iCloud Photo Library Review

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Almost two years after its introduction I finally bit the bullet and took advantage of iCloud Photo Library. If you’re not familiar with it, iCloud Photo Library is the name Apple gives to its cloud storage and sync service that stores all the photos and videos on your Mac and iOS devices up in the cloud. Once uploaded you can access your pics and vids from any Mac or iOS device you’re logged into with your iCloud ID. You can also access your media on Windows PC’s via a web browser.

After using it for a few days here is an early review of what I think of the service and whether or not it’s right for the average user.

iCloud Photo Library: Storage and pricing plans

One of the reasons I waited so long to use iCloud Photo Library is because of the cost involved. Technically iCloud Photo Library is free for everyone to use, but you can only use it insofar as much iCloud storage as you have available. Every iCloud user gets 5GB of free storage but that is divided up between email, documents, and photo storage. And since virtually everyone has a Photos library that’s larger than 5GB, if you want to use iCloud Photo Library you’re going to have to buy more storage.

At first when Apple launched iCloud Photo Library the storage tiers were too little or too price. But last fall Apple dropped the monthly prices of its iCloud Photo Library storage plans. You can see Apple’s chart of the current iCloud Photo Library storage plans below.

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Since my existing Photos library on my Mac was 131GB and I had about 20GB worth of iCloud emails (going back over 10 years) I had no choice but to opt for the 200GB plan at £2.49 a month. Sadly, most people will need to shell out this amount if they want to use iCloud Photo Library too as even 50GB—when combined with storage for iCloud emails and documents—isn’t enough to hold the average Photos library.

While £2.49 a month isn’t too expensive, the thing I dread is that my iPhone 6s now takes 12MP photos, 24MB-sized Live Photos (which I love), and up to 4K video. I could easily require the 1TB plan within a year the second my Photos library size goes over 200GB—and I think at £6.99 a month for 1TB it’s too expensive.

There are two immediate things I think Apple should do to make their storage and service plans for iCloud Photo Library more appealing. First, they should give every iCloud user 25GB for free. Then allow them to buy 200GB for £0.99 a month, 500GB for £2.99, or 1TB for £4.99. The next thing is to get rid of the monthly plan options and allow users to pay an annual fee. It’s just neater than having payments made each month.

iCloud Photo Library: Setup

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Once I subscribed to the 200GB plan all I needed to do to set up iCloud Photo Library was tick the iCloud Photo Library checkbox in the preferences in my Photos for Mac app. And then came the waiting….

And this is probably the most frustrating thing about iCloud Photo Library. If you have a large library like me—over 100GB—it can take days to upload the entire library to the cloud. to upload my 131GB Photos library, which includes pics and vids, took about three days of non-stop uploading. And I’ve got the fastest internet BT offers in London.

There were also several times with the initial upload from my Mac that the upload appeared to pause or stop for no reason, and only manually pausing the upload and manually resuming it caused it to continue. This isn’t a big deal, but it could be disappointing to wake up thinking your Photos library uploaded overnight only to see just a few gigabytes did.

But the cool thing is is that once my entire Photos library from my Mac uploaded to iCloud Photo Library, I simply enabled iCloud Photo Library on my iPhone and iPad and a thumbnail of every image I’ve ever taken and any video I’ve ever recorded appeared almost immediately in iOS’s Photos app on each device.

iCloud Photo Library: Where your photos are stored and how they are synced

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It’s important to note that even though I uploaded 131GB of photos and videos to my iCloud Photo Library and they were made available on my iPhone and iPad almost instantly, the 131GB of photos and videos weren’t actually stored on my iPhone and iPad. Indeed, no current iOS device has enough storage to fit my library.

Instead, the photo and video thumbnails I see on my iOS devices are just previews of the pics and vids in the cloud in my iCloud Photo Library. They actually aren’t local on my mobile devices. In all, my iCloud Photo Library took up about 4GB of extra space on my iPhone and iPad.

And this is the clever part of iCloud Photo Library: Apple enables syncing on the fly and optimizes your iCloud Photo Library on each device you own according to its storage capabilities. On my Mac I’ve told iCloud Photo Library to always download and keep the full original versions of the pics and videos (which include the files types JPEG, RAW, PNG, GIF, TIFF and MP4 as well as device specific media like slo-mo video, time-lapse pics, 4K videos and Live Photos) because I want to be able to access those pics and vids on my Mac at any time, even if I don’t have an Internet connection.

But for my iPhone and iPad I’ve told iCloud Photo Library to optimize the storage on each device. This means I’ll always see thumbnails of every pic and vid in my iCloud Photo Library in the iOS Photos app. iCloud Photo Library will also pre-download device-optimized file size versions of the pics and vids I access most frequently or have taken most recently or favorited. This means some images will be stored locally on my devices and I can always access them even if I don’t have an Internet connection.

For the other pics and vids that aren’t downloaded locally, you simply have to tap on their thumbnail on an iOS device and the Photos app will download it on the fly as long as you have a cellular or 3G connection.

In short this means that it doesn’t really matter which photos and videos are stored locally on your iOS devices because as long as you have a Internet connection you can always access them right away anyway. And the best part is this all happens in the background without you needing to do a thing. Just tap on a thumbnail and you’ll see the corresponding media.

iCloud Photo Library: Experience

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Another big benefit to iCloud Photo Library is that when you take a photo or video with your iPhone or iPad it’s automatically uploaded to iCloud Photo Library if you have an Internet connection and made available instantly on all your devices. So far this has worked flawlessly for me and it means I never need to sync my iPhone to my Mac to import photos or videos into the Photos app on my Mac. iCloud Photo Library does this automatically, in the background, with every pic and vid I take.

And while I’ve told iCloud Photo Library to only store device-optimized versions of my iOS devices to save space, I make sure my Mac always pulls down the original, full-res media in its original file type from iCloud Photo Library in the cloud because my Mac has enough storage to hold them locally. But even if my Mac didn’t, I feel secure in knowing that the original full-res files are always stored in the cloud and I can pull them down at any time.

One other cool thing about iCloud Photo Library is that you can also access your full iCloud Photo Library from any web browser by logging into iCloud.com. It’s a really handy feature if you want to access a picture but you don’t have any of your own devices handy.

There’s one other HUGE feature of iCloud Photo Library I haven’t mentioned yet. Not only does your entire picture and video library get uploaded to the cloud and synced between your devices, but so do any albums you’ve created or edits you’ve made.

This means that if you create an album full of pictures on your Mac, once you enable iCloud Photo Library you’ll see the same album organization on your iOS devices and on the web. Also, any edits you make to an image or video are automatically synced across all devices. You can literally start editing a photo on your iPhone and then pick up the editing on your Mac. Both the album and editing sync has worked flawlessly for me.

A feature that is lacking right now is full iCloud Photo Library access on the new Apple TV. Right now you can only view shared iCloud Photo Library albums on the Apple TV, but this, thankfully, will be resolved when tvOS 9.2 ships next month. They you’ll have complete access to all your pictures and videos in your iCloud Photo Library right on your Apple TV so you can view and watch them from the comfort of your couch.

The one feature of iCloud Photo Library I don’t expect to use much is iCloud Photo Sharing. This allows you to create albums and share pictures and videos your friends or family can see and contribute to. While nice, I don’t see many people using this feature since we’re so used to just sharing our pics on social media sites like Facebook.

iCloud Photo Library: Should you use it? 

I’ve only used iCloud Photo Library for a few days, but I really like it. After getting past the frustrating pricing and storage structures and the slow initial uploads, iCloud Photo Library is a well designed cloud storage solution that does make my digital life easier and more fun. I can’t tell you how cool it is being able to access my entire Photos library on my iPad, which previously only housed screen caps and the odd picture.

The album sync and edit sync capabilities also make keeping your Photos libraries organized a breeze. It’s so nice marking a photo as a favorite on my iPhone and then being able to instantly see it in my Favorites album on my Mac—instantly.

For me, I’m glad I signed up to iCloud Photo Library. Though I hope Apple introduces a 500GB storage tier or lowers the price of the 1TB option before my Photos library grows too large. As cool as it is, I can’t see myself paying £6.99 a month for the privilege of letting Apple store my pics in the cloud.

So should you sign up to iCloud Photo Library? I would say if you have a Photos library that is less than ~175GB and don’t mind paying £2.49 a month, then it is worth it, especially if you have multiple Macs and iOS devices. On the other hand, if you are a PC user it might not be as appealing. There’s no Photos app for Windows, and though you can access your iCloud Photo Library from any web browser—Mac or PC—the experience isn’t as fluid on a PC as it is on the Mac because of the lack of a dedicated app.

For now, I’m quite taken with iCloud Photo Library. And I think most Mac and iOS users will be too.

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