Understanding Desktop and Documents Folder Syncing

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to edit the same files on your iMac and your MacBook without having to copy things back and forth manually? Apple’s iCloud Drive has made that possible for some time, but it was clumsy to store files in iCloud Drive instead of in your Documents folder or on your Desktop. No longer!

New in macOS 10.12 Sierra is Desktop and Documents folder syncing, which works with iCloud Drive to give you unified Desktop and Documents folders across all your Macs. Plus, you can access their contents on your iPhone or iPad using the iCloud Drive app! It’s easy to enable this feature, but be aware of the ramifications.

Before you begin, think about how much space you’ll need on iCloud Drive—add up the size of those folders on each Mac you want to sync. (If you have any Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion virtual machines in your Documents folder, move them to another location because they’ll consume a ton of space.) If the total size is larger than the 5 GB of free space Apple gives all iCloud users, you’ll need to pay for more space: 50 GB ($0.99 per month), 200 GB ($2.99), 1 TB ($9.99), or 2 TB ($19.99).

Once you’re ready, navigate to System Preferences > iCloud > iCloud Drive > Options and select Desktop and Documents Folders. Make sure Optimize Mac Storage at the bottom of the dialog is not selected.

When you do this, Sierra moves your Desktop and Documents folders from your home folder to iCloud Drive, which could be disconcerting. They’re still accessible from a Finder window’s sidebar, from the Finder’s Go menu, and within iCloud Drive itself. It may take some time for iCloud to slurp up all your data, so be patient. For your other Macs, make sure they’re signed in to the same iCloud account, and repeat these steps.

From then on, when you create, edit, or delete a file on the Desktop or in the Documents folder on any of your Macs, Sierra syncs that change up to iCloud and then down to all your other Macs. It’s reasonably quick, depending on the speed of your Internet connection, but avoid working on the same file on different Macs without letting syncing complete first or you could end up with conflicted copies. If you’re offline, you can work as normal, but your changes won’t sync up until your Mac reconnects to the Internet.

If necessary, you can work with the contents of these folders on non-Sierra Macs directly in iCloud Drive—choose Go > iCloud Drive in the Finder to access them.

Some Sierra users have found that the contents of subsequent Macs’ Desktop and Documents folders end up in sub-folders named along the lines of “Desktop – name-of-Mac.” If you see this, make sure iCloud Drive has had time to upload and sync everything. If so, you can move the sub-folders’ files into the main Desktop and Documents folders manually.

Now, about that Optimize Mac Storage checkbox. When it’s selected, if your Mac runs low on drive space, Sierra may delete old, large files from the local drive to free up more space. The files remain in iCloud Drive, and you can click a cloud button next to their names in the Finder to download them. What’s unknown as yet is whether iCloud-only files will be backed up by Time Machine and other backup apps; you could end up with the iCloud Drive version of a file being the only extant copy. As a result, we don’t recommend selecting Optimize Mac Storage on your primary Mac, though it should be fine on a secondary MacBook with minimal storage.

Finally, if you decide to turn off this feature, Sierra creates new local Desktop and Documents folders in your home folder, but it doesn’t populate them with content from the previously shared folders in iCloud Drive. You may need to copy files from the iCloud Drive folders to the local Desktop and Documents folders to get everything back the way you want it.

Desktop and Documents folder syncing is designed to simplify the experience of using multiple Macs (and iOS devices!), but if you’re accustomed to each of your Macs containing different files, it may be more confusing than it’s worth.

 

What’s Hot in macOS 10.12 Sierra

This fall, Apple will release the next version of the Mac’s operating system, now called “macOS” to match with iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. As with the last few versions—Mavericks, Yosemite, and El Capitan—the new macOS 10.12 Sierra won’t force you to change how you use your Mac, but it does bring a bunch of features that you might enjoy.

Sierra-Siri-questionsMost exciting among Sierra’s new capabilities is the addition of Siri—you can finally talk to your Mac just like your iPhone. You can ask Siri to open apps, display certain files in a folder, check how much drive space you have free, and adjust settings, plus carry out tasks with Siri that you already do on the iPhone, such as searching Google, checking the weather, making reminders, and looking up sports scores. Invoke Siri by clicking its Dock icon and wait a moment, and you’ll get a list of fun and serious suggestions for things you can ask. For an organized directory of questions Siri understands, click its Dock icon, and say “What can I ask you?”.

iCloud Drive becomes significantly more interesting in Sierra, thanks to an option to sync your Mac’s Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud. Once they’ve uploaded, you can access their contents not just on any other Macs you may have, but also on your iOS devices and the iCloud.com Web site. Note that the actual Desktop and Documents folders then move from your home folder to the iCloud Drive volume (choose Go > iCloud Drive to open it). Beware that enabling this option may require paying for more space on iCloud Drive.

People who work back and forth across a Mac and iPhone or iPad may also appreciate Universal Clipboard, which synchronizes clipboard contents to all your devices in the background. Copy a phone number from an email message on your Mac and a few seconds later you can paste it into your iPhone’s Phone app (press for a second or two in the white space above the numbers, and then tap the Paste button that appears—useful, eh?).

Being able to open multiple pages in separate tabs is standard fare in every Web browser, and Apple added tab functionality to the Finder several years ago. If you like tabs in Safari and the Finder, you’ll be pleased to hear that Sierra makes it so almost every app that can open multiple document windows can do so in tabs as well. Apps won’t have to change; just look in the File, View, and Window menus for tab-related commands.

Sierra-TextEdit-tabs

Those who have become accustomed to the security of using Apple Pay from an iPhone or Apple Watch to pay for a burger at McDonald’s or groceries at Whole Foods will be able to bring the same level of security to many Web transactions. With Safari in Sierra, on Web sites that accept Apple Pay (which will be a lot), you’ll be able to enter your payment info with Touch ID on your iPhone or with a paired Apple Watch. Much as it may seem odd to complete a transaction on your Mac using an iPhone or an Apple Watch, the Touch ID fingerprint sensor is a key aspect of how Apple Pay remains secure.

The final big-deal feature in Sierra, called Optimized Storage, has a number of options that you can enable in the redesigned System Information app—look in Window > Storage Management. Designed to free up space on Macs with relatively small drives, Optimized Storage can remove the local versions of files stored in iCloud (including older files of your Desktop and Documents folders; make sure you have a good backup to be safe!). You can download one if needed by double-clicking its icon. It removes already watched movies and TV shows from iTunes along with email attachments from Mail, all of which you can download again if necessary. It can delete files from your Trash after they’ve composted for 30 days, and it helps you reduce clutter on your Mac by identifying large files so you can consider deleting them manually.

Sierra-System-Information-Storage

Sierra boasts plenty of other features too, such as Auto Unlock, which eliminates the need to enter a login password if you’re wearing an associated Apple Watch. Then there’s Picture in Picture, which floats a resizable video window from Safari or iTunes in any corner of your screen while you pretend to get work done. Finally, of Sierra’s bundled apps, Photos sees the most changes, with improved automatic recognition of faces, plus object and scenery recognition.

Although Sierra won’t run on every Mac that’s compatible with El Capitan, it will run on MacBook and iMac models released in late 2009 and later, and on MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and Mac Pro models released in 2010 and later. It will be a free upgrade and will be the default on every new Mac sold after its release. We’re looking forward to playing with all the new features and with Siri in particular—tune in for more details in the coming months!