Drive falls under iCloud storage prices, which we’ve listed again below (the automatic 5GB one is free):
- 50 GB—$0.99/mo
- 200 GB—$2.99/mo
- 2 TB—$9.99/mo
iCloud Drive storage, though scalable for users who have a lot of files, isn’t intended to be enterprise-level storage. It’s intended mainly for personal use on user-owned devices.
For those wondering about other file storage platforms for personal computer users, we’ve provided a brief overview of Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive, iCloud Drive’s main competitors.
iCloud vs. Microsoft OneDrive
Microsoft OneDrive has received criticism in the past for lacking business-level security. It now offers a Personal Vault for extra data protection. The Personal Vault requires authentication measures such as biometrics or personal identification codes (PINs). Personal Vault offers extra encryption for users who want to protect their sensitive files. However, the Personal Vault feature isn’t available for OneDrive for Business plans, only for personal and home users.
OneDrive only offers storage, not file backup. It also gives users 5 free gigabytes of storage. The 50GB plan starts at $1.99/mo.
iCloud vs. Google Drive
Google Drive, Google’s file storage platform, allows users to store and manage files from other Google applications—such as Docs, Sheets, and Slides—in one hub. The exception is the Google Drive mobile app, from which users can’t edit a document (or sheet, or slide) without having the corresponding Google app installed on their phone as well.
Google Drive’s free storage edition has 15 GB available for non-paying users. This, as well as its flexibility in sharing and collaborating on a variety of apps, is where Google Drive shines. Google Drive files are encrypted and stored in Google data centers.
iCloud encrypts user data while it’s in transit and resting on iCloud servers. It does not perform end-to-end encryption on all data, only certain kinds, such as payment information and Wi-Fi passwords. To enable end-to-end encryption for iCloud, users first must activate two-factor authentication for their Apple ID. Apple also encourages users to update software to the most recent version to help keep their data secure.
Apple has said publicly that they scan downloaded user data for illegal content, namely child exploitation and abuse. There has also been indication that Apple flags downloaded content for pornography. It’s unclear how much other customer data Apple scans or flags.
UPDATED: This article was updated April 6, 2021 by Web Webster.