Basic guide

Get to grips with iCloud

Your documents anywhere and everywhere? Sounds great! Now you just have to make that work.

We show you how…

Written by Craig Grannell

 

The cloud is brilliant. It’s brilliant because we’ve long left behind the days where that single copy of your amazing manuscript vanished forever when the sole disk it was on got eaten by a ravenous and rabid Mac. It’s brilliant because that ideal of always having your documents available – whatever device you happen to have to hand – is reliant only on you having internet connectivity. And it’s brilliant in the world of Apple because iCloud is baked deep into the heart of every Mac, iPhone, and iPad, along with a huge range of apps and services.

But the cloud is also infuriating. It’s infuriating because it can be confusing to newcomers. It’s infuriating because things can go horribly wrong, even when you think you’re an old hand at this kind of thing. And it’s infuriating because sometimes iCloud just doesn’t do what you’d expect it to, no matter how many times you stare menacingly at your device’s display.

The idea of this feature is to come at iCloud sideways. For key areas of working with Mac and iOS – storage, Photos, files and folders, and backing up – we look at how iCloud is meant to work, and then what you have to do to actually make it work. We also have some bite-sized tips about working with iCloud in the Apple apps that heavily utilise the system for synchronising data.

 

1 UNDERSTAND iCLOUD STORAGE

Figure out the space you get – and what you need

How it’s meant to work

The central idea behind iCIoud is that Apple’s service can securely store all of your photos, videos, documents, music, and apps – and then keep everything up to the second across all your devices. The

Apple provides 5GB of storage for free but there are also three paid-for upgrade options.

thinking is that whenever you need access to something, it’ll be ready and waiting, regardless of the device you happen to be using at the time.

How to make it work

With iCloud and storage, the devil is in the detail. Where are documents accessed? How much space is available? Access varies by system and app, and is explored on subsequent pages. But the amount of storage space you have is the most important consideration, because that impacts on everything.

By default, Apple provides 5GB for free. When iCloud launched, this seemed generous. Today, it’s rarely enough for an iCloud backup of a single moderately used iOS device, and is inadequate for remotely serious users.

If you’re going to use iCloud a lot, you’ll have to upgrade to a paid tier. These are charged monthly, and three options are available: 50GB for 79p; 200GB for £2.49; 2TB for £6.99. As of iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra, you’ll be able to share plans among families. This could make the 2TB option tempting, potentially providing space for your entire family’s photos, videos and documents.

You can switch between tiers at any point. This is important, because you don’t want to run out of space if you use iCloud. When your storage is almost full, your devices will repeatedly send warnings your way; when it’s full, even basic services stop working. If you’re reliant on syncing Notes across Mac and iPhone, for example, but blaze over your free 5GB of storage, Notes will stop

How to: Use iCloud in a web browser

1 Get started

Go to iCloud.com and sign in using your Apple ID. You’ll see a grid of icons representing familiar apps. Click iCloud Drive to delve into all the files and folders you have stored on iCloud. You can upload to and download from this interface.

2 View Settings

On the main screen, click Settings. This gives you an overview of your storage status, and lists the devices signed into your account (which can be removed by clicking one and then clicking the cross button in the Devices pop-up).

Restore files

If you’ve deleted a file from iCloud (which includes Desktop or Documents, if you’re syncing those folders) you’ve 30 days to get it back. Click Restore Files under Advanced in Settings. Select the relevant checkbox and then click Restore.

syncing, and you’ll have to scrabble around for a pen and paper instead.

But there are ways to make iCIoud work if you don’t fancy paying. You can avoid using iCIoud for backups and photos, which are typically the most space-hungry options, though you must ensure you safeguard your data and photos in other ways. (More on that later.)

Manual control

You can also manually manage data stored in iCloud. On the Mac, you can browse iCloud Drive by selecting it in a Finder sidebar, and move particularly weighty content to local folders if necessary. On iOS, you can use the Settings app, and go to General > Storage. There, you’ll see the size of any backups taken, and the space used by Mail and Photos. (In iOS 11, this moves to the Apple ID section found by tapping your name.)

For those willing to pay for higher tiers, there’s another added benefit of iCloud, in that it can offer more storage than many modern Macs. SSDs are more expensive than old-fashioned hard drives, and some Macs now ship with as little as 128GB of on-board storage. However, with macOS Sierra, you can automatically offload content to iCloud, including photos, music, and documents. The operating system pulls down specific items when they’re needed.

Again, this is explored later in the feature, and we should reiterate that although iCloud is generally a robust and reliable system, you must always take care when you’re allowing precious data to be shifted about in an ‘automated’ fashion. Also, you need to be online to guarantee access to your entire archive of data, so be mindful of that if you start relying heavily on iCloud.

On iOS, use Settings to see how much space Photos, Mail and backups are using.

Explained… Your iCloud storage

1 Manage your iCloud storage

In the iCloud System Preferences pane, the Manage button loads the Manage Storage sheet, so you can see where all your space has gone.

2 Your storage in numbers

At the top left, you’ll see how much space you have free, and your total allocation. If you’re within 1GB of your allocation, it’s time to upgrade.

3 Change your plan

Click Change Storage Plan to see the upgrade options. Downgrades require a sign-in. Warning triangles appear next to tiers smaller than your current usage level.

4 Data types

From the sidebar, you can explore and delete backups, as well as get tips on clawing back space from Mail and Photo Library, by clicking on those items.

2 PICTURE PERFECT

Photos and iCloud are a pretty picture – when everything works

How it’s meant to work

Take a photo or video on any device, and it subsequently becomes available on any other device signed into your Apple ID. Also, in the way iPhone freed you from the worry of running out of SD card space on a real camera – or film if you were still of a pre-digital mindset – iCloud stops you running out of space for photos on a device, through iCloud Photo Library.

How to make it work

Helpfully, there are two iCloud-reliant syncing services that work with Photos, and each is distinct in terms of feature set and impact on iCloud storage.

The older service is My Photo Stream. When activated, it automatically uploads photos (and screen grabs) you’ve shot on your iOS device(s) over the past 30 days. My Photo Stream can be browsed on any device, and acts as a painless way to get new snaps into Photos on the Mac.

However, there are limitations. My Photo Stream holds the past 30 days’ worth of photos, up to a maximum of 1,000, which should be fine for most people. And it doesn’t count against your iCloud storage, which is good. But on the downside image edits don’t sync across devices, Live Photos and videos are not supported, and iOS devices only hold ‘device optimised’ versions of photos, rather than the originals.

This means if you want videos and Live Photos on your Mac, you must import them into the Mac version of Photos (through connecting your device and clicking the Import tab or selecting the device from the sidebar). Otherwise, lose your phone and those cherished memories that are moving images will be gone forever. Also, without regularly importing and removing photos and videos from your iPhone, they clog it up, along with your backups.

iCloud Photo Library

The more recent – and far more ambitious service – is iCloud Photo Library. This is Apple’s attempt to have you store every photo and video in iCloud. It doesn’t have the same limitations as My Photo Stream. It works with Live Photos and video,

If Photos starts misbehaving on the Mac, quit the app and then force-quit Photos Agent in Activity Monitor. That might get it working again.

My Photo Stream is an older way to get photos on all your devices. However, it doesn’t support videos and Live Photos, meaning it only brings across static shots.

stores originals online so they’re always available, syncs edits between devices, and doesn’t eat into iCloud backup space.

So what’s the catch? Well, since iCloud Photo Library isn’t part of your iCloud backup, you’ll need to back up your photos elsewhere. Additionally, iCloud Photo Library uses your iCloud storage. Got 70GB of photos and videos? That 5GB of free space from Apple just isn’t going to cut it. And your broadband connection may be tied up for days while Photos laboriously uploads to iCloud every snap you’ve ever stored on your Mac, so that accidental shot of your thumb is ‘magically’ available on every Apple device you own. Also, since this is very much a full sync solution, you must be mindful that deleting something from Photos on one device deletes it everywhere. You can restore deleted photos or videos, but only for 30 days. After that point, they’re gone for good.

Use with caution

On balance, we’d say you’d be mad to not at least turn on My Photo Stream if you

Although iCloud is broadly reliable, we’ve heard horror stories about photos and videos vanishing. As always, if you care about digital content, back it up to several places.

use an iPhone or iPad to take photos even occasionally. And if you have the iCloud storage space, iCloud Photo Library can be a good step up – but before you get going be sure to take a couple of precautions to avoid losing those precious family holiday or birthday snaps for good. The first safeguard you should take is to complete a copy of your existing Photos Library (found in ~/Pictures) before you activate iCloud Photo Library. If necessary, buy a cheap hard drive to save it on, so you can always restore it if things don’t go quite to plan. Also, periodically copy new and important snaps and videos from Photos to this drive. (Select them in Photos and then @-drag them to the drive in Finder.)

Connectivity issues

As noted, uploading all your photos can take ages, and this may cause connectivity problems with other devices. If that happens, visit the iCloud tab in Photos’ preferences and click ‘Pause for one day’. The tab also houses another useful option to keep in mind: ‘Optimise Mac Storage’. If your Mac has a smallish SSD, turning on this option will store full-resolution photos and videos in iCloud, and on your Mac only if Photos deems you have enough space.

It’s worth noting that you can turn off iCloud Photo Library at any point – new images, videos and edits will just stop appearing in there. Sometimes, this might happen anyway, if there’s a glitch with iCloud and/or Photos. If that happens on Mac, quit Photos and in Activity Monitor force-quit Photos Agent. On iOS, force- reboot your device (hold the Home and power buttons until it restarts). Yes, we know it’s the old turn-it-off-and-on-again fix. However, when your photos won’t sync to your other devices, this is usually an effective solution, kicking into gear a piece of the system that’s for some reason decided to stop working.

If you use iCloud Photo Library and delete something from one device, it’s gone from all of them. But you have 30 days to fish such shots out of the Recently Deleted folder.

 

MANAGING IN-APP DATA

A grab-bag of tips for apps that use iCloud for data sync and storage

1 Reboot and restart

This is going to sound like a recycled line from sit-com The IT Crowd, but ‘have you turned it off and on again?’ really is a viable solution for a lot of iCloud sync troubles – and that’s very much the case for in-app data. Sometimes flicking Wi-Fi off and on will reload content; sometimes a device force-restart is needed. The more things change…

2 Reminders weirdness

The Reminders app is especially handy for to-do lists that are shared between multiple users. Only, such lists don’t always update. If you’ve been reliably informed ‘sausages’ are on a shared shopping list, but you can’t see them, try adding a new item yourself to wake up Reminders. Or, you know, restart your iPhone.

3 You’ve got mail

Every Apple ID comes with its own related email address, of the form yourappleid@icloud.com (@me.com and @mac.com options may also exist for long-time users). This syncs across devices allowed access to the address – but email messages can eat into your iCloud storage. If you need to free up space, delete junk and sent mail.

4 Save the date

If you’re using iCloud, your calendars will sync across devices. On Mac, updates sometimes don’t always work as expected, though. We’ve seen new entries vanish shortly after they’re added, or multiple-item cut and pastes not stick. The best tip is to keep an eye out after making new entries – and not make too many calendar changes at once.

5 Take a note

Although Notes primarily started life as the digital equivalent of a scrap of paper, it’s since grown to become a capable app. You can now add sketches, checklists, images and more. If you’re using iCloud, you can also add collaborators. By which we mean others can be invited to work on a note. Kick this

off by clicking/tapping the button that’s a + next to a silhouette of a head.

6 Messages in the cloud

When videos and photos are sent, Messages can get pretty weighty. You can manually delete threads and images, but as of iOS 11, you’ll be able to activate Messages On iCloud, automatically saving attachments in iCloud and reducing their size on your iOS devices.

7 Lock and key

With iCloud Keychain, Apple securely holds your Safari website logins and payment details in iCloud, so you needn’t remember them. This enables you to use complex passwords, making it less likely someone will break into your accounts. Sometimes, though, it’ll refuse to sync. If so, turn off iCloud Keychain on all devices, then activate it on the one with the most up-to-date keychain items, and then on the remaining devices.

8 Playing the game

Games on iOS are a bit of an odd one as far as iCloud is concerned. Every game can theoretically sync progress using iCloud, but relatively few do. Some also utilise iCloud, but only to restore progress to a single device.

Sometimes, you won’t know any of this is happening until you install a game on a new device and find you don’t have to start from scratch. In Settings > General > Storage & iCloud Usage, tap Manage Storage to see a list of apps saving data to iCloud, which will include games.

9 App off loading

As mentioned, it’d be great if more iOS games synced progress between devices. Part of the reason for that is many of them are massive. But if you delete a game, you also delete all of the progress you’ve made, if the game doesn’t support iCloud saves, restore, or sync. Until iOS 11, that is, because Apple’s latest operating system enables you to offload unused apps.

This feature is activated system-wide or on a per-app basis in Settings (General > iPhone/iPad Storage). In the case of racer Gear.Club, the app weighs in at 2.43GB, but the Documents & Data space requirement is only a few MB. On iOS 11, you can free up space, delete the app, reinstall later, and resume your game.

  1. On Safari

Apple’s web browser, Safari, hugely benefits from iCloud. Bookmarks automatically sync between devices, which can have big usability benefits when you haven’t got all your devices to hand. On Mac, go to View > Show Favorites Bar, and drag your most used sites to it. These then appear as big, tappable icons in iOS whenever you open a new tab.

iCloud also comes in useful if you’ve left a bunch of tabs open on one device that’s no longer handy, but you now want to check out one of those sites. Click or tap the tab overview button (which looks like two overlapping squares), and you’ll see your currently open tabs. Scroll down and you’ll then see the tabs open on other devices signed into the same Apple ID, and that are also using iCloud for Safari. Simply click or tap one of them to open it on the device that you’re currently using.

 

FILES & FOLDERS IN iCLOUD

Figure out the space you get – and what you need

How it’s meant to work

By using iCIoud Drive and associated features across macOS and iOS, your saved documents are available on any device, happily living inside whatever folder structure you’ve created for them.

When you use iCloud Drive, the files you save there are copied to the online storage.

How to make it work

Again, this one’s complicated. Apple sees a future in which you never need worry about having saved a file or folder on the ‘wrong device’ again (thereby temporarily putting it out of reach when you most need it). But we’re not there yet, and the system Apple’s ended up with is suboptimal and messy, due to years of accumulated cruft on the Mac side and false starts on iOS.

As of macOS Sierra, you can optionally sync your Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud. Again, this is reliant on you having enough iCloud storage space to do so. If you only have a small amount of iCloud storage, try using your desktop as a kind of temporary repository for files you want to have fast access to anywhere, and Documents to house only very important files and folders. Create a new folder called ‘Documents – local’ in your user folder for archived/less important stuff (which won’t sync between devices), and consider installing virtual housekeeper Hazel ($32, noodlesoft.com) to automatically file content that’s been lurking on your desktop too long and/or those items with large file sizes.

If your problem is the opposite – you have tons of iCloud space but not much room on your Mac’s tiny SSD, tick Optimise Mac Storage in the iCloud Drive options found within the System Preferences iCloud pane. Older documents will be shifted to iCloud when space is limited. However, be aware that if you have projects with dependencies (such as external imagery, video, or

How to: Use Hazel to clean your desktop

Create a new rule

Install Hazel, and open its pane in System Preferences. Click the + button in the Folders column. Select Desktop from under iCloud in the sidebar, and then Open. Click the + button under Rules to open the rules sheet for Desktop.

2 Define your rule

Name your rule ‘Desktop clean-up’, and set the conditions for the rule to run. Have the first condition be ‘Date Added is not in the last 30 days’, and the second ‘Size is greater than’ along with a per-file size in MB you don’t want to exceed.

Set a target folder

For the ‘Do…’ line, leave the Move action as-is, and set a non-iCloud folder to move matched documents to, such as ‘Documents – local’ (if you already have that – otherwise create it first in Finder). Click OK and your rule will start running.

 

audio), you should consider storing the entirety of those in local folders, or ensure you’re online when you need to work on them. If you don’t, macOS might erroneously offload the external files, leaving you stranded.

App-specific folders

App-specific iCloud Drive folders can be browsed and managed on Mac. Select iCloud Drive from Finder’s sidebar (use Finder’s Sidebar preferences if this isn’t visible), and work with app folders just like any other. However, for apps that expect files to always be in ‘their’ folders (often the case on iOS), don’t move individual files outside of the app folders – if you do, locating them later from within the iOS app may prove problematic.

If you disable syncing Desktop and Documents to iCloud, you might surmise Apple would just stop syncing your documents, but leave everything in place. Instead, it creates empty Desktop and Documents folders, to which you’ll need to copy your files from the relevant folders in iCloud Drive. If you later re-enable syncing, the newly created folders disappear, and their contents ar placed in a folder named after the computer they came from (such as ‘Documents – Mac mini’). Do this a number of times, and you can end up with a bunch of folders and some serious file management to get your head around. So don’t be indecisive.

On iOS, things are a mite simpler, in that Apple started off having you save documents ‘within’ apps, and then opened up that hidden file system in the iCloud Drive app and an associated Document Picker. As of iOS 11, the latter evolves into a full-fledged Files app on iPad, as outlined elsewhere.

App-specific folders make finding and saving files on a per-app basis easier.

Explained… Files in iOS 11

4 Sort order

The toolbar defaults to sorting your files and folders by name, but – just as on the Mac – if you prefer you can change this to date, size, or ordering by user-assigned tags.

3 View types

Drag the files area downwards to gain access to a number of extra settings. Tap the icon towards the top right so you can switch between icon and list views.

2 Favorites

Drag folders (but not individual documents) from iCloud Drive to this area, to enable fast access to them. Collapse the menu by tapping the downwards-facing arrow.

1 Locations

Tap Edit and you can add shortcuts to supported storage locations, which also includes third-party services/ software like Dropbox, Transmit and PDF Expert.

  1. BACK UP YOUR DOCUMENTS

How to ensure your important files and folders are always recoverable when using iCloud

But what of the Mac? Well, unfortunately, it’s a little complicated. Desktop and Documents folders synced to iCloud can be synced to other Macs, but that’s not really a backup in the truest sense. You can’t use that data to restore an entire Mac, and it doesn’t account for glitches in the system, such as documents vanishing. So set up a robust backup system as well. Use Time Machine for ongoing backups you can delve into to grab previous versions of files, Backblaze ($5 per month, backblaze.com) for ongoing online backup/restore, and SuperDuper (£24, shirt-pocket.com) for safeguarding Mac files saved and synced to iCloud. Have SuperDuper schedule a daily backup that uses ‘Copy newer’ settings (in Options under the General tab). While this is more ‘archive’ than backup, it will at least ensure everything that’s on – or was once on – your Mac remains retrievable.

should you need to restore from a backup that turns out to be weeks old.

If space is a problem, you can manually manage backup content – as outlined elsewhere on these pages. However, if you’re a long-time iOS user, also examine this area of Settings for redundant backups of older devices. These can often be safely deleted – after you’ve backed up the relevant devices to iTunes first, of course.

Failure on restore

Another snag with iCloud backups is failure on restore, which can be nightmarish when trying to get iCloud data onto a replacement device when you no longer have the old one. At that point, a lot of data and settings might be gone for good. However, you’ll be safe if you periodically back up devices to iTunes, giving you a back-up plan for your backups, so to speak.

How it’s meant to work

Leave your iOS device plugged in, on a Wi-Fi network, and with a locked screen. It’ll then be backed up to iCloud on a daily basis (typically overnight), thereby keeping your data safe should something horrible happen to your iPhone or iPad.

How to make it work

Backups can be a minefield. Some assume they’re running anyway from day one – as if by magic. And that is what’s supposed to happen on iOS. Only it’s not that simple. Your device must be powered, able to access a network (ideally one that’s reasonably fast), and locked, for backups to occur. Additionally, there must be enough storage space on your iCloud account for the backup.

Backups can rapidly increase in size, though, and will just stop if you lack space. Warnings do appear, but they’re easy to dismiss – which you’ll regret doing

How to: Fine-tune iCloud backups

2 Back up to iTunes

Connect your device to your Mac via USB (unless you’ve previously enabled Wi-Fi sync). Select the device in the toolbar under the playback controls, and then select Summary from the sidebar. Click Back Up Now to create a local backup on your Mac.

Delete old backups

In the iCloud pane of System Preferences, click Manage and then Backups. Your iCloud backups will be listed. If you no longer need one, you can select and delete it to free up space. However, it’s smart to back up the relevant device to iTunes first…

View on iOS

On your device, open the Settings app, and go to General > Storage & iCloud Usage. Tap Manage Storage under the iCloud heading. You’ll see your current plan, along with the same backup details displayed in the previous step when using your Mac.

4 Explore a backup

On iOS, you can handily delve into the current device’s backup by tapping it. Under ‘Choose data to back up’, the data being backed up is listed by app. Note that fully displaying this and the Next Backup Size value can take a minute or so.

5 Toggle backup switches

Tap Show All Apps and everything that’s being backed up can be viewed.

You can use the switches to turn iCloud backup on and off for specific apps. In most cases, the values won’t make much difference, but some apps require hundreds of GB or more.

6 Keep data safe

If you decide to turn off iCloud backup for some apps, keep your data safe in other ways. With Photo Library, use Photos for Mac to periodically save new photos and videos. Elsewhere, iTunes File Sharing may enable you to save files from other apps.

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