Apple iCloud is not an online drive, so what is it? iCloud explored

If you are confused by iCloud Drive on the Apple Mac, this explains everything you need to know

Apple says that iCloud is not an online drive, even though you can store files on it. There are significant differences between iCloud and Google Drive for example. Here’s what you need to know.

iCloud is not intended to be a place where you can store files online and it is more of a sync service. If you have two Apple Macs and you are signed into your iCloud account on both, the iCloud Drive files on both computers are syncronised.

Files are actually stored online as well as on any Mac you sign into, but one of the things you cannot do is store files only online. This differentiates it from other online storage services.

Where are iCloud files stored?

All of the files on iCloud drive are also stored on the Mac’s disk and they are in your Library folder.

Click Go, hold down the Option key and click Library to open a Finder window showing your personal Library folder. Open Mobile Documents and there are your iCloud files.

Apple iCloud files are stored in the Mobile Documents folder

It might occur to you to save some space on the disk by moving files to iCloud Drive using Finder. However, all you are doing is moving them from one folder on the disk to another. They still occupy the same amount of disk space and so nothing is saved.

You can try to be sneaky and open Safari, then go to the iCloud website. Open iCloud Drive and you can drag files to the Safari window and drop them to upload them. However, a minute or two later they appear on the Mac’s disk drive and so no disk space is saved.

Select folders to sync and save space

Some types of online storage let you choose whether to sync all folders or just some of them and Google Drive is one example. If you have the Google Backup and Sync app installed on your Mac, click the menu bar icon, click the three dots to open the menu and select Preferences.

Select Google Drive on the left and then select Sync these folders only. Checkboxes appear next to the folders on Google Drive and you can choose whether or not they appear on the Mac’s disk.

Google Drive sync preferences on the Apple Mac

Clear a checkbox and the files are stored online in Google Drive, but they are not on the Mac’s disk. This means that you can clear disk space by storing files online in Google Drive folders without them appearing on the Mac’s disk.

To transfer files from the Mac’s disk to a Google Drive folder that it not synced, open drive.google.com in a browser and drag the files to the window. They are uploaded.

Store Desktop and Documents in iCloud

I said earlier that you could not store files online that were not on the Mac. However, that is not quite true. There is a feature in macOS that enables files to be stored only online, but instead of you being able to choose which files and folders are online, it has to be left to macOS to decide.

Go to System Preferences and click iCloud. Click Options next to iCloud and in the next window, tick the checkboxes Desktop & Documents Folders, and Optimise Mac Storage.

Optimise storage on the Apple Mac using iCloud Drive

The first option moves all files in the Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud. You cannot choose one without the other or exclude subfolders and it is all or nothing.

The second option keeps iCloud Drive files on the Mac’s disk providing there is sufficient space. So if you use all the space on the disk, files will automatically be cleared and stored only online. macOS decides what is stored online and when, and you don’t have a say in it.

If you enable these features on two or more Macs, all the Desktop and Documents folders are merged into one. This could be useful on some occasions, such as when you want to work ont he same files across computers, but it is not so useful in other situations. For example, it makes it a bit awkward if you use Macs for different purposes and want different files on them.

Apple has attempted to simplify online storage, but is it really simpler? Without checking each file, and there could be a lot of them, you don’t know whether files are online or offline, or whether you can access them without an internet connection, or even whether they are backed up. In a way, it complicates the matter, whereas with Google Drive you know for sure where your files are.

Are iCoud files backed up?

It is always a good idea to have a backup of files and there should not be a single copy of them. If there is one copy and it is lost, it might be gone forever.

This raises the question of whether files on iCloud are backed up. If you have a lot of free disk space, all iCloud files are stored on the disk in the Mobile Documents folder, which means that backup software like Time Machine will back them up.

When disk space is low, some files will be stored only online if the Optimize Mac Storage setting is enabled. Backup software like Time Machine downloads each file so it can be backed up.

This means that files on iCloud Drive are backed up, but a backup job could take a very long time to complete if gigabytes of files have to be downloaded. Watch out if internet data is metered because it could use a lot of data.

Duplicate files

Suppose you enable Desktop & Documents Folders in iCloud. All your files are moved online. If you then disable this feature you must download all your files back to the original locations (just drag and drop them in Finder). However, you can end up with duplicates.

Everything on iCloud Drive is stored in your Library/Mobile Documents folder, so you will end up with two copies the files in the Desktop and Documents folders. If you stop using this feature, Delete the iCloud copy of your files to avoid wasting space with duplicates.

Personal preferences

My own personal preference is to ignore the option to store Desktop & Documents Folders in iCloud. Create a folder on iCloud drive that you want synced to other Macs and iOS devices, and put files and folders in there that you want to be available everywhere. Unlike Google Drive and other online drives, you cannot just have files online though.

 

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