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Seeing Through the Haze of iCloud

A clear guide through the ins and outs of iCloud’s potentially foggy features.

Apple Inc.

As with a lot of Apple products and services, iCloud’s simplicity is a gift and a curse: This built-in syncing and backup system works in the background without a lot of tinkering on your end, but you’re probably not entirely sure how it works.

I know this because over the holidays, my friends and family members took a break from making merry to corner me like a doctor at a cocktail party, searching for answers to their questions about iCloud. They asked: Are all of my iPhone photos permanently backed up in iCloud? Can I access them on the Web? Can I access my iCloud photos on Windows PCs? How much does extra iCloud storage cost? How do I delete old devices or apps that suck up my storage?

If you’re unfamiliar with iCloud, it’s Apple’s umbrella term for four main functions that work primarily with the company’s mobile devices: backup, synchronizing, Photo Stream and Find My iPhone.

The backup piece is handy for people who accidentally drop their iPhones in toilets: They can, with minimal effort, choose to restore a new device from the old one’s backed-up data, giving them their apps, photos and videos again, like magic. ICloud can also synchronize Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Reminders and iWork documents (Apple’s suite of Microsoft Office-like software programs) across your Apple devices. Photo Stream keeps the last 30 days of photos synced across your devices, including Mac or Windows PCs, iPads and iPhones. And Find My iPhone lets you locate a lost device and even lock it from afar, so a thief can’t access your data or even use the device without the right credentials.

Since the ins and outs of iCloud’s features are, well, cloudy, I’ve organized a clear guide that should help you better understand this system.

Excuse Me, Are You Using That Storage?

Anyone using iCloud gets five gigabytes of storage for free, and this is used to back up app data and the contents of your camera roll, including photos and videos, which can be substantial. Whenever your iCloud-enabled Apple device is plugged into the wall for charging and also in range of a Wi-Fi network, it will automatically back up to this storage. This happens in the background, which is a relief. But if you run out of storage, you’ll get a pop-up notification telling you, and encouraging you to get more storage via the Settings on your device.

You can opt to upgrade — but you’ll have to pay for it. Apple charges annually for an additional 10 GB ($20), 20 GB ($40) or 50 GB ($100) of data.

If you’d rather save your money, you might be able to clear some space by cleaning out your iCloud storage, deleting old devices or app data that take up room. Do this by following these steps: Settings, iCloud, Storage & Backup, Manage Storage, select the iOS device you want to delete, tap Delete Backup, and confirm by selecting Turn Off & Delete.

Likewise, to nix some of the data in your automatically backed-up apps, follow the same steps mentioned above until you get to the Manage Storage step, then select the iOS device that holds these apps, and look under Backup Options. Turn off the backup for those apps you don’t care about.

You can also turn off backups via your Apple (OS X version 10.7 or later) or Windows 7 or 8 computers, using settings in System Preferences and the Control Panel, respectively.

My Baby’s Photos Are Too Cute to Lose

Photos are visible through Photo Stream, and this appears in iPhoto on Macs or in My Photo Stream on Windows PCs. ICloud syncs the last 30 days worth of photos to Photo Stream, with an infinite number of images on your computer, but capping that number at the last 1,000 images on iOS devices, where there’s presumably less room for files. If you want to permanently save photos after that time period, you can set up a helpful command that will automatically download all of these images to another place on your computer. On Macs, do this in iPhoto or Aperture by selecting Photos (or Photo Stream), My Photo Stream and Automatic Import. On a PC, enable My Photo Stream in the Control Panel to auto-import all of your photos.

Apple does back up your iOS device’s Camera Roll, but just for restoring purposes, like in the case of the toilet incident I mentioned above. This means that you can’t go to some huge photo library in the cloud to find and organize all of your photos.

I Want Web Access and I Want It Now

If you’re sitting at someone else’s computer, can you access your iCloud stuff through a Web page? If you want to see photos, you’re out of luck: These aren’t visible via browser unless someone has shared a Photo Stream publicly, which generates its own Web link. But other content can be found by using Apple’s and logging in with your Apple ID and password. Here, you’ll find your synced Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Reminders and iWork documents. There’s no time limit on this, so its contents will be as old as your iCloud account.

I highly recommend using to clean up Contacts on your iPhone. You can tap the Delete button on your computer to quickly get rid of old names and numbers, and this method is much faster than the same steps on your portable device.

If iCloud still confuses you, look for more specific answers at Apple’s Support page for iCloud. The more you know about how your content is synced and saved in your digital world, the more comfortable you’ll feel.

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