Whisper it quietly, but a few holes are starting to appear in Apple’s walled garden: AirPlay on TVs. Apple Music on Android. iCloud on the web. And now, a revamped, updated iCloud app for Windows. As Apple shows hints of being more cross-platform-friendly than it has been in the past, is its iCloud suite now usable across Windows and Android?
Dare iPhone and Mac users entertain the idea of working on Windows and Android as well? Or should they stick to Apple-made hardware? We fired up a Windows PC and a Pixel 3a XL to attempt to access our iCloud files, and to see whether these apps and services are actually usable away from Apple devices.
iCloud on Windows
iCloud has been available as a utility on Windows for years now—as has iTunes, don’t forget—but this month a new and improved version of the software appeared in the official Microsoft Store.
One of the changes with the new version is a smarter sync process, so you can keep files in the cloud without having to save them locally on a Windows machine, while still having easy access to them. There’s also tighter integration for iCloud within File Explorer.
The iCloud app lives down in the notification area on the right of the taskbar in Windows: It gives you quick links to downloading photos (by year, to your Pictures folder in Windows), uploading photos, and heading to the iCloud portal on the web.
Pull up the iCloud settings panel and you can arrange syncing to Windows in four areas: iCloud Drive, photos, email (and contacts and calendars, via Outlook), and bookmarks. You can also see how much of your iCloud storage you’re currently using.
So, does it work? Well, it’s rudimentary and occasionally slow, but it just about does the jobs it promises to do as advertised. The trouble is, the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive, and even OneDrive are all a bit (or a lot) slicker at this sort of cross-platform syncing—if you really need access to iCloud/Mac files on Windows, they’re better alternatives.
Even something as simple as snapping a photo on our iPhone, opening it up and editing it in Windows, then syncing it back to a Mac was fraught with delays and inconveniences (though we did eventually manage it).
In fact, it’s easier to just use the iCloud web interface (which is also an option for those of you on Chromebooks), unless you specifically need copies of all your iCloud photos on your Windows computer. The iCloud Windows app is only really superior in terms of uploading or downloading large numbers of files.
Working with iCloud Drive files in a browser on Windows is a basic experience, but a reasonably smooth one: Changes propagate to macOS within seconds, the Photos component is straightforward and speedy too, though nowhere near the Photos app on the Mac in terms of functions and features.
The iCloud web apps have definitely improved down the years, but there’s still a lot of work to be done: That’s obvious to anyone who loads up an iCloud Drive web browser tab alongside one showing Dropbox or Google Drive (iCloud folder sharing is coming, at long last, in September).
These web apps are bare bones but do the job for viewing Notes and Reminders, Calendars and Contacts, and everything else you’ve got in iCloud—you don’t need to worry that your stuff will be locked away if you have to switch to a Windows machine. But actually getting some serious iCloud-based work done on Windows is another matter, not least because none of Apple’s major apps have Windows equivalents.
Overall, iCloud on Windows remains a passable experience: You can get some emailing and some file sharing done, but don’t expect everything you run as smoothly as you might hope. If you just need access to the occasional file, or want to upload a bunch of pictures to iCloud from Windows then fine; for everything else, not so fine.
If you’re someone who spends a lot of time on both Windows and Mac you’re always going to opt for one of the more polished and more naturally cross-platform options: You’re going to stick all your pictures and video in Google Photos, or do all your file syncing in Dropbox. Apple has a long way to go to change that.
iCloud on Android
This section is much shorter, because there isn’t really an option for getting your iCloud stuff—photos, notes, files—up on Android in any useful way… at least not without using a third-party service like Dropbox to bridge the gap. Apple must know it’s pushing people who use multiple platforms away from iCloud, but doesn’t seem particularly worried about it for the moment.
Apple Music is available though. If you’re paying the $11.99 per month for it, so you can at least get at your music and your playlists (and even your local files, if they’re in your iCloud Music Library). You can add an iCloud email address to Gmail on Android as well, it should be noted, enabling you to send and receive messages from your iCloud address.
That’s really where being able to use iCloud on Android in a serious way starts and finishes: Music and email. Apple doesn’t make any other apps available for Android, and while you can copy contacts and calendar information over, it’s a clumsy process—and it’s a one-time process, so there’s no two-way sync.
Heading to the iCloud web portal in a browser on Android only leads to the Find My iPhone page, so there’s no access to files or the other apps there by default. You can request the desktop version of the site, but then you’ll be left with tiny icons and a rather awkward workflow—it is technically possible to download iCloud photos to an Android device this way, but it’s far from a pleasurable experience.
We managed to load up a PDF from iCloud Drive on Android using the same method, but again you’re tapping at tiny icons and trying to cope with a web interface that’s sluggish at the best of times. It’s there in emergencies and that’s about it.
You can’t do serious iCloud business on Android at the moment, full stop—if you regularly use an Android device, or think you might do at some point in the future, then consider avoiding iCloud for your general purpose photo and file storage needs. Whether Apple will eventually remedy this, we’ll have to wait and see… but don’t hold your breath.