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What is the cloud? Understanding iCloud and iCloud Drive

Increasingly, computing’s in the cloud. Here’s what that means for your iPhone

The cloud. iCloud. iCloud Drive. If you’re relatively new to computing – or haven’t done much with internet services before – these words might seem like terminology soup.

This feature will help you get your head around ‘the cloud’ as it relates to the iPhone.

So what is the cloud?

There’s no full and in-depth answer to this that doesn’t involve delving into cloud computing and boring lectures about complicated infrastructure – so we’ll avoid that. But as far as the end user goes – as in, you – it’s a means of providing immediate access to data, media, content and even apps, regardless of where you happen to be, and the device you happen to be using.

Of course, there are many caveats regarding compatibility and internet access. You’re not, after all, going to be updating your cloud-based calendar on a Commodore 64. But the idea behind the cloud is that you could feasibly update that calendar on your iPhone, and then have those changes pretty much instantly show up on your (internet-connected) Mac and iPad, and the devices of people you share your calendar data with. Handy.

Right, so what is iCloud?

In short, Apple’s cloud service. Chances are, you’re already using it. Head to Settings, tap your name, and then iCloud. You’ll see a list of apps using iCloud, including the likes of Contacts, Reminders and Notes. Turn on any that are disabled that you want to use. Having key data in iCloud means should you lose a device, it can be recovered simply by connecting a replacement device to your iCloud account.

In fact, iCloud can help you recover a lost device, too. The Find My iPhone app is integrated with iCloud, and enables you to track the location of your devices. If one goes missing, you can lock it and place a note on its screen, in the hope someone will find and return it.

If you’re new to the cloud – and iCloud – you might have concerns about data security, and Apple aims to address these on its website. In reality, the biggest point of failure in iCloud is your password – if someone can easily sign into your account, they can get at whatever you’ve synced to iCloud. So set-up and use two-factor authentication.

Do all apps support iCloud?

Most Apple apps do, saving their documents in iCloud Drive – more on which later. Many productivity apps have followed suit. Others use iCloud as a means to sync data and settings across devices. For example, some weather apps use iCloud to keep your defined locations consistent on all your devices, while games enable you to play on your iPhone and then pick up from where you left off on another device.

You can find out which apps are using iCloud in the aforementioned Settings pane. Apps will only be displayed there if they’ve been launched at least once. (So if you install an app you know uses iCloud, but haven’t yet used it, you won’t see it in Settings until you do.) If you don’t want an app using iCloud for some reason, just flick its switch.

Photos can be shared in iCloud, and you’ve a few ways to do so. My Photo Stream automatically uploads new photos, and sends them to devices signed into your iCloud account – but it doesn’t send Live Photos and videos. iCloud Photo Library keeps your entire photo library – videos, edits and all – in the cloud. You can also share bespoke albums, which family and friends can access.

What about iCloud Drive? And Dropbox… and Google Drive?

Originally, Apple tried to ‘hide’ the iPhone’s file system. Documents seemed to live inside apps. That’s when a great many third-party apps started using Dropbox instead. Dropbox is a third-party cloud-based file-hosting service, with an interface that resembles what you’re used to on a PC or Mac. It turned out people liked deciding where to save the files they created. Google Drive? Much the same as Dropbox, but owned by Google.

iCloud Drive is Apple’s about-face – a files-and-folders system that makes it easy to get at app documents (rather than mere data) you’ve saved to iCloud. So that means things like word processing documents, digital paintings, spreadsheets, and songs – not settings and game progress.

You see iCloud Drive in apps that support it, and also in Files, the iPhone’s file manager. Tap iCloud Drive in the Locations section of that app and you’ll spot app and bespoke folders housing your documents. Interestingly, Files can integrate other cloud services as locations, as outlined in our beginner’s guide.

And all this is free, right?

Sort of. iCloud in and of itself doesn’t cost anything. You can use it to sync app and game data, Contacts, Reminders, Notes, Safari bookmarks, and so on, entirely for free. But things get more complicated once you start considering back-ups and documents.

You get only 5 GB of iCloud storage for free. This often isn’t enough for a single back-up, and won’t house too many media files. In particular, iCloud Photo Library (but not My Photo Stream) can eat into this space pretty quickly.

Use Manage Storage to upgrade the space you have available – Apple details how to buy more storage, manage what you have, and even downgrade.

At the very least, we recommend you grab the 50 GB option for $1/£1 per month and start backing up. Whether you start heavily using iCloud Drive or storing your photos on iCloud is another matter (regularly back them up to a Mac or PC if not), but you’ll be glad to have a back-up of your iPhone available in the cloud should disaster strike.

Right… quick recap?

OK, fine.

The cloud: a way to provide access to data and documents across all your devices.

iCloud: Apple’s own cloud service.

iCloud Drive: Apple’s file manager that lets you get at documents you’ve saved to iCloud.