We’ve talked about iCloud a couple of times on the Professional Apple Users Academy, as it’s one of the most important pillars of Apple’s ecosystem nowadays. Still, many people don’t know what iCloud really is, aside from that login they had to create when they first set up their new iOS Device.

This article is intended as a starting point for anyone who is new to Apple’s ecosystem and wants to understand what iCloud really is and how they can use it. We’ll add links to additional articles talking about certain parts of iCloud in more detail when they are posted. So feel free to add this page to your bookmarks.

iCloud: One name, many parts

iCloud is just a name for a huge number of services and technologies that all work with your personal data in some way, shape, or form. Imagine it being the nice packaging for a really complicated piece of machinery.
As such, there are many, many different pieces to it, different types of services (like calendars, photo sharing, email, …) and different kinds of media, that can be stored in it.

Here’s an exhaustive list of things that all live under the iCloud umbrella somehow:

  • Email
  • Calendars
  • Contacts
  • Photos
  • iCloud Drive (File/Document storage)
  • Find My iPhone
  • Notes
  • Reminders
  • Pages
  • Numbers
  • Keynote
  • Backups
  • App Services (sync, server hosting)

As you can see, this is quite a diverse list.
Next up, we’re gonna talk about what you get when you sign up for iCloud and what each of these is good for.

iCloud.com

Email

With every iCloud account, you get one @icloud.com email address. If you ever owned a MobileMe or .Mac subscription, you’ll also have a @me.com or @mac.com address in addition to that.
You can use that address just like any other email address for other services (e.g. gmail), either as your primary address or for example as a fallback address. Emails can be accessed through the Mail app on iOS/OS X, iCloud.com or any other IMAP capable email client (e.g. Airmail or Outlook).

Calendars

iCloud allows you to sync your calendars between multiple devices, and access them on iCloud.com. Ideally, they show up on all your devices you hit save on the event you’re creating.
As with email, there are also third-party apps available that can access those calendars and provide additional functionality.

Contacts

Much like calendars, contacts can be synced between multiple devices and accessed on iCloud.com. This allows you to manage your contacts with any device, and even call people from your Mac

Photos

This is certainly an important topic for many people and one that has caused some confusion recently. Photos are something nobody wants to loose. Whether it’s your kids’ first steps or a particularly memorable party/place, they usually contain fond and unrecoverable memories.

Previously, iCloud allowed you to sync those pictures (and videos) between your devices and share them with your friends or family. The “original” photo would stay on the device it was taken on until you deleted it (also deleting it from iCloud). This is about to change with the “iCloud Photo Library”, currently in beta.

Once enabled, the moment you take a photo (or you connect to a wifi hotspot, depending on your settings), the original is uploaded to iCloud. What stays on your device is just a copy, which may or may not be the same as the original. iCloud merely maintains a local cache of your photos to allow you to view them quicker. This means, that you don’t have to delete your photos anymore to free up space. iCloud will take care of that automatically and free up space if it’s needed for something else. Your photos are securely stored on iCloud’s servers. That also means, that you don’t have to worry about loosing your iPhone anymore as your photos are save.

iCloud Drive

We’ve talked about iCloud Drive on the Professional Apple Users Academy. It’s one of the core elements of iCloud. iCloud drives allows you (and your apps) to store and share data between devices and apps. Picture it as your personal hard drive in the cloud.

Find my iPhone

If you’ve ever lost your phone, or it was stolen, you know how annoying this can be. Find my iPhone allows you not only to track your phone (as long as it’s connected to the internet somehow), but also remotely lock and wipe it. iCloud.com will show you your device’s current location on a map, which should allow you to retrieve it on your own, or provide that information to the authorities.

Some people shy away from this feature, fearing that Apple might be able to track their every move. And while this is possible in theory, it’s not very likely that Apple would do that. Use at your own discretion.

Pages/Numbers/Keynote

These three apps are part of Apple’s iWork suite and now also live under the iCloud umbrella. They are basically Apple’s equivalent of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. In addition the the standalone apps on iOS and OS X (which you get for free when buying a new device), they can also be accessed for free on iCloud.com, even if you don’t own any Apple hardware (yet).

Backups

One thing is for certain: We never want to loose data. Especially if your iPhone/iPad is damaged, stolen or doesn’t work in some other way, you want to be sure that all our data is safe. And when it comes to replacing your “old” phone with a new one, you want to be up and running as fast as possible.

The good news is that iCloud’s integrated backup mechanism does exactly that.

Note: Backups are only created when you’re connected to wifi and your device is charging. So make sure to allow it to do it’s thing every now and then.

Notes

Just like the sticky notes you have on your desk, just in digital form. Notes sync between your devices and can also be accessed on iCloud.com.

Reminders

Not much can be said about Reminders, aside from that you create them to get reminded to do something (hence the name). Some people might also call them “To-do”s. It’s just another type of data you can store on iCloud, sync between devices, and also access on iCloud.com. Reminders can also be created with Siri.

App Services (sync, server hosting)

If you ever encounter the word “iCloud” inside an app’s settings screen, chances are the app is talking about syncing data (or settings) with other devices.
Apple provides a way for developers to store information either inside your iCloud Drive or a special iCloud database.

Storage

As you can imagine, all of this data you could potentially store in iCloud, doesn’t come for free.
Apple grants each account 5GB of storage for free, which isn’t particularly much nowadays, additional storage space can be bought for a small monthly fee. Check out this how-to to learn how to upgrade your plan right on your iOS device.

We suggest doing just that, because having enough storage for your backup is one of the essential things every iOS device owner should have.