How to survive with an iPhone and a Windows computer

You won't get the full Apple experience with a Windows PC, but you can get close.

Jason Cipriani Contributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
Jason Cipriani
5 min read

Just because you use Windows that doesn't mean you can't use iCloud. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Using an iPhone or iPad with a Windows PC as your main computer has always been a tricky setup. You're forced to accept that you'll miss out on Apple services such as iMessage and won't be able to easily sync photos between your computer and iPhone, like through AirDrop. If you pay for extra iCloud storage and rely on it to keep your files synced across multiple devices, things start to get even trickier. Apple has always offered an iCloud app to allow you to access things like Photos, iCloud Drive files and other information on Windows. It's worked, but it felt slow and somewhat limited in features. 

Last week, Apple released a new version of iCloud for Windows in the Microsoft Store. It includes improved iCloud file syncing, thanks to the same Files on Demand feature that Microsoft uses for OneDrive . The new app update makes it easy to keep all of your files in sync, and puts the photos you take on your iPhone on your Windows PC for easier editing and sharing. Sorry, you still don't get iMessage or AirDrop.

Read: The best antivirus protection of 2019 for Windows 10  

The good news is that iCloud for Windows only takes a few minutes to install, set up, and begin using. Once that's done, you can decide which files and folders you'll store locally on your PC, and sync in real time to the rest of your Apple devices. You can also sync bookmarks and access your iCloud mail, contacts and calendar through Outlook.

Watch this: How to take Windows 10 screenshots

Make sure Windows is up to date

Before setting up iCloud on your PC, make sure your Windows computer is up to date -- Apple recommends that you use Windows 10 version 1903 with the new iCloud app for the best performance. 

You can check for pending updates and install them by clicking on the Windows icon, then the Settings gear and click on Update & Security. Click on Check for updates and then follow any prompts. 

After you've installed any pending updates, revisit the Update & Security section to check for more updates -- sometimes you have to install two or three rounds of updates.


The iCloud app offers the core features, outside of iMessage, that you'd want to access on a Windows PC. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Get iCloud installed and setup

With your PC up to date, download the iCloud app from the Microsoft Store. After installing the app, you'll need to sign in to the same iCloud account you use on any Apple devices.

After signing in, you'll see a screen similar to the one above. Pick what you want to sync with your PC, and then click Apply

If you opted to have iCloud mail, contacts and calendar setup in Outlook, after you click on Apply the app will take a few minutes to complete that setup process. Let the process finish before you begin making any other changes to the iCloud app's settings.


Managing what's stored on your PC, and what's left in iCloud is pretty easy.  

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Manage your iCloud files and folders

Depending on how many files and folders you have saved to in iCloud Drive, the initial sync of your information will take awhile.

To view all of your iCloud Drive contents, open File Explorer and pick iCloud Drive from the Quick Access menu on the left. A status symbol will show up next to each file and folder. Two arrows that make a circle show that your computer is currently downloading the file or folder: 

  • A cloud icon means that particular item is stored in the cloud and you'll have access to it as long as you're connected to the internet.
  • A green checkmark means that item has been downloaded to your PC and is currently synced with iCloud Drive.

From what I can tell, there isn't an option to pick and choose what's downloaded and saved to your PC before the first sync. If you don't want your entire iCloud Drive downloaded to your PC, you'll have to change the sync status for each folder one-by-one. You can do that by right-clicking on a folder that's syncing and selecting Free up space. Alternatively, if there's a particular folder that's not set to download to your PC, you can right-click on the folder and select Always keep on this device.

Either setting isn't limited to only the top-level folder, so you can set a folder to always be available on your PC, but pick and choose which subfolders or files inside of it you don't want to be downloaded (or vice versa).

To check the current status of any uploads or downloads running in the background, click on the iCloud icon in the taskbar (see below).


View your iCloud Photos and iCloud Drive sync status with a click. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Sync your iCloud Photos, too

On a Mac, all of your photos and videos are automatically synced through the Photos app on your iOS device and computer. Windows users don't have a Photos app from Apple. Instead, you can sync photos and videos stored in folders on your computer.

If you enable iCloud Photos syncing, the iCloud app will create an "iCloud Photos" folder on your computer's hard drive. Inside that folder will be a Downloads folder and an Uploads folder. The downloads folder will only begin downloading any new pictures or videos you take on your iPhone, and not the entirety of your current library.

Just remember to save any photos or videos you want available in your iCloud account to the Uploads folder, and you should experience fairly quick syncing between your PC and your iPhone or iPad.

As with iCloud Drive syncing, you can monitor the status of your iCloud Photos library by clicking on the iCloud icon in the taskbar.

The rest of the iCloud app is straightforward. Bookmarks will sync your iCloud bookmarks from (from Safari) with the default browser on your PC. If you change your default browser, it's a good idea to open the iCloud settings and click the Options button next to Bookmarks and select your new default browser. 

There aren't any extra settings or options for the Mail, Contacts, Calendars and Tasks listing. If you have it enabled, the iCloud app will set up and sync all of your personal info with Outlook on its own. The headlining feature here, of course, is the new sync features for stuff you have saved in your iCloud Drive.