Q: Now that iCloud Photo Library is out, I’m a bit confused about how this is all supposed to work. Apple says that iCloud Photo Library is used to store and sync all of your photos in the cloud, but I still see a setting for iCloud Photo Stream on all of my devices. I didn’t think I needed this setting any more to upload photos to iCloud. Isn’t iCloud Photo Library just supposed to do all that for me? If so, what’s the point of iCloud Photo Stream? It looks like I can still turn it on, even with iCloud Photo Library in use, but I can’t really tell what it’s supposed to do as I can’t see any difference at all. Should I just ignore it or do I still need it for something?
A: The short answer is that if you’re using iCloud Photo Library on all of your iOS devices and Macs (using the new Photos for Mac), you can pretty much leave iCloud Photo Stream off and just pretend it’s not there. The iCloud Photo Library feature will take care of uploading all of your photos and videos, making them available on all of your devices and syncing changes that you make, and even synchronizing your albums across all devices. Put simply, it’s basically like putting your entire photo library in the cloud.
For the most part, iCloud Photo Library is the advanced version of the original Photo Stream feature, however, it’s not without its limitations. Firstly, you need to have enough iCloud storage to support your entire photo library, in full resolution. In most cases, this will mean that you have to pay for extra storage, as very few people have a small enough photo library to fit into the 5GB that Apple gives away for free. Hence, iCloud Photo Library isn’t really a “free” solution. To make it work across all of your devices, you also need to be using the latest version of iOS on your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, and you have to be using OS X Yosemite 10.10.3 on your Mac, with the new Photos app.
Since not everybody necessarily meets these requirements, or wants to pay Apple for cloud-based storage for their photos, the original iCloud Photo Stream remains in place as a fallback, and works pretty much the same way as it did prior to iOS 8. You get up to 1,000 photos or 30 days worth synchronized to your other devices via iCloud, without any of it counting against your iCloud storage plan, and it works with older iOS and OS X device versions, apps like iPhoto and Aperture, and the photos are viewable on the Apple TV.
However, iCloud Photo Library and iCloud Photo Stream aren’t mutually exclusive to each other, as evidenced by the fact that you can turn them both on, and there are situations where it can be an advantage to still use iCloud Photo Stream even when your entire library is stored and synced via iCloud. Keep in mind that Photo Stream and Photo Library are different “places” in iCloud, so photos stored in one are not stored in the other, and vice versa.
Hence, devices that have iCloud Photo Library enabled will synchronize your entire photo library with each other via the online iCloud Photo Library, but if these devices also have iCloud Photo Streams enabled, they’ll upload any new photos, taken directly on that device, to the iCloud Photo Stream. If you have other devices that only have iCloud Photo Stream enabled -— such as those that don’t support iCloud Photo Library like Windows PCs or an Apple TV — they’ll still be able to get copies of your new photos provided to them. Note that this works the same way iCloud Photo Stream has in the past: you won’t get edits or albums, or anything else synced to non-library devices — just the original photos themselves, essentially as static copies.