When it comes to automatically pushing phone-based pictures to the cloud, no one has Apple beat: With the iPhone 4S and an iCloud feature called Photo Stream, Apple's users have a best of breed solution that just works, and does so automatically. It's not without quirks, however, so if you want to take best advantage of this solution, please read on.

(Read my separate reviews of the iPhone 4S and iCloud for more information about these products.)

Photo Stream is a feature of iCloud, Apple's new consumer-oriented cloud service. Any photo you take on an iPhone 4S (or other iOS 5-based device) will be uploaded automatically, in full size/quality and resolution, to iCloud, and then synced to any other connected devices, which can include iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch), Windows-based PCs, and Macs. Meanwhile, photos you place into a special folder in Windows are also added to your Photo Stream and thus will be also be available to any connected devices. You can even view your Photo Stream on an Apple TV.

Now, Photo Stream is free like the rest of iCloud, which is great. But it also comes with rules. That is, you can't just continually add photos to your Photo Stream forever as the online storage required to hold those photos would grow and grow over time. So Apple provides what I think are very reasonable terms: The most recent 1000 photos you've taken will always be available in your Photo Stream and accessible via any of your devices. And no photos will be automatically deleted from your iPhone: So even if you go over 1000 photos, the remaining (older) photos will still be right there on the phone.

Better still, since Windows-based PCs (and Macs) have virtually unlimited storage (compared to iOS-based devices, certainly), any photos that are synced to these computers will not be deleted if the 1000 photo limit is reached. So this service can work like a permanent, automatic back up and sync solution as long as you always have at least one computer connected to your Photo Stream too.

Make sense? Great, let's get started actually using Photo Stream.

First: Get an iCloud account


You'll need an iCloud account first. This is free and if you've been buying content from Apple's various online stores--iTunes Store, App Store, iBookStore, and so on--you've already got one. (That said, you're also free to use different Apple IDs for your store purchases and iCloud if you want to do so for some reason.) I have a hard time imagining that there are iPhone 4S users out there without an Apple ID, so I'll be assuming that you use this ID with iCloud as I'm doing.

Set up Photo Stream on your iPhone 4S


Setting up iCloud couldn't be easier, and if you recently purchased or reset an iPhone 4S, you'll be prompted to do so by the Setup Assistant when you first turn on the device. Otherwise, you can visit the phone's Settings interface and set it up after the fact in Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendars -> Add Account. All you need is your Apple ID (email address) and password.

Once you've set up iCloud on the iPhone 4S, or after the fact in Settings -> iCloud, you can view and change which iCloud features are enabled on the device. As you can see in the shot below, there are many iCloud features you can enable, but the only one we're worried about here is called Photo Stream.

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I'm not sure why Photo Stream doesn't have an On/Off toggle like most other iCloud features in that list, but if you tap on the Photo Stream item, you'll be brought to a sub-page that displays a single On/Off toggle. So make sure it's On.

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And that's it. From now on, any photos you take with the iPhone's camera will be automatically synced to Photo Stream.

Access Photo Stream photos on your iPhone 4S


To view the photos in your Photo Stream from the iPhone 4S, you'll need to using Apple's built-in Photos app which, in iOS 5, has a new album called (appropriately enough) Photo Stream. This album contains all of the photos you've taken with that device, of course, but also any other photos that might be found in Photo Stream. This includes photos taken with other camera-enabled iOS devices and pictures you might have manually copied into the collection from a Windows-based PC or Mac.

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(Note: Screenshots taken in iOS 5 are copied to the Photo Stream too for some reason.)

You can edit photos in iOS 5, but edited versions of photos are not saved to the Photo Stream for some reason. Instead, these photos must be saved to the Camera Roll, another special album in iOS 5. So you'll have to manually sync these to your PC later, the old-fashioned way.

There's also (currently) no way to delete photos from your Photo Stream on the device. My understanding is that this limitation, at least, will be addressed in an upcoming update to iOS 5.

Access Photo Stream photos on your Windows-based PC


To use iCloud and Photo Stream with your Windows-based PC, you'll need to manually download the iCloud control panel from Apple. Like the iCloud settings interface in iOS 5, this control panel provides a number of functions, but our only concern here is with Photo Stream.

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To enable Photo Stream, logon with your Apple ID and then make sure the Photo Stream option is checked. If you click the Options button next to Photo Stream, you'll find two configurable folder locations, for downloads and uploads, respectively. The Download folder is where all your Photo Stream-based pictures will be automatically downloaded to on your PC. The Upload folder is where you place any photos you'd like to manually add to your Photo Stream.

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Once Photo Stream-based photos are on your PC, you can have your way with them. And that's good, because it's here on the PC that a few obvious limitations of Photo Stream become obvious. And these are:

No automatic naming or grouping. When you acquire photos from an iPhone 4S or other device manually using a Windows-based PC, you're given the option to group and name the photos intelligently. (I discussed this in Digital Photos To Go, Part 1: Smart Phone + Windows.) But when you automatically sync photos via Photo Stream, you can't group or rename them, so you're stuck with a flat folder full of hundreds of pictures, all of which have awful names like IMG_0003.JPG, IMG_0004.JPG, and so on. My advice is to occasionally root through the Photo Stream download folder on your PC and copy (not move) out the ones you want, organizing and naming them in a way that makes sense to you.

Rotation issues. One of the fun, Windows Phone-like features that Apple added to the iPhone 4S is that you can use its Volume Up button as if it were a dedicated shutter button while using the device's built-in camera. There's just one problem: All of the photos taken this way appear upside down when they're synced to your other devices. I'm assuming Apple will fix this obvious bug in a future iOS 5 update, but in the meantime you're going to need to do some batch rotating: Just CTRL-select the affected photos and then right-click and choose Rotate Right. Then do it again.

(Note: I've been told that this rotation problem is in fact Windows' fault. This could be the case. Regardless, it's something you'll need to deal with when using Photo Stream/iCloud and Windows together.)

Edits aren't saved back to the Photo Stream. Unlike on the iPhone 4S, you can of course edit photos in the Photo Stream as often and as much as you want. (It is your PC, after all.) However, edited photos are not saved back to the Photo Stream and are instead stranded on your PC. In fact, they're removed from the Photo Stream! So it's best to copy those edited photos to a different location or, if you want to share them on Photo Stream, to the Photo Stream Uploads folder.

View your Photo Stream on an Apple TV


Apple's excellent Apple TV is a long-time fixture in my own living room and with the release of iOS 5, this set-top box was separately updated to support some new features, including Photo Stream. To find it, navigate to Internet -> Photo Stream (it's curiously located near the bottom of the list) and then tap the Select button on the Apple TV remote to step through a few Setup sets. First, you must choose the Apple ID account you'll use with Photo Stream. This can be either the same Apple ID you've configured on the Apple TV for Home Sharing and store purchases or you can use another Apple ID.  Next, you determine whether you want to use Photo Stream as the box's Screen Saver. Unless every photo you take is a gem, I don't recommend this, but it's an option. And that's it.

From here (and from here on out), you'll be presented with a standard Applet TV photo gallery screen, but this time for your Photo Stream. You can view individual photos by selecting them and there are options to trigger a manual slideshow or view Settings so you can change the slideshow style. Just tap Slideshow and away you go.

By the way, the quality of iPhone 4S photos is surprisingly decent on the Apple TV, which outputs at 720p these days.

Final thoughts


Apple's new automatic photo upload and sync functionality in Photo Stream, a feature of the free iCloud service, is excellent, and places the iPhone 4S ahead of its Android and Windows Phone competition in this regard. It's not perfect, of course--what is?--but if you just want to ensure that your precious memories are backed up off-site, and to the cloud, this is the best solution I've seen. Did I mention you get this for free? Amazing, and something that Google and Microsoft would be wise to, um, emulate as quickly as possible.