iCloud 2013 beta: Hands-on preview

It took Apple a few attempts to create a genuinely useful web service, but the company finally found success in iCloud; a digital bridge between your mobile device and desktop with a handy web interface. Just a few days ago, Apple launched beta.icloud.com, which gives users a peek at a refreshed design that takes its cues from the forthcoming iOS 7.

Trotted out in June, the new look for iOS 7 is a huge departure from the design philosophy which has dominated the company since the iPhone's introduction in 2007. The latest take on iOS has so far proved hugely divisive; some have complained that the flat, colourful graphics are overly simplistic, while others see it as a fresh re-imagining.

Love it or hate it, it's coming soon, and the beta version of iCloud gives us a sneak peak at what's in store.

Function is only skin deep

I actually like the iOS 7 style quite a bit, and was eager to sink my teeth into the beta version of iCloud.

I was disappointed, however, when I discovered that the update seems mostly aesthetic. I tried hard to find new features, but I came up with very little.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. iCloud is already a great way to access the data associated with your most commonly used apps — @icloud email, calendar, reminders, notes — and Find My iPhone is an excellent baked-in anti-theft tool for Apple mobile devices, desktops, and laptops.

To me, the cleaner, minimalist interface feels lighter and easier to use, though almost nothing is changed. Such is the power of design. However, if you didn't like iCloud before, the new design probably won't change your mind about the experience.

In your iCloud

The new design begins at the login screen, which has done away with the brushed metal design of the old iCloud in favour of a milky white window. An image of the apps available in iCloud appears blurred out behind the login window — but this is just an effect; a static image that won't mirror your alert badges.

The newly designed icons are bigger versions of the ones we've seen in previews for iOS 7, so there are no real surprises here. That said, I was downright shocked to see that the bubbly background for the new iCloud is subtly animated with spheres slowly moving around and phasing out of view.

Clicking on an app expands it forward, filling the screen. To return to Home, or cut directly to any other app (an improvement over the old version) click the upper left hand corner. You can log out, or adjust your user settings from your name at the upper right. These features anchor the new iCloud experience.

Mail — This still retains the three-column view familiar to Mail's desktop app and iPad app users. The larger, clearer font takes up slightly more space than before, though the new version is easier to read. Many of the icons are exactly the same as before, though a few have been refreshed and the ones across the top bar have been repositioned. The counter for unread messages is no longer surrounded by a darker oval, which I found made it slightly harder to read.

Contacts — Uses the three panel view which is optional on OS X, but a bit of a departure from the original iCloud. As with Mail, everything is bigger; names and photos are easier to see. The skeumorphic book design has been consigned to the garbage heap and replaced with larger, minimalist columns.

One possible new feature is that a camera icon appears beneath my user photo, suggesting that I might be able to upload a replacement later on. Also new to iCloud beta, though not to Contacts, is the ability to create groups.

Calendar — This is probably my favourite refresh of the bunch. The big changes here are the colours, which really pop against the empty whiteness of the app. It's a stark departure from the leather and paper motif of the old iCloud, and one which looks to have taken a little inspiration from the Any.do app. Like the other apps, removing buttons and unnecessary dressing has made more space for bigger fonts.

While the eye-popping colours are a bit jarring, it does mean that it's much easier to see where events begin and end. Round-cornered events are now very business like with right angles, and an unnecessary scrubber bar has been removed from the bottom of the screen.

Notes — In the face of more powerful apps like Evernote, Notes has struggled to find a place despite syncing seamlessly between iOS devices, iCloud, and the desktop app. The new version uses a two-column window with a title or truncated first line of notes on the left, and the full text on the right. You can rejoice at the fact that the awful handwriting font debuted in iOS is nowhere to be seen.

Reminders — Like the other apps, Reminders is bigger, squared off, and easier on the eyes. It improves over the original with colour coding for notes, making them easier to sort. Interestingly, Apple ditched a popup calendar to browse your reminders by days of the month. Instead, you get the full list and a search bar.

Interestingly, large radio button-like circles have replaced check boxes both here and in other apps.

Find My iPhone — Easily the most useful of all the iCloud apps, Find My iPhone will let you track down a wayward iPhone, iPad, computer, or pretty much any other device you can hook into iCloud. Functionally, nothing has changed here: You can still see the remaining battery life for a device, lock it, erase it, or place it into Lost Mode.

Again, removing atlas-looking features has freed up more space for the actual map. Of course, it's still a bit odd that the maps are provided by Google, and this cleaner version of the service bears a striking resemblance to the recently launched Android Device Manager.

Pages, Numbers, Keynote — These apps are available for iCloud users, but haven't been refreshed yet. They appear to work just fine, and we'll just have to wait and see if they too get a fresh coat of paint.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that as you login you can see a quick glimpse of an iWork app at the very bottom of the screen, perhaps hinting at the future of office apps on iCloud and in iOS 7.

Bigger is better

As I said earlier, the look of iOS 7 is very polarising. Given the few actual functional changes in iCloud Beta, I almost wonder if Apple is releasing this to inoculate us in preparation for the eye candy changes in the forthcoming iOS.

In general, though, the change is for the better. I didn't find an instance where I missed the old version, and the new one is definitely brighter, bigger, and easier to read. Weirdly, the more minimalist approach makes me crave more customisation. The "like a real object" design of the old iCloud felt very stiff, and I never felt a desire to change it. With the new iCloud, I hunted in vain for background-changing options.

I also noticed that showing the new iCloud to people prompted them to compare it to other phones and services. "Oh, that looks like Google," or "that looks like Windows Phone." You could take that to mean that Apple is blatantly stealing from the competition, but I think it's more a reflection of the company's stylistic stagnation with iOS. To me it feels like we're skipping a lot of evolutionary steps — jumping straight from fresh-out-of-the-water quadruped to walking-upright human. While it's impressive it's also disorienting.

Apple's now faced with the challenge of discarding the iconic look they've had for years, and still making us feel at home. I'm not sure they've accomplished that just yet, but familiarity breeds contentment — right?