iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion, but one headlining feature has been notably inaccessible since it was unveiled earlier this summer. During his WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs touted iCloud as a service that will sync many of your Apple devices, for free. Macs, iPhones, iPads, and even Windows computers can synchronize documents, contacts, calendar appointments, and other data. You'll also be able to back up your iOS devices remotely, use an Apple-hosted email account, and store your music in the cloud. Well, this week Apple finally lit up its cloud-based service for developers, letting some of us take a sneak peek at the new service.
Apple also announced pricing, confirming that you'll be able to add annual subscriptions with 10GB ($20), 20GB ($40), or 50GB ($100) of storage 'atop your free 5GB account. We took our five gig account for a spin, creating documents in Pages, spreadsheets in Numbers, and presentations in Keynote, then accessing them from the iCloud web interface to download Microsoft Office and PDF versions. We also tried our luck at iOS data syncing and the soon-to-be-controversial Photo Stream, so jump past the break for our full iCloud hands-on.
Setup and installation
When iCloud is officially released with Mac OS 10.7.2, you'll likely have access to the service after simply updating your operating system. For now, accessing iCloud from your Mac requires an OS update and a separate iCloud installer. You also need to download beta versions of the iWork apps for iOS, update to iOS 5 beta 4, and update iTunes. Once you factor in the beta version of iPhoto you'll need to download in order to access Photo Stream, we're talking half a dozen downloads, some totalling hundreds of megabytes each. Of course you won't be able to do any of that if you're not registered as an Apple developer, so don't clear the schedule just yet.
It took us a few hours to get our devices and apps updated, but once you have the correct versions of each app running, setting up iCloud is fairly straightforward. We found it easiest to update our account using a web browser, where you'll be prompted to select your language, country, and add a photo. Then, the lanyard-like credential screen will fade out, bringing you to a set of familiar iOS icons for Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Find My iPhone, and iWork.
If you've been using Mail on Mac OS X Lion, the web-based app will feel very familiar. The interface, which is essentially a reworked version of MobileMe, is clean and fast. You can show and hide your mailboxes (there's currently only access to your @me account), create folders, use rich formatting, archive and move messages, create rules, add a signature and vacation message, and enable mail forwarding. Functionality is somewhat limited beyond that, but the web interface works just fine for basic email. It also syncs seamlessly with the Mac app -- if you create a new message in your browser, it will immediately appear in the drafts folder on your Mac, for example. The same goes for the iOS Mail app. Overall, this is pretty basic stuff.
There's a cloud icon in the top left corner that lets you navigate back to the home screen from within any app while using the web interface. Clicking over to Contacts brings you to an app identical in appearance to the version in iOS 5. Curiously, Contacts is still called "Address Book" in Lion, though we wouldn't be surprised to see Apple adopt the former name by the time 10.7.2 rolls out to the masses. As expected, contacts added on any of your connected devices are synced between all, though we did notice that our Mac's original list of contacts was duplicated after removing from and then re-adding the device to iCloud. You can choose to disable syncing of individual apps, so you won't be forced to keep your contacts synchronized if you don't want to.
The Calendar icon in the web interface displays the current day and date, just as it does in iOS and Mac OS. All three versions of the app function in much the same way, with subtle inconsistencies when it comes to the interface. The Mac and iOS versions offer a pop-up calendar list while the web version displays the calendar list at all times on the left hand of the screen. There's also a slick date slider at the bottom that you'll also find on the iOS app, but not on the full desktop version. If you're using the web version (and don't already sync your calendars with the desktop app), you'll have the option of caching your calendar locally for faster access, though you'll probably want to avoid doing this on a shared system. The app functioned and synced just fine among all of our connected devices.
Find My iPhone
The iCloud web interface includes an icon for Apple's familiar Find My iPhone service, though clicking through just brings you to the MobileMe login page. Eventually, we imagine you'll be able to track your iPhone (and your iPad, iPod, and even your Mac) using the iCloud interface, but Apple clearly hasn't flipped the switch on that feature just yet.
We have yet to adopt iWork around the office, but if you've been able to integrate Apple's office suite with your productivity workflow, then you'll likely find remote sync and file access to be incredibly useful. We used a beta version of the suite on an iPad, creating sample documents in each of the included apps. We had quite a bit of trouble launching the apps, however, and needed to wipe the iPad and reinstall iOS 5 several times just in order to create a few documents to sync with iCloud. During our first few attempts, we were only able to launch each app once during each installation -- attempting to relaunch an app caused it to crash after a few seconds. After creating and syncing documents with each of the three apps, however, we were able to close and relaunch Pages, Numbers, and Keynote without reinstalling the OS.
You can't create iWork files using the iCloud web interface, but if you've enabled sync on your iOS device, documents you create will appear almost instantly on each app's respective webpage. From the Keynote tab, you can view and download each presentation as a Keynote file, PDF, or in PowerPoint format. Pages documents can be downloaded as Pages files, PDFs, or in Word format, and Numbers spreadsheets can be exported to the desktop version of Numbers, PDF, and Excel. Files are generated in realtime, so you'll need to wait a few seconds before beginning each download. That process obviously isn't ideal for downloading a large number of files, but if you need to access files in a pinch, it's nice to have the option. One Pages document we created was corrupted when viewed from the web interface. It also didn't sync back to the iPad after reinstalling iOS, but this was an isolated incident, and we didn't experience any other issues.
You can also upload files to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote from iCloud's web interface. We uploaded an Excel spreadsheet, which appeared instantly on our iPad. After making changes to the document, we hopped back over to the web interface and exported the updated version to Excel. The ability to upload files directly to iWork (rather than emailing them to your device) certainly makes the app more appealing.
You won't notice an icon for Photo Stream on the iCloud home screen, but we were able to try out the instant photo syncing service with an iPad and MacBook Pro. Images captured with our iPad popped up in the Mac's iPhoto app within a few seconds of pressing the shutter button. We were on the same WiFi network when snapping photos, though we imagine images will sync just as quickly with devices on multiple networks. You probably won't be sharing your iCloud account with anyone else, but if friends or family members have access to a computer connected to Photo Stream, make sure you remember to turn the feature off before you snap images that you'd, ahem, prefer not to share.
Overall, iCloud isn't quite fully baked, and Apple definitely has some kinks to work out. But for a free service that's just entering beta and is currently restricted to developers, it's off to a rather solid start. We'll have more coverage once the service rolls out for all Mac OS 10.7 Lion and iOS 5 users, but check out the gallery up top for a brief look at some of the new features in the meantime.