iPhone and iPad Mac

Move Backups, Apps & Photos Off Your MacBook to Create Free Space

Tim Brookes 16-03-2016

We’ve already showed you how to free up disk space on your Mac How to Free Up Space on Mac: 8 Tips and Tricks You Need to Know Running out of storage space on your Mac? Here are several ways to free up space on Mac and reclaim your drive space! Read More , but recently I found myself in a predicament where I’d done all of those things and still yearned for more room. After seeing the dreaded “your startup disk is nearly full” warning on my MacBook Pro, I decided to poke around and see what else I could do.


In that one afternoon I figured out how to free up over 100GB of space on my Mac, simply by shuffling files around and making the most of what iCloud is offering. So if you’re desperate, and you don’t fancy paying over the odds for a solid state drive upgrade, here are a few ideas.

Get Rid of iTunes Backups & Apps

Backing up your many mobile devices is important. Not only does it safeguard your precious media, documents and app data, but you can quickly restore your device should something happen to it (even if you have to replace it entirely). If you choose to manually back up your devices using iTunes (rather than iCloud), there’s no reason you should have to keep these giant backups on your startup disk at all times — particularly if you have an iPhone or iPad with a large capacity.

There are actually a few ways to free up space using this method, so let’s look at each individually.

Move Your iTunes Backups Manually

You’ll need an external hard drive for this, though a NAS drive or networked computer could also work (albeit with slower transfer speeds). All of your iOS device backups are stored in a folder in your OS X Library:

  1. Launch Finder and click Go > Go to Folder…
  2. In the box that shows up, enter /Users/USERNAME/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup

Note: You’ll need to replace USERNAME with the name of your user folder, which you’ll find in /Users.


Move Backups, Apps & Photos Off Your MacBook to Create Free Space mobile backups

In here you’ll find all current device backups on your hard drive. You can free up space quickly by copying them elsewhere, then deleting the contents of the Backup folder (but not the folder itself). I managed to free up 50GB, which is great until you back up your devices manually again. Fortunately, there is a better way.

Automatically Store iTunes Backups Elsewhere

If you’re not content with losing all of that space again the next time you back up your devices, you can opt instead to store your backups on another drive permanently. Assuming you’re using a laptop and an external hard drive for this, you’ll need to make sure the drive is plugged in whenever you perform a back up. For this reason, you’ll want to disable automatic device backups by launching iTunes then heading to Preferences > Devices and checking Prevent iPods, iPhones and iPads from syncing automatically.

In order to do this, we’ll need to use the Terminal to create a symbolic link, more commonly referred to as a symlink What Is a Symbolic Link (Symlink)? How to Create One in Linux File shortcuts are useful, but symbolic links (symlinks) can change how you use files and folders on Linux, macOS, and Windows. Read More . Essentially you’re tricking iTunes into thinking it’s backing up to the same place it always does, but OS X instead uses an external location of your choosing to store the data. The first thing you’ll need to do is decide where on your external hard drive or other volume you want to store your backups.


In this instance, we’ll use a directory called “iphone_ipad” on an external drive called “Backups” — so our path will be /Volumes/Backups/iphone_ipad. If your drive has spaces in the name — e.g. “Device Backups” then you’ll need to make sure you use a backslash before the spaces, e.g. /Volumes/Device\ Backups/phone_ipad.

  1. Open Terminal under Applications > Utilities or simply search for it using Spotlight 7 Good Habits Every Mac User Should Get Used To Today we're going to share our favourite good Mac habits, while desperately trying to forget the bad ones. Read More .
  2. Enter the following and hit enter, replacing USERNAME with your own, and your destination path with your own if it varies:ln -s /Volumes/VOLUME/Backup/iphone_ipad/Backup /Users/USERNAME/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup

You may need to create the “Backup” folder within your destination location. Once you’ve done this, quit Terminal. You can now move or delete your old Backup files to your external, and any future new backups you make will be stored on your volume (provided it is connected).

Store Your Apps Elsewhere Too

When backing up your iOS devices, iTunes will often ask if you want to take a copy of your apps too. These are stored within your user folder, and if you play a lot of games or use other space-intensive apps, they could take up a considerable amount of space on your hard drive. You can use either method above to manually move or permanently move (via symlink) these files too.

Your mobile applications can be found as .IPA files stored within: /Users/USERNAME/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/Mobile Applications. Just keep in mind that if you don’t choose to use a symlink, you’ll need to copy your applications back to here manually in order to copy them to an iOS device (as per the screenshot below).


Move Backups, Apps & Photos Off Your MacBook to Create Free Space missingapp

As an example, if you wanted to store your applications within a “Mobile Applications” subfolder in the “iphone_ipad” folder we created earlier, first create it on your drive and then open Terminal and type: ln -s /Users/USERNAME/Music/iTunes/iTunes\ Media/Mobile\ Applications /Volumes/Backup/iphone_ipad/Mobile\ Applications

Note: As previously noted you’ll need to replace “USERNAME” with your own, along with the destination drive name and path.

If you have an iPhone full of photos, and an iPad full of games, moving your backups and mobile applications elsewhere can easily create upwards of 50GB free space.


Store Your Photos & App Backups in the Cloud

Just like your backups and apps, you can also store your Photos library on external drives too — though our tutorial focuses on iPhoto, the steps are the same Save Space On Your Mac By Storing iPhoto & iTunes Libraries Remotely With my head held low with shame, I publicly admitted last week that I'm a digital hoarder. My once blazingly fast Mac is now left with just 100GB of a 1TB drive left. I've already... Read More . But maybe you can’t be bothered with external hard drives, and would rather shell out for some relatively inexpensive iCloud storage space instead. There’s actually never been a better time to switch to Apple’s cloud storage platform Is It Finally Time to Buy More iCloud Storage? Now that iCloud storage costs considerably less than it used to, it might be time to upgrade beyond 5GB. Read More  after prices took a tumble last year.

You can opt for 50GB, 200GB or a whole 1TB of space for $0.99, $2.99 and $9.99 per month respectively. If you want to store backups for multiple devices and you have a lot of photos and videos, you’ll probably need to go for the 200GB option. To find out how big your photo library is, open a Finder window and head to your Pictures folder (usually accessible via the sidebar menu on the left). Right-click your Photos Library and click Get Info (you can also highlight it then use command+i) — the size will be displayed in the window that appears.

Move Backups, Apps & Photos Off Your MacBook to Create Free Space photoslibrary

Note: Apple gives you 5GB iCloud storage for free, which you keep when you upgrade. So 50GB actually becomes 55GB, and so on.

iCloud Photo Library

Once you’ve purchased some iCloud storage space (which you can do under System Preferences > iCloud > Manage) launch your Photos app and then in the menu bar at the top of the screen click Photos > Preferences. Check the box next to iCloud Photo Library to enable it, and select the Optimize Mac Storage box below it.

Your full-sized photos will be transferred to the cloud, while lower-resolution previews will be left on your device. You can recall full-sized versions at any time, and you’ll also enjoy a few other benefits when storing media this way:

  • Automatic Syncing — all of your devices will enjoy access to all of your photos in the cloud.
  • Non-destructive Cloud Editing — any changes you make to your photos will be pushed to all devices, and these changes can be reverted at any time.
  • Better Organization — albums you create on one device are now available on all devices.
  • Better Apple TV integration — rather than just showing your Activity feed, your photos will now all be available via your Apple TV, making it easier than ever to bore your friends with holiday snapshots.

iOS Device iCloud Backups

When iCloud first launched alongside iOS 5, the ability to back up your device to the cloud was arguably the best feature. Most of us turned it on straight away, but expensive storage plans lead many of us to turn it off and return to the local way of backing up using iTunes instead.

With more iCloud storage, you can enable the feature again. This provides you with a set-and-forget backup solution that kicks in every time your device is plugged in, connected to Wi-Fi and asleep. Regardless of where you are in the world, you can back up or restore your iOS device with little more than an Internet connection — plus you can save yourself the hassle of creating symlinks and backing up to external drives too.

Move Backups, Apps & Photos Off Your MacBook to Create Free Space upgrade backup

To enable iCloud Backup, simply head to Settings > iCloud > Backup and turn it on. If you have enough storage space available, you can hit Backup Now to start backing up — otherwise your device will take care of it the next time you’re plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi.

While this is incredibly simple and convenient, iCloud backups can be slow to restore even on fast Internet connections. You’ll have to toss up whether the set-and-forget convenience outweighs the delay in waiting for your device to restore.

The Curse of the MacBook

If you’re always on the move and like to take your work with you, you can’t beat a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro or single-port MacBook Should the New MacBook's Single Port Scare You Away? Apple recently revealed the new MacBook, and it's a jaw-dropper — but it also has only a single port. Was this a blunder, or a sign of the future? Read More  for providing desktop-class power in a neat little package. But if you’re hoping to rely on your laptop as your only machine, Apple’s preference for speedy SSDs will catch up on you eventually. When this happens there are few things you can do to supplement your machine with additional storage, except for perhaps getting creative with SD cards How To Add Storage To Your MacBook With An SD Card With SSD memory costing several times as much per gigabyte as traditional storage, newer MacBooks often don't have as much storage as their older hard disk counterparts. Read More .

At this stage you’ll want to start using external volumes and iCloud to maximize your available storage, unless you can afford the eye-watering price of a high capacity SSD of course.

What have you done to save space on your MacBook?

Related topics: Cloud Storage, Data Backup, iCloud, Solid State Drive, Storage, USB Drive.

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  1. Azamat Bohed
    March 29, 2016 at 8:07 am

    Nice tips, especially the backup one! Another tip from me, if you're importing music files to iTunes, make sure it doesn't make their copies in /Users/USERNAME/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media
    It's can be turned off in iTunes preferences.

  2. Chris Cleeland
    March 18, 2016 at 2:53 am

    I have the same SSD so I know the premium on space! It did strike me as odd that the command lines were wrong despite the tip being so laden with examples such as screen grabs that can't easily be mocked.

    Good ideas.

    Another tip (I used to do something similar with a directory for videos): if the target of the symlink is on a volume that's mounted via AFP, traversing the symlink will actually [try to] mount the remote volume automagically.

  3. Chris Cleeland
    March 17, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Your ln(1) commands are wrong. ln(1) takes arguments in the same order as cp(1), in other words, it's

    ln -s /the/existing/path /the/new/path/which/is/a/symlink

    Did this stuff actually get tested?

    • Tim Brookes
      March 18, 2016 at 12:53 am

      I have no idea how these got reversed, but they are fixed now. You're absolutely right, and I'm not sure why that happened. I've got this running on my own machine as I'm limited to a 256GB SSD, so space is a real concern. Thanks for letting us know.