Cloud storage plans you can use to replace your Mac’s external storage

If you migrate to a small drive, you may need to combine cloud methods to make it all work.

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Fast storage remains expensive; slower storage not so much. That can lead you to opt for relatively little SSD storage when upgrading to a new Mac, especially compared to hard disk drives you might have installed or accessible with your previous Mac.

An external hard drive is the best and easiest strategy. I have a 1TB Fusion Drive on my iMac and both 4TB and 8TB external drives for cloning the startup volume and for holding media and archives.

However, you might prefer to not have to maintain external storage and deal with maintaining local or internet-hosted backups. If you’re a laptop user, external storage is often a hassle. Instead, you might want to lean on the cloud. The easiest and most affordable cloud storage methods follow.

Sync and store offline

Virtualize your storage by seeing all your files and folder in the Finder, but letting them stay entirely offline and in the cloud except as you need them. Both iCloud Drive and Dropbox are the most notable and affordable in this category, and both offer great integration into macOS. If a file isn’t stored on your Mac, you can simply double-click or otherwise try to access its representation in your filesystem, and it’s downloaded from the cloud. This approach does require a healthy broadband connection.

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Optimizing storage in iCloud Drive lets macOS put in placeholders for items when storage grows tight.

For iCloud, in the iCloud preference pane (Mojave and earlier) or the Apple ID preference pane’s iCloud section (Catalina or later), enable iCloud Drive if it isn’t already and click Options. Check the Optimize Mac Storage box, and macOS automatically manages when files are offloaded. You can load material into iCloud Drive from other Macs, from iOS and iPadOS, and

iCloud storage in the U.S. costs $2.99 a month for 200GB of storage and $9.99 a month for 2TB of storage. (With a Family Plan, you can choose to share 200GB and 2TB storage plans among all family members.)

Dropbox offers two distinct options for managing local file storage. Smart Sync lets you select manually whether files and enclosing folders are stored locally or just in the cloud. Smart Sync Auto-Evict, when enabled, deletes files from your Mac as necessary to preserve free storage space, while keeping the representation of the file in the Finder and storing the data at Dropbox’s servers. Dropbox charges $11.99 a month or $119.88 a year for 2TB of storage and $19.99 a month or $198.96 a year for 3TB.

If iCloud and Dropbox combined aren’t enough (say, you need 4TB), you could use both together. Neither iCloud nor Dropbox lets you add storage above their maximums for individual plans, and you can’t install two separate user accounts on a single macOS account.

Push into cloud archives

A number of pure cloud storage systems let you upload megabytes to terabytes and retain them there for less-interactive access at relatively low cost. These options lack Finder integration: you have to use third-party software to upload and download files as you need them. But for large-scale storage of not-very-frequently accessed data you want to have online and backed up automatically by the storage hosts, it’s a great option.

The best combination for this is Panic Transmit ($45) and Backblaze B2. Backblaze is known as a secure internet-hosted backup service, but it also offers the easiest-to-configure on-demand cloud storage, too. B2 charges are based on the size of your stored data and downloads: $0.005 (half a cent) per GB per month for storage and $.01 (one cent) per GB downloaded. Storing 2TB costs $10 a month, for instance. Retrieving 1TB of that costs $10.

There are other storage options supported by Transmit and other file-transfer software like Cyberduck, including Amazon S3 and Google Cloud, which have “deep storage” options that are much cheaper for long-term storage but charge higher prices for retrieval and may have a delay between requesting a retrieval and files downloading. However, non-B2 options require more study and management to pick a storage flavor and manage costs.

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

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