Why use both Text Message Forwarding and Messages in iCloud?

The two separate features fulfill slightly different functions.

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It can sometimes be tricky to tease out the difference between two similar iOS or macOS features that aren’t quite identical. The option on an iPhone to enable Text Message Forwarding to other devices and the Messages in iCloud feature are a case in point. If you’re forwarding text messages, then why do you need to use iCloud at all? It has to do with notifications and availability.

The Messages app in iOS and macOS keeps some sense of “presence,” or which device you’ve interacting with. When a message arrives, the Apple ecosystem tries to prompt you first at the device you’re actively using or most recently used.

Without Text Message Forwarding enabled in Settings > Messages, only Apple’s iMessages (messages in blue bubbles) appear on all your devices and use presence to figure out which one to prioritize. Otherwise, text messages (in green bubbles)—whether plain text SMS or rich-media MMS—show up only on your iPhone. Text Message Forwarding honors presence awareness and happens in real time.

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Apple offers text message forwarding and Messages in iCloud, but they aren’t the same and have a complicated interaction.

Messages in iCloud attempts to keep received and sent messages synced across all devices that are logged into the same iCloud account and have the feature enabled. This should both let you review message history everywhere, and also reduce the amount of storage consumed on iOS devices.

However, it doesn’t include notifications, and the iCloud sync will catch up later if any of your devices is not available at the time a given conversation takes place.

The interaction of these two features can seem a little complicated, too, depending on how they’re enabled:

  • Forwarding off, Messages in iCloud off: SMS/MMS messages appear only on your iPhone. iMessages appear on any device logged into the same iCloud account, as long as they are available on a network. Some devices may miss some messages.
  • Forwarding on, Messages in iCloud off: SMS/MMS messages and iMessages are delivered to your iPhone and any other devices logged into the same iCloud account and currently online. Some devices may miss some messages.
  • Forwarding off, Messages in iCloud on: SMS/MMS message notifications appear only on your iPhone, but are synced to other devices via iCloud. iMessage notifications appear on all connected devices and are synced among those that are offline when a message comes in.
  • Forwarding on, Messages in iCloud on: Notifications for SMS/MMS messages and iMessages appear on all connected devices that are available on a network. All text and iMessages are synced to all connected devices.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Thomas.

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