The Difference between iCloud and iCloud Drive

Boy is THIS one a big muddled mess…

icloud vs icloud drive

About a month or so ago, I had a VERY good friend of mine have an issue with his iDevice.  He thought he had copied something to iCloud, but when he went looking for it after he reset his iDevice, it wasn’t there.  The hullaballoo that ensued was one for the record books as he scrambled around trying to find what he lost.

What he was looking for and if he was successful in restoring it to a place he wanted the file to reside in – while interesting – isn’t relevant.  The problem is that Apple’s cloud storage offering, iCloud, is pretty much a train wreck; and everyone that *I* know of, is pretty much totally confused and out to lunch when it comes to figuring out exactly what gets stored where, and more importantly why that object is stored THERE rather than someplace else.

I’m going to do my best to break this down and explain this as quickly and succinctly as I can. Bear with me, some of this is going to make sense. Some of it won’t. The BEST thing you can do, if you’re a Mac and/ or if you use any kind of iDevice, is simply accept that it is what it is; and then try to follow the rules.

If it doesn’t make sense to you, all I can say is, “Ask Jobs…”

What is iCloud?

This question should be labeled as one of the Seven Wonders of the [Modern] World.  Honestly, I don’t think that Apple really knows EXACTLY what they want iCloud to be; but this is the closest analogy that I can come up with –

iCloud is a giant, nebulous, all-purpose, storage locker.

Similar to the underside of a teenager’s bed, it’s the place where Apple wants to shove junk you want to save and/ or reuse from either your Mac, your PC, your iDevice, or all of the above.  Unfortunately, it’s just as organized, too.  Let’s face it, it’s a mess in there.

There are two basic components of iCloud (there are likely more, but for our purposes, and for the sake of argument, let’s just stick with two, ok?) – iCloud Backup and iCloud Drive.

ICloud Backup is the place where you can stash junk.  The data you “place” here is data like your text messages, email, contacts, calendar, photos, notes, and reminders.  Backups of your iDevices (iPhone, iPad, etc.) are also tossed in here.  Apple’s productivity suite, iWork, also places Pages, Numbers and Keynote files into iCloud Backup (and not into iCloud Drive, which I’ll get to in a bit…)

There are a few issues with all of this, and its mostly related to iWork.  However, the big thing you need to remember here is that the data here… is COMPLETELY unstructured.  You have no control over it, how or where its stored in iCloud, or even what is used to retrieve it; and this is the key to iCloud Backup.

Apple doesn’t want you to think about where you stash your stuff or what you used to create or modify it with.  The app that you use, handles all of that.

In other words, when you take a picture with your iPhone (if you have the device set to do this…), it automatically gets copied over to iCloud. After that, it’s available on every device that’s associated with your Apple ID, Mac, PC or iDevice, included.  The data just sorta shows up.

If you have to reset or rebuild any of those devices, the data is just supposed to show back up after you log back into it with your Apple ID.  There’s no “restore” command to invoke.  It just shows up in its own time. This is both good and bad.  Your data is constantly “backed up” and you don’t have to do anything to get it back.

The problem is, most people don’t think that way (when it comes to restoring data that may be lost).  There’s also NO way of going into iCloud Backup and cherry picking just the stuff you want to pull down or restore. It’s an all or nothing deal.

When it comes to your iDevices, things start to get a little muddy.  IDevice backups used to include the firmware, data and all the content (music, videos, photos, apps, etc.) on the device. The backup was a total and complete image of the device.  Now, it’s really just the configuration – a list of what apps you have installed, a list of what music, videos and other consumer content are on the device, etc.  When you restore a backup to your iDevice, the content you want comes back, but it’s all downloaded through iTunes,  or synched back to the device from iTunes via USB cable.

The issue here is, in my opinion, how everything in iCloud Backup is structured.  It’s totally UNstructured. Everything is either managed by the iCloud enabled/ aware app that created the content; or more like, it’s just shoved there, and if you want it back, the app that controls that data likely has settings that handle it all.

Apple doesn’t want you to HAVE  to think about all this. They just want to handle it for you, and unfortunately, NO ONE but the folks in Cupertino think that way. It goes against everything that the public’s been taught since 1980-blah-blah-blah.

Apple’s been fighting this paradigm for over 30 years when they first introduced the original Mac 128’s back in 1984. The whole, “you just WORK and let us think about HOW you work,” thing has never worked for the majority of the general public who, at best, work on Windows machines at work and have Macs at home. It just rubs us the wrong way… but I digress.

What is iCloud Drive?

iCloud Drive is probably the easier of the two to understand. ICloud Drive is Apple’s version of Drobox.  It’s also likely the most (in my opinion) organized part of iCloud. Period.  As such, again, it’s likely the easiest to understand; but it’s not without its foibles.

ICloud Drive is cloud-based document storage and retrieval. Like Dropbox or any other cloud-based file system, you can control what is there, what folders it’s in, etc. Whatever you place there, will copy down to any and all Macs (or iDevices running the iCloud Drive app) and PC’s running the service.

You can picture it as the box of specific junk that’s shoved under that teenager’s bed.  Everything else is a jumbled mess, but the stuff in that box is neat and organized.  Like Drobox or Google Drive you can copy items in or out of the service, and the changes will sync up or down to all connected end points.

The Lynchpin in iCloud and iCloud Drive

The one gotcha here is the way storage is managed.  It’s a one size fits all kinda thing; and its totally finite.

When you buy iCloud storage, you buy an amount that is shared between ALL iCloud services, including iCloud Drive.  So, if you buy 50GB of iCloud storage for $0.99 a month, you have 50GB available for everything you want to store, including, device backups, iCloud Drive, Photos, etc.

With the way Apple has this setup, it’s very easy for one particular service – say iDevice backups – to swallow up all your storage, leaving you with nothing for everything else.  You have to watch and manage what is being stored in iCloud; and you can do that via the iCloud control panel in Windows or via iCloud settings on your Mac or on your iDevice.

Thankfully, iCloud storage pricing tiers are now a bit more in line with everyone else’s.  All prices are monthly charges and in US dollars.  You can get

  • 1TB – $9.99
  • 200GB – $2.99
  • 50GB – $0.99
  • 5GB – Free

So, iCloud and its storage amount is very much like the space under that teenager’s bed. There’s only so much space and unless you get more (or in this analogy, a bigger bed…) once the floor space under the bed is gone, so is your ability to store anything new there.

Both OneDrive and iCloud offer 5GB for free. Dropbox only offers 2GB. Google Drive offers 15GB for free.

I hope that this helps make this clearer for everyone.  If there are additional questions on how this all works, let me know via the Discussion area, below. You can also shoot me a tweet at @chrisspera.

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  • larrymcj

    Nice post and what a coincidence…I just gave a 60-minute presentation on iCloud/iCloud Drive to our local Mac Users Group. I started it with “iCloud is something you can’t live without, will never fully understand, and Apple doesn’t really know what they want it to be when it grows up.”

  • port land

    When you say this is one big muddled mess, are your you refering to your long dragged out poor attempt of trying to explain a simple difference between icloud storage and icloud drive? Or YOUR teenagers bed you were trying to make an anology with. Sounds like no teenager I ever knew. I can only imagine the disorder in your home, kind of like this blog. Blah blah blah. A better title would have been ‘My hostile venting on the problem I have in understanding Apple’s formatting since it isnt like what I was taught when I received my Introductions to how Microsoft windows is structured.’ Long enough? Get over it or go back to your beloved Windows.

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