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Most people now realize the importance of password managers How Password Managers Keep Your Passwords Safe How Password Managers Keep Your Passwords Safe Passwords that are hard to crack are also hard to remember. Want to be safe? You need a password manager. Here's how they work and how they keep you safe. Read More  and two-factor authentication What Is Two-Factor Authentication, And Why You Should Use It What Is Two-Factor Authentication, And Why You Should Use It Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security method that requires two different ways of proving your identity. It is commonly used in everyday life. For example paying with a credit card not only requires the card,... Read More , and even those who don’t are easily won over once they grasp the idea. A password manager can help simplify and secure your digital life Password Management Guide Password Management Guide Don't feel overwhelmed by passwords, or simply use the same one on every site just so you'll remember them: design your own password management strategy. Read More by storing your login credentials, and generating secure unique passwords which don’t lead to a “house of cards” effect if one service gets compromised.

But many password managers are premium products, requiring an ongoing subscription to be genuinely useful. If you have both a Mac and iPhone, you could save yourself some money and simply use Apple’s own password manager completely free of charge.

So let’s take a look at how you can do that, and more importantly whether switching to iCloud Keychain is the right decision for you.

What is iCloud Keychain?

iCloud Keychain is a part of the Safari browser, and though you don’t technically need to just use Safari to make use of it, it’s a lot more convenient if you do. It allows you to store website login credentials (usernames and passwords) as well as payment methods (debit and credit cards), which sync between your devices using the company’s iCloud platform.

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While the idea of storing all your passwords online may ring a few alarm bells, in terms of security iCloud Keychain is just as secure as any other password management solution. Apple has stated that Keychain uses 256-bit AES encryption How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More which encrypts data while in transit and when stored on the server.

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Devices also need to be added to your iCloud Keychain manually using two-factor authentication methodology — and like many other password managers, physical access to your devices probably poses the biggest risk.

iCloud Keychain can be used to store login credentials (a web address, username, and password) and payment information (card number, expiry date, and cardholder’s name). You could also store other information as faux user logins, but that’s not really its intended purpose.

The feature is limited to Apple devices and is fully integrated with the Safari browser. There’s no way of accessing information stored via iCloud Keychain in Windows, Android, or through another web browser. It’s also completely free, while most competing products are not. Keychain is arguably a more restrictive option when compared to the rest of the field, both in terms of what you can store and how you can access it.

The Drawbacks

Before you go ahead and set up iCloud Keychain, it’s worth looking at a few main drawbacks in Apple’s implementation. The biggest (aside from being Apple-only) is probably the reliance on the Safari browser, which not only restricts the feature’s usefulness in other web browsers but other iOS and Mac apps too.

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There’s no iCloud Keychain dedicated app, and the feature only provides native integration with Safari. If you want to look up a password for use with another iOS app, or another browser on a Mac; you have to launch Safari’s settings on the respective platform to do so. This is restrictive and annoying, and there’s no way to save a new app login on iOS or another Mac browser without manually adding it via the Safari preferences.

As the feature is pretty barebones, there’s no way of categorizing your passwords to keep things tidy and easy to sort through. The feature is also limited to web logins, so if you have other credentials like FTP logins, router admin passwords, or you simply like to keep banking and financial stuff separated from social media and gaming, you can’t. There is a handy search field in both the Mac and iOS password list however.

Logging into apps, particularly on iOS, isn’t really any easier given that you have to access the password list via a settings panel. While many password managers make this as easy as possible by installing a third-party keyboard to access your credentials, Apple’s solution doesn’t offer this feature.

While you can generate passwords with iCloud Keychain, this is only possible via Safari’s “Suggest Password” option that appears when you sign up for a new account. You can’t generate passwords when manually adding login credentials to the password list.

The passwords — while secure — aren’t as complex or long as those that free solutions like KeePass X can come up with. There’s no way to tweak a password to include random symbols or be a minimum of 25 characters, so you might want to use a web-based password generator 5 Free Password Generators For Nearly Unhackable Passwords 5 Free Password Generators For Nearly Unhackable Passwords Read More to create your passwords manually.

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This also means that if you’re signing up for an account via an app, you can’t generate a password (or indeed save your new credentials) to iCloud Keychain without manually adding them.

Setting Up iCloud Keychain

Drawbacks aside, Keychain is a useful feature that Apple makes available free of charge. It might be worth enabling the feature and using it for a while before writing it off completely, and setup is relatively straight-forward.

When you first set up iCloud Keychain, you’ll need to create an iCloud Security Code (currently six digits) which provides one way of granting keychain access to new devices. There’s also a method of doing so using two-factor authentication, which uses either SMS or device authentication. This means that even if someone gets hold of your Apple ID password, they’ll need your security code or access to another device of yours to gain access to your passwords.

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Setup works best from an iPhone, as you can opt to use your phone’s passcode which makes it easy to remember:

  1. Launch Settings > iCloud > Keychain, toggle the feature On and enter your Apple ID password.
  2. Follow on-screen instructions to create a security code, or opt to use your phone’s existing passcode.
  3. Enter a phone number where you can receive SMS messages when prompted.

You can now add new devices using the security code or via manual authentication using an existing device (and as a backup, the SMS number you supplied):

To add a Mac, iPad or another device:

  1. Head to Settings > iCloud > Keychain (iOS) or System Preferences > iCloud > Keychain (Mac), toggle the feature On and enter your Apple ID password.
  2. Choose either Restore with Security Code and input the code you created earlier, or Request Approval to approve from another device (you’ll need to enter your Apple ID password).
  3. Once approved your new device will be added and you will be able to save to your iCloud Keychain.

I found Restore with Security Code to be the quicker of the two as every time I had approved my Mac using my iPhone, the approval was never instantaneous.

Accessing & Adding Passwords

Once the feature is enabled, all logins you’ve already saved locally to your Mac or iOS device will be transferred to your iCloud Keychain and shared between devices. In future when you’re browsing the web (in Safari) and a corresponding password is found, it will be automatically suggested.

  • On iOS,Passwords field will appear on the keyboard, tap it to auto-complete.
  • On a Mac, credentials will present themselves as a drop-down option you can click on.

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To view your stored credentials (for logging into apps), clean up your password list, and add existing passwords (especially if you’re switching from another password management solution):

On a Mac:

  • Launch Safari and head to Preferences (command+,).
  • On the Passwords tab you can use the Add and Remove buttons to create or delete entries, and right click and choose Copy Password (or double click the field) to access the password (requires admin password authentication).
  • You can also opt to always display passwords using the Show passwords for selected websites checkbox.
  • Saved payment information can be found on the AutoFill tab under Credit cards.

On iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch:

  • Launch Settings > Safari > Passwords.
  • You’ll need to verify using your device passcode or TouchID to view the list.
  • Tap an entry to view the stored password (tap and hold a password to copy it to clipboard), use the Add Password button at the bottom of the list to create a new entry, and swipe right on any existing entries to reveal the Delete button.
  • Saved payment information can be found under Settings > Safari > AutoFill > Saved Credit Cards.

iCloud Keychain Needs Improvement

Not so long ago Apple waved its wand and massively improved their default Notes app Should You Be Using Apple's Notes for iOS and OS X? Should You Be Using Apple's Notes for iOS and OS X? For the first time since its release, Apple Notes for both OS X and iOS may be worth considering. Read More . They now need to do the same for iCloud Keychain and make it a genuinely useful cross-platform feature. It’s pretty great if you’re a big fan of Safari, but limiting it to the browser and not making it easier to use saved credentials on an operating system level means it’s not enough to tempt you away from 1Password, LastPass, or even free options if you’re already using them.

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I am not tempted to use it full-time as many features are lacking. At the moment I use a combination of MiniKeePass and KeePass X, which costs me nothing. This solution syncs over cloud storage that’s protected via two-factor authentication, allows me to separate entries so I can easily find things. This also lets me store not just passwords but other handy information too. Accessing a password is done via an iPhone app that lives on my home screen, and doesn’t involve diving into the Settings menu.

It’s not a streamlined solution that’s without its drawbacks, but nor is iCloud Keychain in its current state. And Keychain can’t generate passwords that look like this, either: C>yM=dj)”kV%}k[^fD28{,u5W

Do you use iCloud Keychain? If not, what do you use to keep your login credentials safe?

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