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10 Things to Know Before Enabling Apple's Family Sharing

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Sharing all of your music, movies, and more across the range of Apple devices owned by your family sounds like a no-brainer. Why wouldn't everyone want this option? Maybe because it's not quite as beautifully simple as it sounds. Jeff Carlson, co-author of The Connected Apple Home: Discover the Rich Apple Ecosystem of the Mac, iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV, explains 10 important points you need to consider before you decide to enroll your gang in Family Sharing.
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Is this a familiar situation? You and other members of your family each own libraries of music, videos, and apps purchased from the iTunes Store, but there’s no easy way to share that material among your collected iPhones, iPads, Macs, and other Apple devices. Or perhaps you’re ready to give a device to a child, but you’re wary of the potential for racking up out-of-control charges for media or in-app purchases.

Apple’s Family Sharing feature finally attempts to catch up to reality: Not all of our devices exist in their own little worlds. We want to be able to copy a favorite album to another family member’s iPhone without jumping through a lot of hoops. We want to maintain some control over a kid’s device, but also give her the freedom to explore. Family Sharing provides all that capability and more.

Alas, the service isn’t perfect. This article lists 10 facts you need to know to help you decide whether enabling the Family Sharing service is right for your situation.

1: You need iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite.

Family Sharing is a feature introduced with Apple’s latest operating systems. Although those operating systems cover a wide spectrum of hardware, you might have some old machines or devices handed down to kids or other family members—equipment that’s not capable of running a modern Apple OS.

iOS 8 runs on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, and OS X 10.10 Yosemite runs on Macs. That list includes plenty of devices: the iPhone 4S and later, iPad 2 and later (including the iPad mini), the fifth-generation iPod touch.

Yosemite can be installed on Macs that are up to eight years old:

  • iMac (mid 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook (late 2008 Aluminum, early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (mid/late 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (late 2008 or newer)
  • Mac mini (early 2009 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (early 2008 or newer)
  • Xserve (early 2009)

The more practical consideration is that everyone needs to be on iOS 8 or Yosemite to take advantage of Family Sharing; someone holding out with an earlier version can’t join the digital family.

2: All iTunes and App Store purchases are paid with one credit card shared by everyone.

For some people, this is a significant sticking point: The entire family’s purchases come from one account. The benefit to this approach is centralized control over purchases (as I’ll discuss shortly).

Switching to Family Sharing doesn’t wipe out all of the purchases that family members made previously. Purchases from iTunes actually become available to everyone in the family. However, content you’ve added to iTunes from other sources (ripping your own CDs, or buying DRM-free tracks from other sellers) aren’t included, even if you subscribe to Apple’s iTunes Match service.

3: One person is designated as the Family Organizer, who sets up everything.

Although it sounds like a throwback to a 1950s patriarchal attitude, Family Sharing requires one person to be the Family Organizer, providing a single point of contact associated with the credit card on file. That person also manages parental restrictions and sets everyone else up with the service.

4: You can create an Apple ID for a child.

Family Sharing requires each member to have an individual Apple ID, which in the past has been tricky when it came to children. Now, you can create a specific ID for a child under age 13. This option unlocks one of the best Family Sharing features: Ask to Buy. When a child wants to buy something from the iTunes Store or the App Store, the Family Organizer (or other members of the family that the Organizer allows) must approve the sale first. The confirmation arrives almost instantly to your Mac and iOS devices, letting you decide right away if the purchase should be processed (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 A child can request to buy an app (left), which must be approved by the Family Organizer (right, OS X notification shown).

It’s not obvious how to create an Apple ID for a child, however. For example, when you create a new family member in the iCloud settings on an iOS device, look for the small text at the bottom of the Family screen that reads, “Want to add a child who doesn’t have an account? Create an Apple ID for a child.”

5: With some trickery, you can change a regular Apple ID to a child ID.

What if you’ve previously created a regular Apple ID for a child? You would have had to alter the child’s birthdate to make the ID, and the account wouldn’t be eligible for the Ask to Buy feature because the account holder (the child) would be too old. Well, there’s a workaround.

In a web browser, go to appleid.apple.com and sign in using the child’s Apple ID. Click the Password and Security option and change the birthdate to January 1, 2001. Apple’s system now thinks you have a teenager! You can then view the account in your iCloud settings as the Family Organizer and turn on the Ask to Buy feature.

6: Media bought by another family member isn’t streamed.

I’ll admit this fact stumped me at first. I assumed that Family Sharing would work like iTunes Match, in that I could simply stream anything from a shared library whenever I wanted. Instead, the media sharing mechanism requires that you download tracks, videos, or apps that you want to use. In truth, this requirement is only slightly inconvenient, but the interface for getting other media isn’t obvious. I’ll demonstrate by sharing a song:

  1. On an iOS device, open the iTunes Store and navigate to the Purchased screen. It’s separated into My Purchases and Family Purchases.
  2. Tap the name of the person whose device has the music you want to download, and then tap Music to view that person’s library.
  3. Navigate to the song or album you want to download and tap the iCloud Download button to start transferring it (see Figure 2).

    Figure 2

    Figure 2 Downloading music purchased by another family member.

7. Media can be hidden from other family members.

Not everything needs to be shared. Perhaps you’ve bought music or eBooks you don’t want to share with other people. Follow these steps to hide something from Family Sharing:

  1. In iTunes on a Mac or PC, or iBooks on a Mac if you’re working with eBooks, view your purchased items.
  2. Position the mouse pointer over the item you want to hide, and click the X that appears in the upper-left corner.
  3. When asked to confirm that you want to hide the item, click OK (see Figure 3). The hidden item won’t appear in the lists of purchased items on other devices.

    Figure 3

    Figure 3 Hide an item that you don’t want others to download via Family Sharing.

You can unhide items by going to your account settings in iTunes or iBooks and clicking the Manage button that appears next to Hidden Purchases.

8. You can play media via Family Sharing on the Apple TV.

The Apple TV is still a satellite device amid the Apple galaxy, but it’s tied into Family Sharing. With the Apple TV signed into the Apple ID of one of the family members, you can watch or listen to anything purchased by that person.

Note: This arrangement doesn’t extend to rentals, which are restricted in many ways. For example, a rented movie on the Apple TV can be watched only on the Apple TV. Renting a movie through iTunes on a computer can be streamed to an Apple TV on the same network by using AirPlay. But if you want to watch that same rental on an iPad or iPhone, you must connect the device to iTunes and transfer the file, after which it exists only on the device (and you need an Internet connection so iTunes can verify the transfer with the Apple mothership). If you rent a movie on an iOS device, you can watch it on the Apple TV via AirPlay, or on the device itself.

9. You can share a group of photos among all family members.

One thing most people definitely want to share with family members is digital photos. Family Sharing lets the Family Organizer create a single shared photo album that’s accessible by every family member. It’s just a group pool, but easy to access (found in the Photos app under Shared). Tapping the plus (+) button lets any family member add images from their photo library (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4 The shared Family album includes photos from several family members.

10. You can keep track of group schedules and reminders.

I’ve mostly focused on sharing media, but another key aspect of Family Sharing is the ability to share important information with everyone. When you set up Family Sharing, a new Family calendar is created and added to everyone’s accounts. Any event you put into the Family calendar appears on everyone else’s devices (see Figure 5). The same is true for reminders you add to the Family category in the Reminders app. (Now you can’t claim ignorance about important appointments you miss.)

Figure 5

Figure 5 The yellow events are part of the shared Family calendar.

Family Circle

The Family Sharing feature requires you to commit to its infrastructure, with its single source of payment and limitations on what can be shared, but for many people this structure makes working with multiple devices easier in the long run.

In an upcoming article I’ll touch on other key features: locating family members, or finding family devices that are lost or possibly stolen.

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