Millions of us own iPods and iPhones. Until a few months ago, when Apple launched its iOS 5 mobile platform, we were dependent on iTunes to manage the content downloaded to our iDevices. iCloud, introduced with the OS, allows simple management of files, contacts, calendars, music and photos across multiple Macs and iDevices. But it’s no secret that iTunes and Windows have never been on particularly good terms, nor that Apple’s synchronising tool is a partial appeasement to those fed up with the tyranny of iTunes.

iCloud is an online file-synchronisation service. For people who aren’t keen on tying their music, photos and files to iTunes, it offers a useful alternative. You can use iCloud to back up your iPhone or iPad over Wi-Fi to Apple’s server, then download any files you wish to whichever PC you log in from.

Aside from having a compatible iDevice – an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad or a Mac – all you need to do by way of preparation is to update to iOS 5. This upgrade will be offered when you next plug in your device to a PC. Back up your content before you begin, both through iTunes itself and using Windows’ own tools for storing and saving photos. Depending on your Autoplay options, your iPod should pop up as an icon and you can simply confirm that you’d like to import your photos and video.

iCloud allows you to back up much more than this, though. You can back up your email messages and import contacts, notes and other items that – apps aside – could easily be lost in an upgrade to a new device. Apple makes it easy to re-download items you’ve bought through iTunes; less so for those you brought to the party yourself.

iTunes Match is a service available only in the US. It functions as one workaround: if you import music you bought from a non-Apple store such as AmazonMP3 or MSN Music, iTunes Match may recognise those items as having been legitimately purchased and allow them houseroom. If you sideloaded your albums by ripping them from CD to iTunes, you’ll be able to update them to Apple’s chosen format of AAC at 256kbps after you sign up to a $25 annual iTunes Match subscription. This matches your tracks to copies stored in Apple’s global iTunes library; if the song in question can’t be found on its servers, Apple will allow you to upload it.

If you’re making the switch from an older iPhone handset to the 4S, there’s no obvious mechanism for getting your contacts from one phone to the other. The need to change from a standard SIM to a micro SIM leaves the ball in your court as to how to manage the migration.

If you want to sync your contacts and email, go to the iCloud menu on your existing iDevice and move the slider to On. You’ll be prompted to create a email address. This account name can’t be changed later, so choose it carefully. If you were logged into the iCloud account on your PC, you’ll need to log in again using your account. Click the Contacts icon and a list of your friends and acquaintances will now appear.

Other items you may want iCloud to import include any Notes you’ve tapped into your iPhone or iPod touch, as well as any documents you may have created and stored on your iPad. Go to Settings, iCloud on the device and turn on that feature, taking note of the warnings regarding data transmission charges if you specify 3G as well as Wi-Fi as means of transferring content.