Understanding Desktop and Documents Folder Syncing through iCloud

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to edit the same files on your iMac and your MacBook without copying them back and forth manually or using a service like Dropbox or Google Drive? That has been possible in Apple’s iCloud Drive for some time, but it could be clumsy to store files in iCloud Drive instead of in your Documents folder or on your Desktop.

Starting in macOS 10.12 Sierra, Apple added optional Desktop and Documents folder syncing, which works with iCloud Drive to give you unified Desktop and Documents folders across all your Macs. Plus, you can access their contents on your iPhone or iPad using the iCloud Drive app, or, in iOS 11, the Files app. It’s easy to enable this feature, but it’s good to know what to expect before you turn it on.

How much space do I need to buy?

To find out how much space you’ll need on iCloud Drive—add up the size of those folders on each Mac you want to sync. (If you have any Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion virtual machines, or any other huge files in your Documents folder, move them to another location because they’ll consume a ton of space.) If the total size is larger than the 5 GB of free space Apple gives all iCloud users, you’ll need to pay for more space: 50 GB ($0.99 per month), 200 GB ($2.99), or 2 TB ($9.99). A Family Sharing iCloud Drive option for 200 GB and higher tiers is available with iOS 11 and High Sierra. If you need more space than you currently have, your computer will prompt you to upgrade when you turn the feature on.

Turning it on

Once you’re ready, navigate to System Preferences > iCloud > iCloud Drive > Options and select Desktop & Documents Folders. Make sure Optimize Mac Storage at the bottom of the dialog is not selected.

When you do this, Sierra moves your Desktop and Documents folders from your home folder to iCloud Drive, which could be disconcerting. They’re still on your computer and accessible from a Finder window’s sidebar, from the Finder’s Go menu, within iCloud Drive itself, and through Time Machine. It may take some time for iCloud to slurp up all your data, so be patient.

For your other Macs, make sure they’re signed in to the same iCloud account, and repeat these steps. You’ll find each Mac’s files in sub-folders named along the lines of Desktop – name-of-Mac, which keeps all of your files from merging into one single folder. You can manually move the contents of those sub-folders into the main Desktop and Documents folders if you wish, or keep them separate.

Using iCloud Drive

From then on, when you create, edit, or delete a file on the Desktop or in the Documents folder on any of your Macs, macOS syncs that change up to iCloud and then down to all your other Macs. It’s reasonably quick, depending on the speed of your Internet connection, but avoid working on the same file on different Macs simultaneously, or you could end up with conflicted copies. If you’re offline, you can work as normal, but your changes won’t sync until your Mac reconnects to the Internet.

If you see files with a little cloud icon next to their name that means that the file is not stored locally on your computer, just in the cloud. You won’t be able to access the file without an Internet connection. Just double-click it to open it normally. It may just take a bit longer to open. If you have trouble with it try clicking the cloud icon next to the name to force a download.

On older Macs or those that don’t have Desktop & Documents folder syncing enabled, you can work with the contents of your synced Desktop and Documents folders directly in iCloud Drive—choose Go > iCloud Drive in the Finder to access them, or depending on your computer’s configuration you may have an iCloud Drive icon on your Favorites sidebar. They will be in “Desktop” and “Documents” subfolders, which will be separate from your regular Desktop and Documents folders.

Should I “Optimize” storage?

Now, about that “Optimize Mac Storage” checkbox. When it’s selected, if your Mac’s drive runs low on space, macOS may delete old, large files from the local drive to free up more space. The files remain in iCloud Drive, and you can click a cloud button next to their names in the Finder to download them.

The main thing to keep in mind with files “Optimized” and stored only iCloud Drive is that backup apps other than Time Machine likely won’t be able to back them up to a local hard disk. Time Machine downloads such files before backing them up if there’s space, but if your drive is completely full, you could end up with the iCloud Drive version of a file being the only copy in existence. As a result, I don’t recommend selecting Optimize Mac Storage on your primary Mac, though it’s fine on a secondary MacBook with minimal storage.

Is this a backup?

So you don’t need a backup now, right? Wrong! While iCloud Drive could save you in case of a disaster where both your computer and Time Machine are destroyed, I still strongly recommend using Time Machine. iCloud is a syncing service, not a backup service. So when you make changes or remove files they usually changed or gone everywhere. Time Machine allows you to recover files that have been changed or deleted. Maintaining a Time Machine backup of at least one computer is still very important.

Deleting Files

When you delete a file from any device (Mac, iPhone, or iPad), that file gets deleted everywhere. So do NOT go around deleting files to free up space unless they are files you no longer want. Instead, turn on “Optimize” (mentioned above) on any Macs that are low on space. Again, I recommend having at least one Mac with Optimize turned off, also running a Time Machine backup. iOS devices are always set to “optimize” storage so deleting files from your iPhone or iPad will have no effect on your storage usage of these devices.

Turning it off

Finally, if you turn this feature off, macOS creates new local Desktop and Documents folders in your home folder, but it doesn’t populate them with content from the previously shared folders in iCloud Drive. You will probably want to move (hold down Command while dragging) the files from the iCloud Drive folders to the local Desktop and Documents folders to make your Mac work the way it did before you enabled this feature.

Desktop and Documents folder syncing is designed to simplify the experience of using multiple Macs (and iOS devices!), but if you’re accustomed to each of your Macs containing different files, give yourself some time to get comfortable with this new way of storing your documents.