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iCloud Revisited: My Mind's Somewhat at Ease

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 12, 2012 5:00 AM PT

iCloud Revisited: My Mind's Somewhat at Ease

Last week I railed on iCloud and claimed that it was breaking my mind. I'm still sane, and iCloud isn't all bad. It's just not all goodness and light, either. I've learned quite a few things as I've gone in, messed with settings, and tested the results. iCloud is sort of an invisible mishmash of services from Apple, and depending on what you own and what you care about, some, none, or maybe all of it might be valuable to you personally.

As for me, here's a snapshot of where I'm at with iCloud, what I use and like -- and what I'm still scratching my head over.

What's Great About iCloud

For starters, there are several features of iCloud that have worked fantastically for me, right of the gate.

iBooks. If you buy an e-book from Apple's iBookstore, iCloud will automatically push the e-book out to your other devices -- and devices is the key word here: iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. Your Mac? As near as I can tell, the book file will move to your Mac and be stored within iTunes so you can "physically" move or sync it to an iOS-based device -- but you still can't read it on your Mac. Pity. I can't come up with a real good reason why Apple doesn't at least release an iBooks app for Mac OS X -- even if it's just for easy text-based books. Still, I can by a book on my iPad, start reading it, then pick up later on my iPhone. This, I like very much.

Notes. With Mountain Lion on my MacBook Pro, the Notes app works fantastically well with the Notes apps on my iPhone and iPad. I can type in a note, associate the note with an email account, and have it immediately appear on my Mac or iPhone. Same goes for editing them. If I delete one, it's deleted elsewhere. Oh, and wow, this feature seems especially wicked-fast to me.

Reminders. Like Notes, Reminders works just as well. Super fast, too. I have had some trouble keeping track of which reminder list is part of which account -- basically, ever since I updated to iOS 6 and a new iPhone 5, I had a few settings out of whack with how I was using Reminders previously. I've since learned that I need to a) choose the default list in the Reminders settings, and b) dis-enable Reminders for one of my Microsoft Exchange-based accounts. But again, Reminders -- fantastic. I can set a reminder for myself from my iPhone just before I fall asleep at night and know that it'll pop up on my Mac (again, running Mountain Lion) the next day at the right time.

Calendar. Like Reminders, as I transitioned to iOS 6 on my iPhone 4 and then did a fresh start with my iPhone 5, I lost some of the familiar ways I had been working with calendars before. This may have been my fault or Apple's or a side-effect of a flurry of upgrades. Oh, there was the Mountain Lion upgrade, too. For me, the calendar invites and time zones and quick movement of calendar items through Apple's cloud servers was lightning fast. I have half a dozen or so calendars, and it's mostly done a good job for me of letting me see all of them -- but again, my Microsoft Exchange-based calendar, at some point, took over as my default calendar, which was quite confusing until I tracked down this particular setting on my iPhone. Other than that, no noticeable calendaring errors for me, and I appreciate that greatly.

Mail. It seems to just work. I trust it and appreciate it.

Not Fantastic Nor Terrible Experiences

Contacts. Contacts often works well for me, but again, I have several layers of contacts -- there are multiple kinds of people I interact with, so I like to keep them grouped accordingly. At some point with iOS 6, etc, I lost a set of contacts for guys I play basketball with. This isn't a big deal, just mildly annoying when I realize that I have no way to contact guys I've previously called, texted, and emailed. Again, it's not like these are customers of mine, but still, they are gone, disappeared into the iCloud -- or somewhere else. I really don't know how, when, or why they disappeared. It's possible that I somehow managed to delete them by clicking on the wrong thing, the wrong popup, or misunderstanding a warning somewhere along the way and erased them from iCloud. I can get them back, I'm sure, but opening up a several-week-old full hard drive backup of my MacBook and reentering them somehow, but I haven't yet.

iTunes Match. This US$24.99 service lets you upload all of your iTunes-based music to iCloud, even if you didn't purchase your music from iTunes. So all your songs are available via iTunes and accessible while on the go from iCloud. My experience has been pretty good in that I could access any song I wanted if I was traveling -- but only if I had a data connection. As for playlists and tracks, I often found myself without a resident copy of a song on my iPhone and I had to download it. On the flip side, of songs that I purchased or added, iTunes Match sent a copy (or sort of link) of the song to my devices from my Mac, where I purchased or added the song. For a casual user, where the songs are located and how you can access them at any given moment isn't always clear.

iTunes. For the most part, iTunes with iCloud works fantastic. I can get access to all sorts of movies, TV shows, and songs -- even on my Apple TV -- except I can only partially make my purchase history go away. If you log into the iTunes Store, then click the Purchased link in the far right column, you can reveal your iTunes and App Stores purchase history. If you hover over an item, an "X" will appear and you can hide it from display. So, some old TV shows I no longer want to know exist are now satisfyingly gone from my Apple TV experience. I'm quite pleased. But it's still not perfect. Remember the two Rob Thomas videos I mentioned in my previous iCloud review? They are still following me around on my iPhone 5, despite me shutting down the Videos app and then restarting my iPhone. Maybe they'll disappear at some future date if there's a hiccup or delay in the iCloud. I just don't know.

Safari. Ah, Safari, my favorite browser. iCloud keeps my bookmarks and Reading List synced pretty well and pretty quickly, except I don't use either all that much. I'll create groups of tabs as I'm researching various topics, and having them readily available between my Mac (workhorse spot) and my iPhone or iPad (on the go) is nice. With Reading List, I can even catch up on web pages offline, though I don't use it very often. Why? I prefer Pocket+, a nifty app from a third-party provider. There is, however, one feature I haven't been able to get to work at all, and that's iCloud Tabs. Supposedly, this feature shows you all the Web pages you have open on your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Mac so you can leave one device and pick up where you left off on the other. Except, I can't figure out how to see iCloud Tabs on Safari on my Mac (if it's even possible on my Mac to see open pages from my iPhone). I'm logged into the same Apple ID account on all devices and I have WiFi connections for everything. I even disabled private browsing on my iPhone and tried again -- didn't work. I don't know what hoop I have to jump through or which setting is wrong, but it's not working for me.

Find My iPhone. I've only tested this feature out a few times, and it has always worked well. I haven't needed to use it due to a truly lost iPhone, and when I've wanted to find the location quickly of someone, I've used the third-party Tehula app, which doesn't care if your friends have iPhones or not, so I don't bother with Find My Friends, the iOS app.

Features I Don't Use

Of course, there are some iCloud features I don't particularly use. One is Backup and Restore from iCloud. While this might be great for some people, I don't yet trust it completely. It might, in reality, be more reliable than backing up from my MacBook, but I like my MacBook backups for two reasons: 1) I'm (at least marginally) physically in control of the actual storage of the backup, and 2) my backup of my complete hard drive offers me a secondary backup of my iPhone and iPad.

Another feature I don't use is Documents in the Cloud. Why? I haven't felt a need to pay for Keynote, Pages, and Numbers on my iOS devices. I can barely imagine wanting or needing these sorts of apps in the cloud for what I do, partially because I'm usually in very close access to my MacBook. I don't know how well these apps work with iCloud or not, but the Apple commercials sure make it seem seamless.

And What About Photo Streams?

The one iCloud service I want to be better and easier is Photo Stream, and while I understand it much better than I did a week ago, I'm still not thrilled. For starters, the idea that I might want a Photo Stream of every photo I take or screen shot I take from my iPhone, automatically sent to my other devices and Mac or PC? Nah. I have a hard enough time deleting photos I don't want from my iPhone, the last thing I want to do is propagate these into my experience -- much less share everything with anyone who might pick up my iPad.

Of course, if you want to share a photo stream, you can email the invitation to your friends and family. If they don't have iOS 6 or Mountain Lion, though, they are basically out of luck -- and so are you. If they do, you can comment on photos in the shared stream, and all of it happens quickly and efficiently. Except when your buddy or family member doesn't have iOS 6 or Mountain Lion on their Mac.

Apple has a solution for this, and when you create a Shared Photo Stream, you can turn a switch to create a URL of a public website, which you can email to your buddies who don't have iOS 6 or Mountain Lion. As near as I can tell, this is not a solution because it means your photos will essentially be posted online for anyone to see, even though the URL is somewhat private. Luckily, if you flip the "Public Website" toggle switch on your Photo Stream, it will immediately disable the URL. So it's not exactly permanent.

So yeah, I'm going to try to use Photo Stream more, mostly so I can keep up with its evolution. Right now, it's not that flexible or impressive, and it's limited to Apple's very latest and greatest products.

If You're Simple, You're Probably Fine

Overall, if you're a simple users with only one email address -- or very few email addresses -- or tend not to have multiple identities you like to keep reasonably separate, like contacts at work should stay separate from personal contacts and calendars, iCloud will likely feel and seem like a much more seamless service to you.

However, if you've turned your iPhone into the foundation for remote working with multiple accounts, you might end up like me here and there: Mostly happy but sometimes hopelessly confused. If you gaze at all the facets of iCloud long enough, though, and test them, you might start to see the pieces and parts more clearly.

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