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iCloud Keychain is a secure password manager for both OS X Mavericks for Mac and iOS 7 for iPhone and iPad. Use it to quickly and easily log into websites, Wi-Fi networks, Internet accounts, and more. It’s particularly useful with Safari on an iPhone or iPad, where it gives you an integrated, syncing password filler.
Here’s how it works, why you want it and how to set it up.
How it Works
When you set up iCloud Keychain, you’ll have to enter your Apple ID and its associated password. You’ll also have to create an iCloud Security Code, which you’ll need to gain access to your iCloud Keychain. Your data is encrypted on your devices and when stored on Apple’s servers.
When you set up iCloud Keychain on a new device, you’ll have to agree to a notification that appears on your existing iCloud Keychain device. If you don’t have a device set up, you’ll need your iCloud Security Code and an SMS message sent to the phone number associated with your account.
iCloud Keychain syncs Safari website logins, credit card information, and Wi-Fi passphrases. It also keeps Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Messages, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts synchronized.
It’s not a fully-featured password manager and doesn’t have all the features you’ll find in third-party password managers. Instead, it’s a secure way to sync all the passwords and other sensitive data you enter to all your Apple devices so you’ll only have to enter them once.
iCloud Keychain on a Mac
To get started with iCloud Keychain on a Mac running OS X Mavericks, click the Apple menu at the top of your screen and select System Preferences. Click the iCloud icon and ensure the Keychain option is selected. If you don’t want to use iCloud Keychain, just uncheck it here.
You can then open the Keychain Access program to view your keychain. Press Command + Space to open Spotlight, type “Keychain”, and launch the Keychain Access application (the quickest way to launch any Mac application).
Select the iCloud sub-head in the left-hand panel to view data synced with your iCloud Keychain. Note that any existing website passwords, Internet accounts, and Wi-Fi passphrases on your Mac will be automatically synchronized with iCloud.
This keychain data will be used automatically in the appropriate application. For example, you can control Safari’s password autofill behavior from the Passwords pane in Safari’s Preferences window.
iCloud Keychain on iOS
iOS 7 will automatically prompt you to set up iCloud Keychain when you go through the setup process. You can confirm it’s enabled by opening the Settings app, selecting iCloud, and ensuring the Keychain option is set to On. If it isn’t, you can enable iCloud Keychain from here too.
When you use Safari to log into a website, you’ll be asked whether you want to save the password to your iCloud Keychain so you can use it on all your devices. Any saved passwords will be automatically used in Safari.
As on a Mac, you can control the saved Safari data via Safari’s settings (Settings > Safari > Passwords & AutoFill). iCloud Keychain is simple to use — after you set it up, it’s basically transparent, syncing saved passwords and other sensitive data in the background.
Why You Might Want to Use iCloud Keychain
iCloud Keychain is clearly useful, offering a way to synchronize passwords, credentials, and other private data between all your devices. It’s a time-saver, particularly when it comes to logging into websites on an iPhone or iPad. Apple has gone to the trouble of adding encryption, an entirely separate iCloud Security Code system, and an authentication procedure that involves either existing devices or an SMS message to your cell phone number. This gives iCloud Keychain a solid security base to build on. It’s also completely free.
Apple’s iCloud Keychain is also the only password manager that works inside Safari on iOS. Other password managers, like LastPass and 1Password, have to provide their own apps that function as browsers because they can’t integrate with Safari. Of course, these password managers can integrate with Safari on a Mac, and have their own dedicated iOS apps.
iCloud Keychain Downsides
There are some significant drawbacks to iCloud Keychain when it comes to more full-featured password management solutions like LastPass and 1Password, however. iCloud Keychain only works on Apple devices, so you’re out of luck if you ever use a Windows PC or Android device.
There’s also no easy way to use iCloud Keychain to log into apps. When you want to enter a saved password into an app, you’d have to drill down into the Settings app on iOS – not a good experience. This isn’t a problem if you’re just using iCloud keychain to save time as part of Safari, but it’s a concern if you’re using a password manager as your main place to save passwords.
iCloud Keychain also doesn’t generate passwords, so you have to choose your own password when creating accounts on websites. Third-party password managers can generate difficult-to-crack passwords and remember them for you.
So, Should You Use It?
iCloud Keychain is very useful, especially if you don’t already use a password manager. It’s a convenient way to save time when typing the same login information over and over again. However, if you already use LastPass, 1Password, or another dedicated password manager, you may want to slow down and take a serious look at what you’ll be missing if you switch to iCloud Keychain.
Of course, nothing stops you from using both – if nothing else, it will be easier to log into websites in Safari on your iPhone or iPad.
Image Credit: William Warby on Flickr