The days of each household having just a single laptop or desktop PC are long gone. Many families now own a mix of mobile and desktop computers, which make working from any corner of the house or garden possible. The problem is in synching all these gadgets – something that’s necessary if you want to be able to access all your content from any platform.

Cloud-based storage offers an excellent solution. You can save documents, files, photos and video to an online server, then access them from any other web-connected device. There are many such services available, but Apple’s iCloud is perhaps the most polished.

iCloud is integrated into iOS 5, the latest iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system. This is preinstalled on the iPhone 4S, but if you’re running an iDevice that predates its release you’ll need to upgrade the software yourself. The free iOS 5 update is available via iTunes.

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Like other online storage services, iCloud allows data to be backed up between an iDevice, Mac or Windows PC and the cloud. What’s more useful is its ability to do so automatically, and keep in sync the content on all your devices. Add a Calendar appointment on your iPhone, for example, and that change will also appear on your PC. This extends to apps and music purchased via iTunes, which are stored in the cloud and available to all devices.

Photo Stream, an iCloud service, automatically uploads and stores any photo captured by an iDevice in the past 30 days. Images uploaded by Photo Stream don’t count towards iCloud’s 5GB storage limit (although purchasing more space is a simple task).

iOS 5 also includes iMessage, a service that lets messages containing text, photos and video be exchanged between iDevices over a Wi-Fi or 3G connection.

Here, we explain how to download and install Apple’s iOS 5, plus how to get started using iCloud and iMessage.

iCloud

Step 1. To download and install iOS 5 you’ll first need to launch iTunes 10.5 on your PC and connect your iDevice via USB. Ensure that all your content is backed up before you begin. The software will detect the older mobile operating system and prompt you to upgrade. Follow the onscreen instructions to do so.

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Step 2. Following a successful installation, click Settings on your iDevice and select iCloud. Enter your Apple ID and password (the same details you use to log into iTunes), then click Sign In. If you don’t already have an Apple ID, click ‘Get a Free Apple ID’ and follow the onscreen instructions to register.

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Step 3. Once signed in, iCloud displays a list of content types it can sync. For each item in this list, which includes Mail, Contacts and Calendars, specify whether automatic synching should occur. Now select ‘Automatic downloads’ from Settings, Store to also make content purchased via iTunes available to other devices.

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Step 4. Click Storage & Backup and move the slider next to iCloud Backup to On. Note that once you’ve activated automatic backups the iDevice will no longer back up to your PC when you sync it with iTunes. Ensure the iDevice is connected to both a Wi-Fi network and a power source, then press ‘Back up now’.

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Step 5. You can now access most of your content on any device with a web connection. Browse to icloud.com and sign in with your Apple ID. If you’re using a PC, ensure you’re using the latest version of Safari, Firefox or Internet Explorer. To access Photo Stream, however, you need the iCloud Control Panel for Windows.

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Step 6. From this point on, any change you make to data that’s configured to sync with iCloud will be pushed to all your iCloud-compatible devices. Keep an eye on how much of your free 5GB storage limit remains in Settings, iCloud, Storage & Backup. Apple will also email you warning as you approach your limit.

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>> NEXT PAGE: Photo Stream and iMessage

Photo Stream

Step 1. To access Photo Stream on a Windows PC (Vista SP2 and Windows 7 machines only), you need the iCloud Control Panel for Windows. Download and install the setup file. Next, click Windows’ Start menu and choose Control Panel, Network and Internet, iCloud.

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Step 2. Log in with your Apple ID and password. In the following screen, select Photo Stream and click Options. The default locations of your My Photo Stream and Uploads folders will be displayed; click Change if you want to specify new locations. Click Ok, then choose Apply in the main menu.

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Step 3. To review your Photo Stream on the PC, simply open the My Photo Stream folder. To upload photos to Photo Stream, drag them into the Uploads folder. Should you need to reset Photo Stream, log into icloud.com, click on your username at the top right, then select Advanced, ‘Reset your Photo Stream’.

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Step 4. The iCloud Control Panel for Windows also lets you import your contacts, calendar and Mobile.Me email to Outlook 2007 or 2010, and your bookmarks to Safari or Internet Explorer. To import such content, select each item in the iCloud Control Panel for Windows and click Apply.

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iMessage

Step 1. Launch the Messages app on an iDevice running iOS 5. Sign in with your Apple ID and password. If you’re using an iPad, you’ll be prompted to confirm which email address you’d like messages to be sent from (the Wi-Fi-only model doesn’t have a phone number). Select an email address and press Next.

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Step 2. Click the message icon at the top of the screen to compose a message. A new message window will appear, with a flashing cursor inside the ‘To:’ field. Begin typing a friend’s name and Messages will offer suggestions based on your Contacts. Alternatively, enter a phone number or email address.

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Step 3. Place the cursor in the bottom text field to begin writing your message. If you want to add a photo or video, click the camera icon to the left of your message body. Browse to the content in Photos or Photo Stream, then click Use to attach it to your message.

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Step 4. Click Send, then close Messages; this app will run in the background and notify you of new messages. Note that iOS 5 will automatically use iMessage if your recipient is also running the latest software; otherwise the message will be sent via SMS. Those sent by iMessage appear in blue; SMS messages are green.

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