iOS 5 is packed with a bevy of new features, but iCloud is undoubtedly one of the best. Announced at WWDC this past June, iCloud does what MobileMe could not. The web-based calendar, contacts and mail functionality are still there, but the service has been reborn as an impressive backup solution that aims to keep all of your Apple devices in sync.
That means apps, music, videos and books move seamlessly between devices. Your data and settings stay persistent too. And because it happens in the cloud, you don't need a Mac or PC. Here's how to get started.
iCloud lives in the Settings menu of iOS. It doesn't have a dedicated app, nor does it need one. Everything happens in the background, without you quite knowing it's there. To start, you'll have to link your Apple ID with Apple's iCloud server, and after flipping through a rather lengthy Terms of Service agreement — you do read those, right? — you'll be ready to go.
All iOS users will receive 5 GB of free iCloud storage, regardless of how many iOS devices they own. However, apps, songs videos and books purchased from the iTunes store do not count against this limit. So while application data counts towards your iCloud limit, the applications themselves do not.
And thankfully, iCloud lets you get really granular with how this data is stored. Every application you've installed is given a toggle in the Settings menu, allowing you to turn iCloud backups on or off. This is extremely useful for excluding applications that store or download large amounts of internal data, such as magazine readers, or alternative video players.
Of course, some people will want to back up everything — potentially exceeding Apple's 5GB of included free storage. This is possible, but it will come at a price. An extra 10GB will cost $20 per year, another 20GB will cost $40, and 50GB will cost a cool $100 fee.
But while you can cut the cord to your Mac or PC, you can't exclude your computer completely. It's worth noting that photos you capture — or at least, the last 1000 — are also stored with iCloud for free, and then downloaded to iPhoto for later consideration. This is actually quite important, because once you've shot more than 1000, or exceeded Apple's 30-day expiration date on stored images, those older photos are deleted. You will need an iPhoto update for this feature to work, however, so keep an eye on Software Update throughout the day.
Unfortunately, like much of iCloud, Photo Stream is an all-or-nothing approach. You can't control which photos are sent to the cloud, nor can you remove photos individually once they get there. You can either turn Photo Stream on, or off — removing all of your photos, or none of them. You can't even view them via iCloud's web interface.
And there is indeed a web interface, albeit, an extremely limited one. Via the iCloud website, you can access your contacts, calendar and mail online, just as you would with MobileMe. There's even the ability to access documents created with the iOS versions of iWork apps now too. And that's it. You can't manage past iCloud backups, or view a breakdown of storage by app. You can't even view your Notes, which, strangely, require a @Me.com address to be backed up. That functionality remains a strictly iOS affair.
That said, there is an OS X component as well. Those who update to versin 10.7.2, which is also released today, will find a new iCloud preference pane. As on iOS, you can determine whether you would like your OS X contacts, calendars and bookmarks backed up with iCloud, in addition to Find My Mac and Back to My Mac functionality. Thankfully, past iCloud backups — and currently available storage — can be managed from here as well.
Of course, iCloud doesn't isn't just responsible for syncing apps and content to other iOS devices. The backups it creates can be used for full-fledged device restores as well. Of course, traditional backups are still possible. You can connect your iOS device to iTunes, as you would in the past. But iCloud promises to simplify the process. If you lose your iPhone, for example, you can restore everything from an iCloud backup. Or, if you purchase an iPad, you can download all your purchases and content made on your current iPhone to your new device.
This doesn't take place from the iCloud Settings pane, but from within the App Store itself. iOS 5 users will find a new section that lists all past Purchases — including ones bought from another device — with an iCloud icon denoting uninstalled apps. The process is almost identical for iTunes Music and iBooks. It's a little clunky, but it works.
The ability to keep content, apps and settings consistent — and persistent — across devices is surely an ambitious goal. But Apple appears to determined to make it work. That said, if you have any iCloud tips of your own, be sure to let us know!