The iCloud ecosystem is complicated, and it’s hard to know how much of your data is safe in the “cloud” and synced across your devices. We’ll walk through the process of setting up and explain what each feature does.
How to Sign Into iCloud
When you first set up your Mac, you should have been prompted to sign in with an iCloud account. If you’ve already set that up, you’re good to go, but if you’re not signed in you’ll need to sign in from the iCloud settings.
Open the System Preferences app—you can click the Apple menu at the top of your screen and select “System Preferences”—and click the “iCloud” icon. You can also find the System Preferences app on your dock and in your Applications folder.
These are the iCloud settings. If you’re not signed in, you’ll see this sign-in screen.
If you already have an Apple ID from an iPhone or iPad, make sure to use the same one for your Mac, or else nothing will sync between your devices. If you need to make a new account though, you can click “Create Apple ID” at the bottom to sign up.
You can sign up with your own email address, such as a Gmail account, or you can make a new @icloud.com email address. Either one will create a new iCloud account, which you can use on any device you want.
What Syncs Automatically?
The main feature of iCloud is keeping your critical personal data synced across your devices (and backed up in the cloud). Most iCloud features sync the following data across all your connected devices out of the box:
- Your contacts
- Calendar appointments and reminders
- Safari Data, including passwords, open pages, and browsing history
- HomeKit access
- Notes you’ve made in the Notes app
- Mail you’ve sent and received, as well as drafts
You shouldn’t have to worry about any of these so long as you are signed in and the option is checked in the iCloud settings on your Mac. Make sure the options are also enabled in the iCloud settings on your iOS devices, and any other device you have signed into the same iCloud account, or you could run into problems.
The main thing to note with photos is that there are two methods of backing them up. The first, “iCloud Photos,” simply stores every photo you take in iCloud, and syncs across devices. If your device breaks, you can enable “iCloud Photos” on a new device and redownload all of your pictures in iCloud.
“My Photo Stream” is different, and only stores the most recent photos for a month to give your other devices time to sync. That means, if you take a picture on your iPhone, and don’t use your iPad for a while, your photos won’t sync to the iPad. Additionally, nothing is backed up except the last month of photos, so if you lose your device without “iCloud Photos” enabled, you won’t be able to get your pictures back.
There is still a use for “My Photo Stream” though, as storing every photo you take in iCloud will very quickly fill up all of the 5 GB of free storage that comes with iCloud. If you have two devices you regularly use, like a MacBook and an iPhone, having only “My Photo Stream” enabled can save you a lot of space, while still having your photos backed up on your MacBook. Just don’t break both of them at the same time.
iMessage won’t be enabled by default, but all that is required is signing in when you launch the app for the first time. Just make sure you sign in with the same account you use on your iPhone or iPad, and make sure iMessage is enabled on all your devices.
However, this won’t sync any old messages you may have to your Mac. For that, you’ll need to enable “Messages in iCloud.” After you’ve signed in, click “Messages” in the top menu bar, and open the preferences.
Open the blue “iMessage” tab at the top, and make sure “Enable Messages in iCloud” is checked.
As long as this option is on, your messages should sync regardless of when they were sent. Again, you’ll have to make sure the option is enabled on all your devices for it to work correctly.
iCloud Drive is used for everything else. TextEdit documents, your books, your system preferences, Automator scripts, the whole kitchen sink. If it’s a document you made in a native Apple app, it’s probably synced here.
By default, iCloud Drive also stores your Desktop and Documents folders, which may be very large. You can quickly fill up your iCloud account if you keep these on. And if you don’t pay Apple $0.99 a month for their 50 GB iCloud plan, you’ll be pinged with notifications every few hours telling you to buy more space.
However, you can’t just simply uncheck “Desktop and Documents Folders” to turn iCloud Drive off, because the process to disable it is way harder than it should be. You can read our guide on disabling iCloud Drive without accidentally deleting your data.
While iCloud Drive does take up a lot of space in iCloud, it’s a useful feature if you decide to pay for more storage. It will save your whole Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud, and then remove old files you don’t use from your MacBook to save space. When you need the file again, you can download it from iCloud. So if you’ve got an old MacBook with a small hard drive, you can pay a few bucks a month to give it some more breathing room.