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The Complete Guide to iCloud on Your Mac

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Read Time: 13 mins

Love it or hate it, iCloud is a big part of Apple’s ecosystem and it has a number features of which OS X can take advantage. In this guide, I'll show you how to set up and begin using iCloud on your Mac, as well as the features and benefits it provides.

What is iCloud?

iCloud is Apple’s cloud syncing and storage serviceiCloud is Apple’s cloud syncing and storage serviceiCloud is Apple’s cloud syncing and storage service

iCloud is Apple’s cloud syncing and storage service

iCloud is Apple’s ‘cloud’ service that is available, free, to anyone using an iOS device or OS X Lion or Mountain Lion. It originally started life as MobileMe (which started out as .Mac, which started out as iTools) as a paid-for email service and method to keep more than one Mac in sync with regards to certain data such as calendars and contacts. This meant you could add a contact to one Mac and it would appear on another Mac or iOS device if you were signed in.

iCloud builds upon this and still provides an email service as well contacts and calendar syncing. The main difference is that iCloud is predominantly a free service that provides a 5GB account, with the option to pay an annual subscription to increase this, depending on the space required.

iCloud builds not only an array of features designed to make using multiple devices much easier but also online storage of documents and pictures to make accessing them as easy as possible.

Signing Up

To sign up for an iCloud account, you must be using a device capable of using iCloud. The reason is that not everyone can sign up, you have to be using at least one Apple device that’s iCloud compatible. If you’re running OS X Lion or Mountain Lion then you can sign up very easily through System Preferences.

iCloud can be enabled (and an account set up) within System PreferencesiCloud can be enabled (and an account set up) within System PreferencesiCloud can be enabled (and an account set up) within System Preferences

iCloud can be enabled (and an account set up) within System Preferences

Step 1

Launch System Preferences and then select iCloud.

Signing up to iCloud requires something called an Apple ID. If you’ve ever purchased anything from the App Store or iTunes, you already have an Apple ID. Simply sign in with your existing Apple ID information (this will be the email address and password you use for making iTunes or app purchases) and you’ll be prompted to create a new iCloud account. You can skip the next step and jump right to Step 3.

If you have an Apple ID already then you can simply sign in to create a new iCloud account

Step 2

If you’re new to the Mac platform and have never purchased anything from the iTunes Store before, then you’ll need to set up an Apple ID. There will be a small link that says Create an Apple ID - go ahead and click it.

You’ll be prompted to enter some basic information such as name, address and data of birth, as well as set up a password and some security questions. You can specify if you’d like to create a new email address with iCloud or if you already have an email address you’re happy to continue using.

iCloud requires some basic information, remember to keep it safe!

You’ve now created an Apple ID ready to use with iCloud. You will also be able to use this for any iTunes or app purchases you might like to make in the future.

Step 3

To begin using iCloud, sign in with your Apple ID (it will already be signed in if you just created your Apple ID) and you’ll be prompted if you’d like to use iCloud’s services as well as Find My Mac.

On the first time you sign in to iCloud you’ll be prompted if you’d like to enable its services


Here’s a quick rundown of what iCloud can do and the services it offers that would benefit Mac users:

  • Email (Your very own @icloud.com email address)
  • Synchronising Contacts
  • Synchronising and sharing Calendars and Reminders
  • Synchronising Notes
  • Synchronising Safari Bookmarks, Tabs and Reading List
  • Photo Stream
  • Documents in the Cloud
  • Back to My Mac
  • Find My Mac

All of these features can be enabled and disabled through System Preferences by toggling the checkbox for each one. The great thing about this preference pane is that when you enable one of the services it automatically sets it up so you don’t need to.

iCloud is all configured within System Preferences


All iCloud accounts have the option of using an @icloud.com email address. If you already had an Apple ID or just created one but opted to still use an existing email address, you can still use an iCloud email address if you wish. It operates as a completely separate email account but if you’re happy with the email provider you have or would prefer not to have another email account set up, you can log in to iCloud.com and have iCloud forward all your incoming mail to your existing email address.

iCloud automatically configures Mail if you want to use it as an email account

iCloud mail shares the 5GB of storage that your account comes with which is more than enough for most users.

The great thing about the iCloud preference pane is that when you enable one of the services it automatically sets it up so you don’t need to.


Since the days of .Mac, Apple has been providing contacts syncing. What this means is that any person you add to Contacts in OS X, their details will remain in sync across any devices you also use iCloud. So if you have an iOS device as well as your Mac then as soon as you add a contact to either, it will appear on the other device.

iCloud syncs your contacts all the time so all your devices are constantly up to date


Calendars is also a feature that’s been around since .Mac but just like contacts, it was heavily updated to new server-based technologies rather than the more unreliable syncing service it previously used.

iCloud offers exceptional calendar services complete with enhanced features such as calendar sharing

iCloud features a great calendar system that not only works across all your iCloud devices, but you can also share calendars with other iCloud users. This sharing isn’t limited to just reading the calendar either, you can share calendars with other users who can also make changes. This is great if you’re needing a family calendar to keep track of errands!

Step 1

Launch Calendar and select the (iCloud) calendar you wish to share. If you’d like to create a new calendar instead, you can do so by selecting File > New Calendar > iCloud from the menu.

Step 2

As you hover the cursor over the calendar you wish to share, you’ll see a “share” icon appear. Select this and then enter the email address of the person you wish to share the calendar with (just remember they need to also be an iCloud member).

iCloud calendar sharing lets others get involved and make changes to your calendar

You can enter multiple email addresses and you can modify whether that person can read and write to the calendar, or just read it, by clicking the down arrow next to their address.

You can delegate access rights so certain users can only view the calendar, not make changes

That person will then receive an email notification asking them to confirm. Once confirmed, they’ll be able to see the calendar and, if allowed, make changes to it.


With the Reminders app, you can ensure your to-do list is always up to date, and the Reminders app in OS X is very capable. It works in the same way as Calendar and you can even share reminder lists in the same way too.

Reminders is yet another great feature of iCloud

This means other iCloud users can share your list and add or check items as they’re done.


Notes is now a completely separate app in OS X and looks almost identical to Notes for iOS. iCloud can keep these in sync.

Notes serves as a capable alternative to the more traditional (and ageing) Stickies app


iCloud can keep three features of Safari in sync: Bookmarks, open tabs and Reading List.


Any bookmarks you add to Safari are automatically pushed to all of your other devices and Macs that are signed in to iCloud. Add a bookmark on your iOS device and it will appear on your Mac almost immediately.


A great feature of iCloud is iCloud Tabs. If you often find yourself switching between Macs or Mac and iOS device and would like an easier way of continuing reading a web page without having to enter the address again, this is how to do it.

iCloud can sync your currently open tabs so that you can start reading on one device and finish on another

Whenever you have an open tab or window in Safari, iCloud syncs what the address is and makes it available to any of your iCloud devices. For example, if you were reading this on your Mac and decided to switch to an iPad, you could simply open Safari, tap on iCloud Tabs and then see what pages were currently open on your Mac. It’s a feature that has no configuration, no customisation but it’s an example of a feature that genuinely makes life that little bit easier!

Reading List

If you’re a Reading List user, a feature of Safari that can temporarily save web pages for offline access to read later, then iCloud will also sync your reading list to all your iCloud devices automatically. Again, just like with Safari Tabs, it requires no interaction and means your content is always available.

Photo Stream

A popular feature of iCloud is Photo Stream. iCloud keeps the last 1,000 photos you’ve taken for 30 days. Whilst this feature is seen as a benefit just to iPhone users who take photos, this also applies to iPhoto and Aperture.

If you do have an iPhone then Photo Stream is the perfect way of syncing photos from your iPhone to your Mac since you don’t even need to connect them together. Just launch iPhoto or Aperture and all your photos will be there and downloaded from your Photo Stream automatically.

Photo Stream works by keeping you last 1,000 photos available online at all times for 30 days

Perhaps you use a digital camera instead of an iPhone? iCloud will sync the last 1,000 added to any of your devices and it does this on your Mac using either iPhoto or Aperture. Any photos you add to either of these apps will automatically upload to Photo Stream. This will then push down to your iOS devices and even be viewable on your Apple TV.

Documents in the Cloud

iCloud attempts to tackle one of the hurdles when dealing with multiple devices - keeping work in sync. Now, whether or not iCloud has the best implementation of file syncing, for those users who are fairly new to technology then it seems quite a simple solution.

Documents in the Cloud aims to simplify how we sync documents between devices by doing it automatically

Using any number of iCloud-enabled apps, or within Mountain Lion, you have the ability to save a file directly to iCloud. It’s still kept on your Mac but it’s also pushed to iCloud for access via another device. Let’s create a new iCloud document using TextEdit.

Step 1

Launch TextEdit from the Applications folder.

Step 2

From here, there’ll be a small tab on the top left that’s labelled iCloud and On My Mac. Select iCloud.

You can toggle between iCloud and On My Mac in most OS X apps, just remember that any documents stored on iCloud can only be accessed by that app alone

Now you can store new documents here. They will only be accessible via the app so if you create a document in TextEdit and save it to iCloud, you’ll only be able to access it with TextEdit. But you’ll be able to access it using TextEdit on any other Mac you are signed into iCloud with.

However, if you were to do the same with Pages, you can access it using either OS X or iOS, since the app is available for both platforms.

Pages is an example of an app that can access iCloud documents on both OS X and iOS

Back to My Mac

This service is one that’s often overlooked simply because it requires a lot of configuration to work. Add to this that services such as Dropbox and to a certain extend, iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud feature, then it is almost redundant (it’s not even listed as part of iCloud’s features).

Back to My Mac on a basic level is simply a way of always being able to access your Mac that’s at home or in the office over the internet. It works just like a network connection to a server, except when you’re signed in to iCloud then the Mac will always appear under the Shared tab in the Finder. Apart from this additional service, there’s nothing about it that’s any different from setting up file sharing on the Mac. In fact, Back to My Mac needs the File Sharing service to be switched on.

For a service that’s of little benefit to most users, the time and knowledge needed to ensure things like ports are forwarding, NAT is traversing, and all these other bits of technical jargon make it a service that is probably best left alone. If you would like to look further into Back to My Mac then Apple has an excellent setup guide that you can follow.

Find My Mac

Just like Find My iPhone, iCloud is also able to let you track your Mac should it go missing.

Since it’s a service that requires knowing your location, it has to be explicitly turned on - that’s why there’s two options when setting up iCloud for the first time.

Find My Mac works the same as Find My iPhone and is even usable on an iOS device as well as the iCloud website

Find My Mac works exactly the same as Find My iPhone, you can locate your Mac using either icloud.com or the Find My iPhone app for iOS. What’s more, you can even remotely lock and wipe your Mac if you think it’s fallen into the wrong hands.

Tip: If you enable Find My Mac, ensure you have a very strong password and security credentials only you will know. The only thing worse than misplacing a Mac is if someone is able to gain access to your iCloud account and remotely wipe the Mac!

What We’ve Learned

iCloud may be pitched more towards iOS users than those on the Mac but its feature set as well as the ability to keep not just iOS devices but Macs in sync make it one of those services that seems almost silly not to use. I use iCloud for my personal email as well as contacts and calendar services all the time and have done since the days of iTools. It’s a service I couldn’t see myself without and one that, despite its flaws, I’d continue to use if it was ever charged for again.

Do you use iCloud? What features do you use the most and which work best for you? Let us know (as well as any feedback or even requests for future articles) in the comments below!

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