The trouble with Desktop and Documents enabled for iCloud Drive

If you use Desktop and Documents, there’s an issue about the files in those folders being properly backed up.

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MacOS 10.12 Sierra introduced a feature that lets you sync your Mac's Desktop and Documents folder to iCloud Drive. The upside of this is that if you’re not employing any other backup method, all of these files are synced to your iCloud account, and can be available on iOS devices and other Macs.

But the downside is that the feature also automatically deletes local copies of files in these locations if they’re in active use, showing an iCloud download icon on those items, and letting you download them on demand when you do need them. As Apple notes in a support document explaining how to free up storage space:

When storage space is needed, only the files you recently opened are kept on your Mac, so that you can easily work offline. Files that are stored only in the cloud show a download icon, which you can double-click to download the original file.

This feels like the worst of two worlds instead of the best, and Macworld reader Raja wrote in asking about the backup aspect of it.

  • You have a single copy of files if they’re removed from all your connected Macs and only stored in iCloud. That means you’re relying on Apple and its data centers and redundancy for every copy of the file, because…
  • You can’t back up the file in any other way if it’s not stored on your Mac, because it’s been removed and is stored only in iCloud, and available for download on demand.

Because the best practices for files you want to keep—which should be all your files, really—is to have at least three backups of them (two different kinds of media/location and one offsite), Desktop and Documents doesn’t really meet the bar.

If Apple integrated this with Time Machine or offered some kind of API for local or hosted backup services it would be great. For instance, the iCloud sync service wouldn’t delete a local copy of the file that was synced to iCloud unless there was a recent Time Machine backup of the file. That would at least mean there were two copies, one local and one offsite. It’s something. Or you could use a program like Carbonite or SpiderOak to back up offsite, and it could mark files as being archived, which the iCloud sync service could read.

Apple also requires that you pay monthly for storage above the included free 5GB with iCloud, and if you stop paying, you could wind up either having to download all those synced-and-removed files—and lack local storage to do so—or lose access without paying. I find that unclear in its documentation and practices.

Without any of that, I suggest using external drives or making multiple backups of files you archive from your active drives, rather than relying on an incomplete solution from Apple that puts too many eggs in one basket.

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