On the whole, macOS Sierra is a solid update. While new features like Siri are useful from time to time, one of Sierra’s spotlight features is storage management. macOS is making storage optimization easier, but in the process also playing a risky game with your data.
It’s the Desktop and Documents Sync and Optimized Storage features that put your important work documents at risk of being misplaced or deleted. And in true Apple fashion, it all happens in the background so you don’t know about it until it’s already too late.
Desktop and Documents Sync is supposed to keep all the Desktop folders on all your Macs in sync. Optimized Storage is supposed to intelligently free up space by deleting files you don’t need. The problem is they don’t work as advertised.
Did You Turn on Desktop and Documents Sync?
The saga starts as soon as you upgrade to macOS Sierra. Once the install completed and you whizzed through the welcome screens, entering your iCloud password again, turning on Siri, you may have also enabled Desktop and Documents Sync.
The feature automatically backs up and syncs the contents from your Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud Drive. It actually moves both of those folders inside the iCloud Drive directory, replacing the original folders with shortcuts. Once the files are backed up to iCloud, they’re now available in the iCloud Drive app on your iPhone, iPad, or on any other Mac that has the feature enabled. All of that sounds great in theory but there are some real world problems with this.
First, it syncs using iCloud, which is not the most reliable of the cloud backup services out there. Plus, you only get 5 GB space for free. If you hit that limit, the sync stops (the files will still be available locally).
Second, the feature is plagued with weird bugs. Because the real Desktop and Documents folders are now just shortcuts (or links) to the iCloud Drive folder, some apps don’t behave well when your files are stored in there.
Also, there’s a huge problem of maintaining the sync perfectly between two Macs. In some situations, it just fails. Or does weird things.
For example, if you turn on this feature on a second Mac, all the current contents in the Desktop folder will be copied to a new folder and the files and folders from the first Mac will now take over the second Mac’s desktop. For a feature that’s supposed to make your life easier, losing important files is a genuinely scary thing.
Then You’ve Also Turned on Optimized Storage
If you turned on Desktop and Documents Sync, you also turned on the Optimized Storage feature in iCloud. This itself is a confusing feature.
Although it sounds like it, this is not the new storage management tool added in Sierra (although it’s part of it). Optimized Storage stems from a new idea in Sierra: Purgeable Storage. Apple defines some part of the storage as “purgeable,” as in, if the need arises, these sets of files and folders can be deleted from the Mac (as long as they’re backed up to iCloud Drive) to make space for something else, such as a new app install.
When the Optimized Storage feature is turned on, you’ll find a new dashed section in the Storage tool in About This Mac. This tells you how much purgeable storage you have.
This, in theory, is a great feature. The problem is that Apple’s definition of purgeable space is broken and it’s sometimes deleting legitimately useful work files instead.
Jason Snell of Six Colors had his Logic Pro files deleted thanks to this feature. Later, Apple themselves clarified that if you use a professional app, you should not be using this feature. Thanks for the heads up, Apple!
So How Do You Get Out of This Mess?
Cloud still isn’t Apple’s thing. If you’ve decided to turn this feature off (probably the best idea), here’s how to do it.
If you’ve been using Sierra for a couple of weeks, it’s best that you first take a backup of your important files before disabling this feature, especially if you’ve been using this feature on multiple Macs (hey, it’s iCloud, you never know).
Then open System Preferences, select iCloud, and then click on Options next to iCloud Drive.
Now from the top, disable the Desktop and Documents Sync, and from the bottom of the popup, uncheck the Optimized Storage option. That’s it.
Once you click Turn off from the Desktops and Documents sync popup, you’ll immediately be taken to the iCloud Drive folder where you’ll see the Desktop and Documents folder. There’s a reason for that.
Ok, But Where’d My Desktop Go?
When you disable the Desktop and Documents sync feature, the files in the Desktop and Documents folder will vanish (because remember, they were just shortcuts to the real folders now living in iCloud Drive).
But don’t worry, your files and folders are safe. They’re in the Desktop and Documents folders in the iCloud Drive directory. To get them back, you’ll need to manually open those folders and drag the files back to their original place.
How Do You Cloud?
Apple, as I said above, is still not great at cloud computing and iCloud Drive is a proof of that. If you’re already paying for iCloud storage for photo backup, you might be thinking about using iCloud Drive to sync your work documents as well. I would suggest you stick with Dropbox or Google Drive.
Yes, iCloud Drive is getting better, but it still lacks fine control over the syncing process. Plus, there are reliability issues.
Which apps and services do you use to live your life in the cloud? Share with us in the comments below.
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