There was a time when the “cloud” seemed like merely a bona fide pipe dream, an unattainable computing concept looming in the future skies. The much-sought computing method would allow users to save, sync, and access a wealth of information and multimedia via a remote grid of networked computers, no matter your location or device. It was a Jetsons-esque concept to me as a boy, but the colloquial expression and everything it embodies is very real in today’s world of smartphones and supercomputers — and anyone submerged in the Apple ecosystem can readily access it at no extra charge. So tell me, why wouldn’t you want to use it given the chance?

The Apple-dubbed “iCloud” is the latest incarnation of the Cupertino-based company’s cloud storage and computing system. It’s had many names over the years — iTools, .Mac, MobileMe — but none of them were quite as self-explanatory as the one the late Steve Jobs announced at the 2011 Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference. It’s not an application, but rather an application suite, directly baked into the framework of nearly all Apple products and curated to help manage your content on any device with which it’s associated. Once properly setup, tasks like accessing your entire iTunes library and photo catalog can be carried out with the simple toggle of a switch. Other actions, such as calendar and contact list edits, will automatically update across all devices.

Despite its rudimentary design and simple execution though, setting up and navigating the swath of apps can prove difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing or are newcomer to Apple’s world.

Here’s our comprehensive guide, from setup to syncing, to using iCloud. Sure, we have our qualms and quibbles regarding the software and its merits, but being able to edit your calendar across all devices and locate your phone after those rollicking, punch-drunk nights at the bar is well worth the price of setting it up and syncing.

Choose a guide component:

Setting up & signing in to iCloud

Signing up with iCloud is completely free and simple to do with an Apple ID. Each free account automatically grants you access to 5GB of remote storage — available for backups, mail, app data, documents and other components stored in the cloud — with additional 10, 20 and 50GB storage offerings available at an additional cost. In addition to an active Internet connection accessible via Wi-Fi or a cellular network, each iCloud feature requires a different minimum requirement, often available on slew of Apple devices including the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, Mac, PC and Apple TV. There likely isn’t a grave concern for compatibility, but we recommended quickly scanning over the minimum requirements to get a better understanding of what will and will not work on your device. Afterward, follow the guidelines for your respective device below.

Mac

Step 1: Update your Mac (optional) — It’s always a good idea to update your Mac software prior to setting up a new utility or application. If you haven’t done so already, click the apple icon in the upper-left corner of the desktop to access the main Apple menu and select Software Update from the resulting drop-down menu. Once the App Store launches, click the Update button to the right of the particular software you wish to update or click Update all in the upper-right corner of the application window to download and install all available updates.

Step 2: Enable iCloud — Click the apple icon in the upper-left corner of the desktop to access the main Apple menu once again. Afterward, select System Preferences from the resulting drop-down menu and choose iCloud option beneath the Internet & Wireless section of the main System Preferences panel (the logo depicts a chrome-embezzled cloud). Enter the appropriate Apple ID and password you wish to use with iCloud and click the Sign in button directly to the right of the password field when finished. Although you likely already possess an Apple ID — it’s the same account you use to purchase items from the iTunes, App, and iBook stores — you can always create a new account by clicking the blue Create an Apple ID link below the entry field and following the resulting on-screen instructions. Then, choose either or both of the overarching iCloud options for which services you’d like to utilize and click the Next button located at the bottom of the window.

Step 3: Select your iCloud services — iCloud will present you with nine individual services, from mail and Safari to contacts and calendars, once signed in. Check the box directly to the left of the applications to choose which ones you’d like to sync across your various devices. Syncing options vary from application to application, but you can typically fine-tune the process within the main Accounts setting of each service. 

Step 4: Buy more storage (optional) — Most users shouldn’t need more storage than the 5MB provided. However, obtaining a little extra storage can’t hurt if you’re on the cusp of reaching your storage cap. To do so, click the Manage button in the bottom-right corner of the main iCloud interface, followed by the Buy More Storage button located in the top-left corner of the resulting window. Afterward, select from one of the three upgrade plans —$20 per year for 15GB, $40 a year for 25GB, and $100 a year for 55GB respectively — and click the Next button located in the bottom-right corner. Enter your Apple ID password and click the Buy button in the bottom-right corner to confirm your purchase.

iOS

Step 1: Update your iOS device (optional) — It’s always a good idea to update your iOS device prior to setting up a new cloud-based utility or application. If you haven’t done so already, tap the main Settings menu located on your device’s homescreen, followed by the Software Update option and the resulting Download and Install button. Wait for the latest version iOS to download and install before proceeding to Step 2.

Step 2: Enable iCloud — Tap the main Settings menu located on your device’s homescreen to access the main settings panel once again. Afterward, tap the iCloud option found midway down the menu, enter the appropriate Apple ID and password you wish to use with iCloud and tap the blue Sign in option directly beneath the entry fields when finished. Although you likely already possess an Apple ID — it’s the same account you use to purchase items from the iTunes, App and, iBook stores — you can always create a new account by clicking the blue Get a Free Apple ID link at the bottom of the screen and following the resulting on-screen instructions.

Step 3: Select your iCloud services — iCloud will present you with ten individual services, from mail and Safari to contacts and calendars, once signed in. Toggle the slider directly to the right of the applications to choose which ones you’d like to sync across your various devices. Syncing options vary from application to application, but you can typically fine-tune the process within the main settings of each service.

Step 4: Buy more storage (optional) — Most users shouldn’t need more storage than the 5MB provided. However, obtaining a little extra storage can’t hurt if your on the cusp of reaching your storage cap. To do so, tap the Storage & Backup option located at the bottom of the main iCloud settings, followed by the blue Buy More Storage link toward the middle of the resulting menu. Afterward, select from one of the three upgrade plans —$20 per year for 15GB, $40 a year for 25GB and $100 a year for 55GB respectively — and tap the blue Buy option located in the top-right corner. Enter your Apple ID password and tap the OK button in the bottom-right corner of the window to confirm your purchase.

PC

Step 1: Enable iCloud on another device — Apple’s iCloud software is designed to work seamlessly with iOS and Mac OS X, so begin by enabling and setting up iCloud on another device prior to setting up the software on your Windows PC. Luckily, the two tutorials above will help you get started on both your Mac and iOS device.

Step 2: Download and install the iCloud Control Panel — Unfortunately, Windows does not sport built-in iCloud integration of any kind (surprise, surprise). Therefore, navigate to the Apple support site and click the blue Download link at the top to download a copy of iCloud Control Panel. Afterward, choose a save location from the resulting window, click the Save button in the bottom-right corner and run the installation software when it’s finished downloading. The bundled wizard will walk you through the entire installation process.

Step 3: Enable iCloud — Launch the iCloud Control Panel and enter the appropriate Apple ID and password corresponding to your previously-registered iCloud account. Click the Sign in button in the bottom-right corner when finished. 

Step 4: Select your iCloud services —  iCloud will present you with three bundled services, from mail and bookmarks to contacts and calendars, once signed in. Check the box directly to the left of the services to choose which ones you’d like to sync across your various devices. Syncing options vary from application to application, but you can typically fine-tune the process within the main Accounts setting of each service. Click the Apply button in the bottom-right corner when finished.

Next Page: Overview of iCloud Services