Among the big enhancements to iOS 5 is Apple's new iCloud suite, which keeps your mail, contacts, calendars, documents and other data stored in the cloud and synced to all your Apple devices. Most people currently use Google services for these features, so we played with iCloud for a few days and looked at how they stacked up against one another. Here's what we found.
The Service-By-Service Breakdown
Both suites are actually pretty good. It's no secret we love Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and other Google service around here, but if you're an Apple user, iCloud is pretty tempting. Each individual service has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are the big services in each service and how they stack up against one another.
One of the biggest differences between both suites is the amount of storage you get. iCloud gives you 5GB for free, for all iCloud services — that means if you fill up that space with documents, you could stop receiving email, and if you get email with huge attachments, you might run out of space for documents or photos. Google, on the other hand, gives you lots more space for free, and splits it up by service: Gmail gets a little over 7GB for free, Google Docs gives you 1GB for uploaded files (but mostly unlimited space for web-created documents), and 1GB of space for high-res photos in Picasa.
You can grab extra storage for iCloud and Google, though Google's prices are significantly better. $US20 a year will get you 10GB extra space with iCloud, but it'll get you 80GB of extra space on Google. Check out Google's pricing page and Apple's pricing page for more info.
Mail vs Gmail
Mail's web interface is surprisingly iOS-like, even more so than Lion's version of Mail. You have three panes, like a traditional mail client, but it has large buttons and only a few options. In fact, it looks nearly identical to the screens you'd get on the iOS version of Mail. Luckily, the buttons along the top include both Archive and Delete, something you don't get with Gmail on iOS. Frustratingly, Gmail only allows you to archive or delete messages, but it doesn't give you the option to put both buttons in your toolbar. iCloud handles this like a champ, making productive email management a lot easier and faster.
Of course, it isn't without downsides. The web version of Mail is extremely basic, and even assuming you use Mail.app in OS X to manage your email, you'll miss out on a lot of the advanced features Gmail has to offer. Whether it's the increased organisational powers of labels over folers, super-powerful search operators, the ability to "send as" another email address, or even even the many Gmail labs like Send & Archive, Apple's iteration of email is a bit less feature rich. Gmail's spam filtering is also a big feature that you probably use, but don't even notice — and iCloud won't have that. If you were using Mail.app to manage your email anyway, you probably won't miss most of Gmail's advanced features. Just know they won't be available to you, even on the web, if you use iCloud.
iCal vs Google Calendar
The two calendar apps are much more similar. Both allow you to create multiple calendars, colour-code them and attach reminders. iCloud misses out on a few of the smaller features — like assigning an event as "busy" or "free" time, but overall all the basics are the same. The big difference is in shared calendars: In iCloud, you can only collaborate on a calendar with other iCloud users. Google Calendar users can only collaborate with Google users, too, but it's likely that you know more people using Google Calendar than iCloud, so this is a disadvantage for iCloud. You can still add shared Google calendars to iCal. Also note that you can still share iCloud calendars with Google users, but they'll be read-only, so you'll still be the only one able to edit them.
iCloud Address Book vs Google Contacts
There isn't a huge difference between the two contacts apps. iCloud's address book looks almost exactly like OS X Lion's version of Address Book, only in a larger window. If you really dig down into Address Book, you may notice that Google's contact system — since it runs on Exchange — can't sync certain fields. For example, it only supports "Manager", "Spouse" and "Supervisor" in the relationship field, which can make things like Siri a bit less useful. It's minor, but it is a downside.
The biggest problem between the two is that iCloud requires — for unknown reasons — that you only sync with iCloud. That means you can't sync your Google contacts and iCloud contacts with your Mac's address book simultaneously, which can be very annoying if you want to use both. However, few people really need this feature, and like I said, iCloud's address book is potentially more powerful anyway, so it shouldn't be a huge burden.
Documents in the Cloud vs Google Docs
iCloud's competitor to Google Docs is "Documents in the Cloud", a service that keeps your Pages, Keynote and Numbers documents in sync between all your iOS devices and the web. However, instead of being a web-based suite of apps, it's merely storage space from which you can download and upload documents. Anything you create in Pages, Numbers, or Keynote on iOS can automatically be saved in the cloud, and your other iOS devices will always have the most up-to-date version of that document. If you want to edit it on your computer, you can go to the iCloud web interface and download any of those documents for editing with your favourite desktop office program.
This may sound like a downside, but it makes the process easy enough that it really isn't a problem — and, in the end, your desktop office suite is probably much more full-featured than something like Google Docs would be. iCloud's interface for storing your documents is very nice, and you can download a document with the click of a button. When you're done editing it in Pages, Word, LibreOffice, or whatever else you choose, you can just drag it back into the web interface and it will replace the older file. It's incredibly simple, yet gives you the flexibility to easily use whatever office suite you want. It's only downside is that it requires you buy iWork for iOS, which is $US10 for each app — even if you only want to sync those documents between your computers. Though really, if you're just syncing between computers, we recommend you just use something like Dropbox anyways.
The big advantage of Google Docs is the ability to edit documents right in the web interface, and collaborate on them with other people. You don't get any of those great collaboration features in iCloud, and you can't upload files of any type to iCloud like you can with Google Docs. Like the other services, it all depends on what's important to you. If you need the collaborative features of Google Docs, iCloud won't be able to replace it, but as far as cloud document storage and syncing goes, iCloud does a fine job.
Photos and iTunes in the Cloud vs Picasa and Google Music
Photos and music work a bit differently in iCloud than other services, so it's hard to compare the two. Your photos and music aren't actually stored in the cloud, for you to view from anywhere — iCloud just makes them available to all your iOS devices. Any photos you take on your device will automatically show up in your computer's photo library and vice versa. But, you won't be able to view or share them on the web. Similarly, iTunes in the Cloud will automatically send new purchased music to all of your devices. If you rely on Picasa or Google Music to make that media available to you everywhere, you probably don't want to give it up for iCloud just yet. If you don't use them, though, iCloud can make syncing your devices a lot easier.
After using iCloud for awhile, our conclusion is pretty much what we expected: Google's services definitely win in terms of features, but when it comes to integration with your Mac and iOS devices, iCloud obviously has an edge. In the end, it's pretty easy to determine whether you should switch: If you use your Google services on the desktop, with programs like Mail, iCal and iWork, then you should definitely switch. Everything will work a bit better than you're used to (especially email), and you probably won't miss anything from Google's services, since you can't access those extra features in desktop programs anyway. If you use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and others on the web, than moving to iCloud could feel like a big downgrade. Sure, you have better integration, but the change in feature set is much greater, and if you use any of Google's more advanced features, you'll really miss them. Of course, it's all about what's most important to you — iCloud's one-click setup is really awesome — so you'll have to decide for yourself.
Have you given iCloud a shot? Let us know what you think — and whether it's convincing you to switch away from Google — in the comments. And, if you're ready to make the jump, be sure to check back tomorrow for our full how-to on migrating all your mail, contacts, calendars and other data from Google to iCloud.