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Apple iCloud: Seven things you need to know

Consumer Reports News: June 13, 2011 11:03 AM

We've been hearing a lot about Apple's new iCloud and iTunes Match services, which will launch this fall. And we've seen a fair amount of misinformation about what the services can and cannot do. To help sort through the clutter, here's a list of seven things you should know about iCloud:

1. iCloud is free (sort of). iTunes Match isn't.
Apple iCloud will be free, with up to 5GB of storage—and music, photos, apps, and books don't count against that figure. (See below for information about paying for additional storage.) The iTunes Match service, which scans and matches music you didn't get via iTunes—such as ripped CDs and even songs you might have downloaded from legally suspect bit-torrent sites— will cost $25 per year, and you can store up to 25,000 tracks. (Songs purchased via iTunes don't count against that limit.) So yes, in a way, iTunes Match can be perceived as a way of getting you to pay again for music you already own.

2. Will I be able to get more storage?
We believe so. Although nothing has been explicitly said, there appears to be a placeholder in the iCloud area of the Settings section to let you do so. We expect Apple will offer prices competitive with other cloud-based storage options, such as Dropbox, which charges a monthly rate of about $10 for for each 50GB of storage after you've used up your allotted 2GB of free space.

3. iTunes Match offers something Amazon's and Google's cloud services can't.
Because Google and Amazon launched their services without obtaining licenses from the major music labels, users of the new cloud music services from those companies have to upload all their tracks manually to the cloud. In contrast, Apple's music-label deals let it "scan and match" the songs on your hard drive to those found in the iTunes store. If a match is found, you'll get a 256-Kbps, DRM-free AAC (iTunes Plus) version from Apple's library that you can download onto up to 10 devices. If no matches are found—say, for that birthday song you wrote and recorded for your girlfriend right before she dumped you—you'll have to upload the track in its original (perhaps low-fi) form.

4. iCloud isn't music streaming.
Unlike the streaming cloud-music services from Amazon and Google, Apple's iCloud service actually downloads the music—or photos or books—you want to the various playback devices you select. If anything, iCloud is really about syncing all your content, not about streaming.

5. You won't lose all your music if you stop paying for iMatch.
I've seen reports that speculate that you'll lose all your music if you drop your iCloud subscription. While it isn't exactly clear what will happen, it's likely that the files will remain intact on the devices where they're located, but you will lose the sync access that resides in the cloud. Your music shouldn't disappear unless you manually delete it.

6. Photos, yes. Videos, no.
The iCloud Photo Stream service lets you take a photo on one device and then make it available to other iOS5 devices linked to that account. Photo Stream stores up to 1,000 photos, but only for 30 days. The shots you want to keep permanently will have to be saved to a photo album. While I can't imagine that video won't become part of the iCloud feature set, it's currently not listed as an available feature.

7. iCloud isn't just for music.
While we've focused mostly on music, iCloud is also for e-mail, contacts, calendars, apps, documents, and iBookstore downloads, enabling you to sync these between multiple devices running iOS. Note that iCloud will sync documents created with Apple's apps and third-party apps that support iCloud, but not all documents are compatible.

That's a quick look at some of the most important features of the new Apple iCloud services. We expect to see new details emerge as we get closer to launch, so keep checking back with our blog for additional updates.

James K. Willcox

   

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