Our latest tool solves a very common problem, one which Apple can’t seem to solve. We love Apple, but when it comes to Apple Software on Windows, they have a unique strategy which is something like “Make it crap so that people will buy a Mac where the software is great” – and that makes sense, Apple are a hardware and services company, not a Windows software company.

The problem is the iCloud Downloader from Apple. It has had many incarnations, all of which failed to provide a great experience and is commonly reviewed as “it just doesn’t work”. In this blog I’m going to focus on the photos and video downloading, and specifically the 11.x version and above of their utility and how our app compliments and fixes the download issue.

Unlike previous versions of their downloader, the new version doesn’t actually download your photos and videos, which is a shock when it says “sync complete” and you go offline. You soon realise that what they actually do is use On-Demand files, these are basically thumbnails on your computer. So it looks great in Windows Explorer, right up until you try to open one.

The online experience is ‘okay’ for single files, you open a photo, there’s a dialog box that opens saying it’s downloading the photo/video whatever, which can take some time depending on your broadband, and then the file opens. The benefit of this, is of course, saving your download usage and disk space. But it also brings with it some problems…

  1. Backups / Folder Sync. When you backup a folder, like the iCloud Photos Download folder, you have to copy the files somewhere else, to a database, NAS storage, or disk. How can it copy a file that’s not actually there? well, Windows takes care of that by downloading each file on the fly, the backup software copies it, and then windows removes it. Cool, except that every night my computer now tries to download 140,000 files (about 250 GB). It never completes and is a total waste of time.
  2. Microsoft Photos App. To provide a great experience, this app examines your photos, identifies people, it can even identify objects in pictures; it also allows advanced searching, properties, and so on. All this completely fails with on-demand; the app either has to download the photos and videos to examine them, or fail/ignore them. Similar to backups, if the app downloads them, they are removed again by Windows after a time, which is not a great use of my bandwidth.
  3. Offline. Doesn’t work at all. If you’re offline, you have no access to the full pictures.

Workarounds to these include, excluding iCloud Photos Download folder from backups, after all it’s in the cloud, so all safe and secure. However, if I delete a photo in the cloud, it’s lost; if I edit it on my iPhone and save over the original, it’s lost; if I reduce my iCloud expenditure and go for a lower plan, photos will be lost; and if I get hacked, probably lost/encrypted etc. That’s the point of a backup, you have a backup, version controlled, safe, somewhere else.

Microsoft could also modify the Photos App to take into account the on-demand nature of photos, but then you lose the ability to search on images, so identify people, or use advanced features; because the files are only thumbnails. Of course there are many other apps that might want to have details of your photos such as organizers and deduplicators.

The recommended solution to all this, if you have the disk space, is to change the properties of the files to “stay local”. This will tell Windows to download the files and keep them on the computer permanently. Great in theory, but fails in practice. One reason it fails is simply peoples knowledge of the filesystem, they don’t know how to change the properties, or if they do, how to set parent properties that all new files inherit this action. It should have been a ‘checkbox’ in the Apple downloader, but it’s not. But let’s say you have changes the properties; Windows will start downloading them, well, actually, Windows is asking the Apple utility to download them, which as we’ve noted before, it’s not actually very good at, possibly for commercial reasons. In my experience, and reading others, reviews, etc. the downloading simply gives up, it might get halfway through, or less, and shows it’s syncing the rest of the files, but it never does, they sit, abandoned. If you open one of these files, they are downloaded on the fly and open, but I’m not going to do that to tens of thousands of files. Even worse, my new pictures won’t sync at all, or open, I get a ‘timeout’ error.

Our Solution is of course “iCloud Photos Downloader”. It has one job to do and that’s to make sure your photos and videos are downloaded, and stay local. It changes all the properties required, talks to the Apple iCloud Downloader to force the files to download, and controls the bandwidth used, from a trickle download, to ‘do it as fast as possible’. The interface is simple for those who have little care or understanding of how all this works, but powerful enough to get on with the job.

We hope you enjoy using the app, it’s making my photo life a lot better.

You can download the app, here