Everything You Need to Know About Using iCloud Drive and iCloud Photo Library

iphone 6's with ios 8 and icloud drive

Apple introduced iCloud Drive in iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite. It’s designed to be a more easily understandable cloud storage location, working more like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive.

Previous versions of iCloud could sync your “documents and data,” but iCloud Drive now exposes a sort of file system to you. You can sync any file you like and browse your saved files.

How to Enable iCloud Drive

When you set up iOS 8 on an iPhone or iPad, or when you set up a Mac with OS X Yosemite, you’ll be asked whether you want to migrate your account to iCloud Drive. This is a one-way upgrade from the old “Documents & Data” system. After you convert your account to iCloud Drive storage, iOS 7 and pre-Yosemite Mac OS X systems won’t be able to access your files.

If you didn’t enable iCloud Drive during installation, you can do it later. On an iOS device, open the Settings app, select iCloud, and turn on iCloud Drive. To enable iCloud Photo Library, you’ll also need to enable the Photos option here.

On a Mac, open the iCloud Preferences window and enable it. On a Windows PC, open the iCloud for Windows application and enable it.

How iCloud Drive is Different

Previously, Apple’s iCloud “Documents & Data” system was designed to hide the file system from  you as much as possible. You’d use TextEdit on a Mac to save a text file to iCloud Drive, and that text file could only be seen from within the TextEdit app itself. On iOS, there was no TextEdit app, so you couldn’t see it. There was no location where you could go to see all your stuff.

This changes with iCloud Drive, as Apple has apparently realized that there’s no substitute for an exposed file system that lets you see all your stuff. iCloud Drive is still a bit weird, though. By default, every iCloud Drive-enabled app you use will save its own files to its own folder. Apple is trying to organize your drive for you. However, you’re free to place files anywhere you like and make your own folder structure.

As with other cloud storage services, files you store in your iCloud Drive are automatically stored on Apple’s servers and synchronized via your devices. They’re tied to your Apple ID, and Apple offers 5 GB of storage space for free.

How to Access Your iCloud Drive Files

Your iCloud drive files can be accessed from an iOS device, Mac, Windows PC, or any device with a web browser. Here’s how:

iOS 8+: On an iOS device, there’s no single app that exposes the entire iCloud Drive file system like there is for Dropbox and other similar apps. Instead, you need to use an app that uses iCloud Drive, open its file chooser, and access your file system in that way. For example, you can open Pages or another iWork app and use the app’s document browser to browse for files stored in iCloud Drive. iCloud Drives plugs straight into the “storage provider” extension point in iOS 8.

Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite+: On a Mac, iCloud Drive is available directly in the Finder’s sidebar. Click iCloud Drive and, by default, you’ll see your documents organized into folders depending on which app they’re from. However, you’re free to dump any file you like in here and make all the folders you like. They’ll be synced via iCloud.

Windows: Windows computers need iCloud for Windows 4.0 or newer installed. After this software is installed, iCloud Drive will appear as an option in the File Explorer or Windows Explorer file-browser windows. Click it under Favorites to access your iCloud files in the same way.

Web Browser: Your iCloud files can also be accessed from the iCloud website anywhere you have a web browser. To do this, visit the iCloud Drive page on iCloud and sign in with your Apple ID.

How to Access Your iCloud Photo Library Photos

With iOS 8 comes a new feature called iCloud Photo Library. It stores an unlimited amount of photos, if you have the space, and makes them available everywhere. This is a big improvement over the weird, partial photo sync system found in previous versions of iOS.

However, in spite of the related name, iCloud Photo Library is not part of iCloud Drive. This is why you can’t see your photos in iCloud Drive on a Mac or PC, even though they’re synced. You’ll have to access your photos in a different way.

iOS 8+: You can see your synced photos by opening the Photos app on any iOS device. They’ll appear there.

Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite+: To see your photos on a Mac, you’ll need to install Apple’s iPhoto app from the Mac App Store. Launch iPhoto, enable the iCloud integration, and select the iCloud option under Shared.

Windows: On Windows, you can enable the Photos feature in the iCloud settings panel and get copies of photos you take downloaded directly to your Windows PC. iCloud Photos will appear under Favorites in File Explorer or Windows Explorer, just as iCloud Drive does.

Web: You can also view your photo library on the web. Visit the Photos page on the iCloud website and log in with your Apple ID.


As long as you have devices running the latest versions of Apple’s operating systems, there’s no reason not to enable iCloud Drive. However, you may still prefer another cloud storage solution. iCloud storage space is still fairly pricy, with Apple only offering a paltry 5 GB by default — and, remember, that 5 GB includes all your iCloud backups.

Other storage providers offer a more generous amount of storage for less money, with the most enticing being Microsoft’s offer of infinite OneDrive space plus free access to Microsoft Office applications for $8 a month with Office 365.

Image Credit: Karlis Dambrans on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.