iCloud is Apple’s cloud storage service, offering integrated online backup and syncing for Apple devices. iCloud is built-in on iPhones, iPads, and Macs, but can also be accessed on Windows.

While other services allow you to upload any type of file, Apple chooses to place your data into different compartments. This can be confusing — for example, iCloud will store your documents forever, but will delete your stored photos eventually.

What iCloud Syncs and Backs Up

iCloud is an online service linked to your Apple ID. When you set up a new iPad or iPhone, iCloud is enabled by default. Apple provides a free 5 GB of iCloud space to each account, which is used to store the following things online:

  • Mail: You can choose to use an @icloud.com email address on your device. If you do, iCloud will store your mail and it will also be accessible on icloud.com. If you use another email service, such as Gmail, Outlook.com, or Yahoo! Mail, this feature does nothing.
  • Contacts: iCloud syncs your contacts, or address book, between your devices and makes it accessible on icloud.com.
  • Calendars: Calendar events you create on your device can be synced along with your iCloud account.
  • Reminders: Reminders is Apple’s to-do list or tasks app. Reminders you create on one device are synced between your devices.
  • Safari: iCloud syncs Safari browsing data, including your bookmarks, open tabs, and reading list between your devices. On a Windows PC, you can use the iCloud Control Panel to sync Safari’s bookmarks with Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome.
  • Notes: iCloud can sync notes you take in the included Notes app and make them available on the iCloud website.
  • Keychain: iCloud Keychain is a new feature that functions as a syncing password manager for Safari on iOS and Macs. It doesn’t work with third-party applications unless the apps were designed with iCloud keychain support in mind, and iOS doesn’t make it easy to copy-paste these passwords into apps. A dedicated password manager like LastPass is probably a better solution for now.
  • Photos: iCloud’s Photo Stream feature temporarily syncs some photos between your devices. Unlike many other iCloud features, Photo Stream isn’t a permanent back up, only a temporary one. In other words, iCloud isn’t backing up all your photos, so you’ll need your own backup solution.
  • Documents & Data: Documents you create with Apple’s now-free iWork apps — Pages, Numbers, and Keynote — can be synced to iCloud. They can then be accessed from iWork apps on another iOS device, a Mac, or via the iCloud website. Other apps can also choose to store their data in iCloud.
  • Find My iPhone/iPad/Mac: The “Find My” services aren’t for storage, but they’re considered part of iCloud. They can be used to track your device via the iCloud website if you lose it.
  • Device Backups: Rather than requiring regular device backups via iTunes, iOS devices can automatically back up their data over Wi-Fi to iCloud when iCloud is enabled.

These iCloud settings are all accessible in the Settings app’s iCloud section on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. You can see which types of data are set to synchronize and choose what you want to synchronize.

Apple also syncs other data — for example, your history of purchased apps and content, as well as your iMessage and SMS messages.

Using iCloud on a Mac

Apple makes both the Mac OS X and iOS operating systems, so iCloud is integrated on a Mac. When setting up your Mac, you should be prompted to sign in with an iCloud account. If you want to manage what settings sync,  you can click the Apple menu, select System Preferences, and click iCloud. From here, you can control which types of settings sync, just as you can on an iOS device.

Accessing Your iCloud Data From Windows

There are two ways to access synced iCloud data on Windows: via the iCloud Control Panel desktop application and via the iCloud website.

The iCloud Control Panel, available for download from Apple’s website, offers the following features:

  • Mail, Contacts, Calendar, and Tasks Sync: iCloud Control Panel can sync this information with Outlook 2007 or later. If you don’t use Outlook, don’t worry — you can access this data on the iCloud website. “Tasks” used here is the same thing is “Reminders.”
  • Bookmarks: Your Safari bookmarks can be synced with Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome. Apple supports so many other browsers on Windows because Safari for Windows has been discontinued.
  • Photos: iCloud Control Panel can automatically download photos from your iCloud Photo Stream to your PC. This is essential if you want to have a local back up of your photos, as photos in your Photo Stream will be automatically deleted.
  • Manage iCloud Storage: This feature allows you to see what’s taking up space on your iCloud storage — for example, device backups and settings backups from apps you’ve used — and delete them to free up space.

The iCloud website, which you can access at icloud.com, offers the following features:

  • Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Reminders: Your data from these productivity apps can be viewed and edited on the iCloud website, so you can access to it from any PC, even one running Windows. You don’t have to sync via Outlook to access this.
  • Find My iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch/Mac: Apple’s Find service is accessible from here, so you can sign into iCloud on any PC and track your device if you lose it. This feature displays the GPS location of your device on a map and allows you to remotely lock or wipe it.
  • Pages, Numbers, Keynote: The iWork apps now have web versions you can access via the iCloud website. Using these, you can view and edit your synced documents on any device.

Note that some features are only accessible on the desktop, while some are only accessible on the iCloud website. For example, you can’t view your Photo Stream on the iCloud website, while you can’t edit your iWork documents outside of a browser.

If you find yourself running out of free iCloud space and don’t want to delete data, Apple allows you to purchase additional iCloud storage space.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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