How-To

Get more storage space: Move your files to the cloud


No matter how big your Mac’s memory, chances are you’ll manage to download enough apps and create enough files, to completely fill up that memory.

When your Mac inevitability starts complaining about the amount of memory available, you could splash out on an external hard drive – or you could move some of your files off your Mac and into the cloud, for free.


Optimize your storage with macOS Sierra

macOS Sierra introduced an Optimize Storage feature that lets you sync your Desktop and Documents folders with your iCloud account. If you’re ever running low on memory, then macOS will free up some space by deleting the local copies of your most rarely-accessed files, within the Desktop and Documents folders. Note that these files will still exist in your iCloud account, so you can re-download them at any point.

You get 5GB of iCloud storage for free, although if you exhaust this limit then you’ll need to purchase an iCloud storage plan.

To enable Optimize Storage:

  • Select ‘Apple > About This Mac’ from your Mac’s menu bar.
  • Select the ‘Storage’ tab, followed by the ‘Manage…’ button.
  • In the left-hand menu, select ‘Recommended.’
  • Give the ‘Store in iCloud’ button a click.
  • Read the information in the subsequent window, and if you’re happy to proceed then click ‘Store in iCloud.’
  • Once Store in iCloud is enabled, you can tweak your settings by navigating to ‘Apple > System Preferences… > iCloud.’
  • Find the ‘iCloud Drive’ option and click its accompanying ‘Options…’ button.
  • You can now choose whether you want to sync any other folders, in addition to Desktop and Documents; select or deselect as required.

  • Make sure the ‘Optimize Mac Storage’ checkbox is selected, and then click ‘Done.’

With this option enabled, every file and folder that’s synced with iCloud will be displayed with a little cloud icon next to it. If you ever run low on storage, then these items may be deleted, in order to free up some memory.

Dropbox and OneDrive: Getting started with third party storage

You can also free up memory, by moving large files and folders to a third party cloud storage service, and then deleting the local copies. There’s a wide range of cloud storage providers out there, but some of the most popular options include Dropbox and OneDrive for Mac.

Before moving any file to an external cloud storage provider, you should consider how often you require access to that file. A file that needs to be accessible at all times may not be the best candidate for relocating to online storage, as you’ll be unable to access that file without an Internet connection. In addition, if a file contains highly sensitive or private information, then you may want to avoid storing it anywhere apart from your own encrypted, password-protected hard drive.

Finally, although the largest third party services usually offer a secure, reliable service, it’s always best to play it safe and create a backup before deleting your local copy. For example, if you save a file to Dropbox, then you may also want to save a copy to a USB drive, before deleting the local copy from your Mac. With this fallback in place, you can be confident that you’ll always have access to that file, even if the external storage service goes down unexpectedly, or you forget your password.

If you do opt to use Dropbox or OneDrive, then it’s worth noting that these services sync their content to your Mac by default. While this ensures you always have local access, it also means these files will continue to take up space on your hard drive.

To disable this sync in the Dropbox for Mac app:

  • Select the Dropbox icon from your Mac’s menu bar.
  • Give the little cog icon a click, and then select ‘Preferences…’

  • In the subsequent window, select the ‘Sync’ tab.
  • Select ‘Choose folders to sync.’
  • Deselect any folders that you don’t want to sync with your Mac. Note that the contents of these folders will still be accessible from your online Dropbox account.

Alternatively, if you signed up for one of Dropbox’s paid plans, then you can take advantage of Smart Sync, which lets you store files and folders in the cloud, while continuing to access this content as if it was stored locally.

When you setup OneDrive, you were given the option to ‘Choose folders to sync.’ If you didn’t explore these settings at the time, you can edit them now:

  • Select the OneDrive item in your Mac’s menu bar.
  • Choose ‘Preferences.’
  • Select ‘Choose Folders > Choose Folders to sync.’
  • Deselect all the folders and/or files that you don’t want to sync with your Mac.

About the author

Jessica Thornsby

Jessica Thornsby is a technical writer based in Sheffield. She writes about Android, Java, Kotlin and all things Apple. She is the co-author of O'Reilly's "iWork: The Missing Manual," and the author of "Android UI Design," from Packt Publishing.

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