Why I'm not ready to go back to iCloud -- yet

Apple is bulking up its iCloud offering while making it more reasonably priced. But a bad experience with the current version makes going back difficult.

icloud-pricing1.jpg
Apple

In case you missed it, Apple had some iCloud news this week. At its World Wide Developers Conference, it previewed some nifty features, including iCloud Drive, a Dropbox competitor that promises to help you access all of your content across all of your Apple devices, including Macs. And that's not all. Just as importantly, the service is getting a much-needed price cut this fall.

Instead of paying $40 a year for 20GB of storage -- which is really 25GB because you get 5GB free -- you'll be able to get a whopping 200GB (presumably, 205GB) for $48, or about $8 more. Sounds great, right?

Sure. Except if you're one of the suckers like me who doled out $40 last year for a mostly murky iCloud experience. I didn't initially pay that much. I started out at $20 a year for 15GB total, but in the middle of a trip abroad, I ran out of cloud storage space and decided to bite the bullet and go up to the $40 tier.

Within a few months I blew through my 25GB allotment and my iPhone stopped backing itself up through the cloud. In order make that happen, I was going to have drop another $60 to go up to the 50GB tier ($100), which seemed ridiculous.

Managing the iCloud

Like any logical person trying to save a buck, I resolved to trim the amount of stuff I was backing up so I'd be able to get in under my 25GB cap. All I really wanted to do was back up my photos and videos. I didn't care about anything else on my iPhone (my contacts were already in the cloud). So I started reducing what was on my iPhone (deleting crap) and fiddling around with the sliders in iCloud settings menu.

apple-icloud-drive.jpg
iCloud Drive adds Dropbox-like functionality to Apple's cloud offering. Apple

I also turned iCloud off on my iPads and my kids' iPod Touches, and poked around the Web to get some pointers. I quickly came across an Apple support page explaining how to manage my iCloud storage. I found this paragraph:

"To reduce the size of your Camera Roll backup, save your photos and videos to your computer with iTunes, then manually back up your iOS device. If you want to keep your photos and videos on your iOS device, you can turn off Camera Roll in Backup (see "Select which iOS applications to back up," above) or purchase more storage."

There it was. I'd found the solution. And there was a bonus: It was also my ticket to never using iCloud again. For once I started manually backing up my photos through iTunes the old-fashioned way -- and then backing them up to a networked drive -- I didn't see a need to use iCloud. So I didn't.

It felt OK to give up on it, but the experience left a sour taste. iCloud had seemed beneficial at first, but then it just seemed like a way for Apple to suck some extra cash out of me. (I never purchased a MobileMe account for $99 per year, but I think a lot of people felt the same way about that now-defunct service).

Cheaper alternative

On September 13, 2013, my iTunes account was automatically charged $40 for another year of iCloud storage. I promptly emailed the customer support folks at Apple and told them I didn't want to use the service anymore. To their credit, my 40 bucks were promptly refunded, and I was dropped down to the "free" 5GB tier of storage. I was free.

By that time Yahoo had already announced that it was giving away 1TB of free storage as part of its redesign of Flickr, the photo-sharing site that it had paid millions for years earlier and let languish. (One terabyte is roughly 1,000GB.) I'd jumped on that 1TB wagon and found an app that would automatically back up all my iPhone photos to Flickr.

There are several apps that allow you to transfer you iOS photos to photo-sharing sites, as well as Google Drive and Dropbox, among others (Amazon has its own app, Amazon Cloud Drive Photos). I settled on PhotoSync, which costs $2.99.

Cloud storage pricing compared

Service Free tier Price for add'l 100GB Price per year per GB**
Amazon Cloud Drive 5GB $50/year $0.50
Apple iCloud Drive 5GB $24/year* $0.24
Box 10GB $120/year $0.83
Dropbox 2GB $120/year $0.83
Flickr 1024GB Free (photos/videos only) $0.00
Google Drive 15GB $24/year $0.24
Microsoft OneDrive 7GB $50/year $0.50

*Based on 50 percent of $48-per-year price for 200GB plan

**Rounded to nearest penny, not counting the base free storage

While I do run into the occasional glitch, the app has improved over time, and you can set it to autotransfer photos when you arrive at a certain location, whether it be your home or office, or wherever you have the fastest wireless Internet connection. (Obviously, you want to upload only when on Wi-Fi, so you don't burn your data allowance.)

As I said, I don't have a lot of other stuff I need to back up, so I make do with Google Drive (15GB of free storage) and Dropbox (it comes with 2GB of free storage, but I managed to upgrade to 50GB through a Samsung promotion). Box is another option with 10GB of free storage. For most people, that should be plenty of space for documents and spreadsheets. (For a full comparison of cloud storage service options, see Sarah Mitroff's " Here's what Apple's iCloud Drive will cost you, compared with its competition").

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The Photo apps for both iOS devices and Macs are being revamped. Apple

More competition in the iUniverse

Apple has yet to switch over to the new pricing yet for iCloud, and I'm not sure how it's handling autorenewals in the interim. Undoubtedly, when the new iCloud, iCloud Drive, and Photo apps are released this fall, you'll get more for your money, whether you chose to go with the 99-cent-per-month 20GB plan or a higher tiered plan.

The irony is that Apple's new pricing is actually pretty good. As you can see from the chart above (which, fair warning, includes some rounding off and normalization of monthly to yearly pricing), Apple is neck and neck with Google Drive at the low end. Yes, caveats abound: Apple doesn't have a 100GB plan, so you'll need to spend the $48 per year for the 200GB one. And Flickr stores only photos and videos, whereas the other competitors allow all file types across the board.

That said, I just don't see myself paying Apple a yearly fee in perpetuity when I basically get what I need for free now (my total out-of-pocket costs are $3). Also, in light of the fact that Flickr gives away 1TB for free, one would hope that Apple could be a little more generous, especially if it wants me to be shackled to its ecosystem. (My household also has plenty of Android devices and even a Windows phone, so it feels safer to be on more agnostic platforms.)

I agree with John Gruber, who writes the Daring Fireball blog, when he says: "People should not have to worry about this [backing up photos] with their iOS devices. Apple charges a premium for larger storage capacity devices -- doing away with backup quotas should be part of the value users get in exchange."

Yeah, I paid that $200 premium for a 64GB iPhone. And Apple got me for another $40 for a service I ended up ditching. So it goes.

But if Apple steps up to plate with an even better iCloud and better pricing, I'm ready to come back. And there's every reason to expect further price fluctuation throughout the year. With a mixture of the most powerful companies in tech and some aggressive startups, the cloud storage space is becoming incredibly competitive.

If Apple doesn't respond on pricing, it may have opened the door on even more alternatives anyway. iOS may still be a walled garden, but in some ways, the walls seem a bit lower than they used to be. With iOS 8's extensibility options and iPhone's more open camera software, backing up photos to third-party cloud storage may be even easier by year's end.

In the meantime, my photos have plenty of room on Flickr.

 

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