I’m taking a step back from iCloud Photo Library. I had chosen to go all-in and place over 12,000 photos and 500+ videos (35 GB of data) into the service, but it hasn’t been working out. I’ve been taking a lot more pictures since I purchased my Sony A6000 earlier this year, and the resulting 24 MP shots are taking up a lot of room on my Mac and iOS devices — enough that I’m consistently getting storage warnings while I use them. So I’m opting for a hybrid system for photo and video storage that utilizes iCloud Photo Library for recent photos (the past 5 years) and Dropbox for everything else.
“Optimize iPad Storage” isn’t Optimal
In my Four Month Update post I discussed using iCloud Photo Library’s “Optimize iPad Storage” settings. This setting dynamically downloads full-res versions of your media, thereby saving space on devices where there isn’t enough space for your full photo library. The optimize settings were working well earlier this year, but the performance has since deteriorated. Pictures that aren’t stored at full resolution can take anywhere from 1–10 seconds to load on LTE, and loading times that last more than a few seconds just kill the buzz when you’re trying to show vacation shots to friends.
Videos stored in iCloud Photo Library were loading similarly well earlier this year, but that reliability is also gone, which is quite disappointing. Downloading a video for impromptu viewing is basically impossible, and it’s surprisingly just as bad across iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
One of the biggest weaknesses of relying on iOS to optimize your iPhone’s photo/video storage is that it doesn’t tell you how the system will behave to save your space. From my experience, it seems like the device tries to keep 10% of your total storage free at all times. It will also prioritize downloading full versions of your most recent photos over older ones.
Download button and status indicators
If Apple’s going to keep the “Optimize” setting around, I think it needs a little more love to make it usable. A download option within the Share menu would be a great start.
When I select photos or videos, I should be able to tap a “save to device” button within the Share menu. Currently, the only way to fully download media is to leave the iPad on that particular file until it downloads — if I swipe to another picture or area I’ll often have to restart the download process. Aaargh. Apple Music already has a “Make Available Offline” toggle for albums and songs, and I’d argue this control is exactly what is needed within the Photos app.
Of course, the download buttons wouldn’t be much use unless you could tell what was in the cloud, and what was stored locally. In this regard, a little cloud icon beside media that is not stored locally would be very helpful.
Hybrid storage on Dropbox and iCloud
In the meantime, I’ve set my iCloud Photo Library to download all photos and videos at full resolution. I’ve made this possible by reducing the library size to 25 GB (~6500 photos). All photos from 2010 onwards are in iCloud, and everything before then lives within Dropbox. I was hesitant to do this before because I wanted to be keep the instant syncing of edits across all my devices. But let’s be realistic: if I haven’t edited a picture from 2009 yet, I’m not going to. If I do decide to edit older photos, I can always download them again from Dropbox.
All of my videos now live in Dropbox as well. I’ve run a few tests, and files start to play within three seconds of tapping on them, regardless of size. I played a 40 MB video and a 122 MB video, and they resolved to full resolution within about five seconds (just a little after playback had started). What’s more, when I want to keep a video on my device, Dropbox has a dedicated “Save Video” function within the share menu of its app. This download can take place as a background event, so I can tap on the save button and go back to Safari while the video continues to download.
I plan to intermittently offload videos to Dropbox as I shoot more of them, but I’ll keep frequently watched ones right within iCloud Photo Library at full resolution.
This new hybrid setup has rid me of most of my media storage headaches. I have high quality versions of my most recent photos on all of my devices, and I can access media from as far back as 2003 as long as I’ve got a decent internet connection. The only caveat is that it costs more: $12 for 1 TB of Dropbox and $3 for my current $2.99 for 200 GB iCloud plan. That’s not breaking the bank, though, and I’m happy to pay $15/month for these plans for the incredible convenience they offer.