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What is iCloud and how does it work? Everything you need to know about Apple's cloud service

Apple’s iCloud service provides much more than just an online backup of any essential files on your iOS device or Mac computer. Here’s everything you need to know about Apple’s iCloud, iCloud Drive, Family Sharing, Keychain and the rest of those iOS online features, including how they work and how to set them up.

What is iCloud?

Most companies now provide some kind of online cloud service, which can be used to safely backup and store your personal files and other data. Google has Drive, for instance, which offers Android users a means of syncing and sharing their documents, photos and plenty more besides.

Apple’s version of Google Drive is called iCloud. This handy cloud-based service also allows you to sync all of your personal data between your different Apple devices, as well as sharing content with family and friends. There are security benefits and plenty of other reasons for signing up too.

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What are the iCloud system requirements?

Well, you obviously need a stable internet connection for iCloud to operate. We recommend connecting to a decent WiFi network to ensure backups and the rest complete as planned.

Basically every kind of popular Apple device supports iCloud in some way, to at the very least backup files. All recent iPhones from the 3GS onwards support iCloud, as long as they're running iOS 5 or later. Any iPads running at least iOS 5 are also supported, as are both generations of the Apple Watch and Apple TV.

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Mac computers (including MacBooks) can use iCloud too, providing they’re running Mac OS X Lion 10.7.5 or later.

You can even access your iCloud account from Windows devices and other computers by heading to iCloud.com and signing in with your account details. You’ll need Windows 7 or later.

Not all features will be available on a device that isn’t running iOS 10 or MacOS Sierra, however. Apple also limits certain features to no more than ten connected devices under one account.

How much does iCloud cost to use?

You get 5GB of free iCloud storage, for use with your documents, photos, mail and iOS backups. Thankfully any music, apps, movies and other bits that you buy via iTunes, iBooks, the App Store and so on don’t count towards this 5GB limit.

If you reach this limit, you’ll have the option of purchasing more iCloud storage space from Apple. At the time of writing, 50 GB of bonus iCloud storage costs 79p a month here in the UK. You can also boost your storage by 200 GB for £2.49 a month, or by a whopping 1TB for £6.99 a month. That’s particularly handy if you shoot a lot of 4K footage on your iPhone.

How do I sign up for iCloud?

When you first set up your iOS device or Mac computer, you’ll be asked if you want to use iCloud. Simply accept the terms and conditions and you’ll be asked to sign up for an iCloud account. This account will sit separate to your standard Apple account for signing into iOS devices.

If you want to activate iCloud on any Apple device that you’re using, simply head to the settings menu and scroll down to the iCloud option. You’ll be asked to sign in, at which point you add the email address and password you originally entered. If you haven’t signed up for an iCloud account before this point, you can create one now.

From this settings menu you can also set up other iCloud features such as Family Sharing and Keychain (more on these in a bit). You can also state exactly what is backed up to the Apple cloud, such as photos, contact info, calendars and so on (more on this in the next section).

What is iCloud Drive?

The most obvious use of iCloud is backing up your important documents with iCloud Drive. Any docs you work on can be backed up to Apple’s cloud service, which ensures that they’re safe even if you lose or break your device.

This is also handy if you use more than one device, for instance an iPad and a MacBook. Using iCloud will ensure the latest version of any document you edit will be shared across all devices, automatically. To access your saved documents, just head to the iCloud Drive app on your Apple device. Everything you backup will be there.

With iCloud you can also sync your calendars, notes, messages, Safari bookmarks and other important bits across multiple devices.

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What is the iCloud Photo Library?

The iCloud Photo Library is the part of Apple’s iCloud which is responsible for storing your photos and videos. If you use the Photo Library, any images and footage you shoot on your iOS devices will automatically be saved online and made available to your other Apple kit, to view or edit.

Another feature called iCloud Photo Sharing allows you to share these photos and videos with whoever you like. By setting up shared albums, you can even get friends and family to add their own images, or comment on your snaps.

What is Family Sharing and how do I use it?

You can share more than just your photos and videos with loved ones too. The Family Sharing feature allows you to share your apps, music and other bits with up to five other family members. Anything bought through iTunes, iBooks and the App Store is fair game.

You can set up Family Sharing direct through your iPhone or iPad. Just head to the settings menu and tap iCloud. From here, tap Set up Family Sharing and then poke Get Started. Note that you will be the admin if you set up Family Sharing, so you can add family members and also remove them when they fall out of grace. All you’ll need is their Apple login info to begin.

What is the iCloud’s location tracking feature and how do I use it?

The iCloud can also be used to track down the position of an iOS device, Apple Watch or MacBook at any time, providing it’s connected to your account and switched on at the time.

As well as displaying the location of your iPhone or iPad on a map, you can get the device to play a sound or display a message. You can even remotely lock or wipe your iPhone or iPad if it’s lost.

To do this, just head to iCloud.com on any connected device. Login with your Apple creds and head to the Find My Phone section. This will bring up a list of your registered devices. A green dot beside their name means they’re online, while a grey dot means they’re either offline or switched off.

If a device is online, you’ll be able to remotely access them to lock them, wipe them and so on.

What is the iCloud Keychain, how do I use it and is it secure?

The iCloud Keychain is a way of saving sensitive data such as passwords and credit card info to the cloud. This will then be automatically entered for you when required. This feature works across iOS and Mac devices.

To use iCloud Keychain, head to the settings menu on your iPhone or iPad. Head to iCloud, and then Keychain. There’s a slider toggle here for turning on Keychain. If this is your first time using the feature, you’ll be asked to enter a new password to ensure your Keychain is secure. Try and pick something different to your standard Apple password, for extra security.

How do I restore an old iPhone or iPad backup using iCloud?

If you set your iOS device to automatically backup each day, this will save your files, apps and other important bits to the iCloud. For the backup to go ahead, your iPhone or iPad must be plugged in and connected to a WiFi network.

If you need to roll back your iPhone or iPad to a previous version for some reason, connect the device to your computer and open iTunes. In here you need to select your device from the top toolbar. You’ll notice an option for recovering an old version of your iPhone or iPad, considering you have backups enabled. Just follow the instructions to restore the backup.

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