Make Your Own Personal Dropbox With iCloud

iCloud has some interesting features, notably its ability to sync data and files across devices, be they Macs or iOS devices (iPhones, iPads and iPod touches). However, I find Dropbox to be very practical for syncing files that I want to access on multiple Macs. I store a number of files that I need to access in a Dropbox folder, so I can have them, when I need them, on both my desktop Mac and laptop.

I came across a tip on the Mac.AppStorm website today, which explains a very simple way to create a personal drop box using iCloud. While Dropbox is free for 2 GB of storage, you get 5 GB with iCloud. Dropbox has many advantages, notably its integration with many iOS programs – as well as other platforms – but if you need more than 2 GB of storage, you have to pay $10 a month or more.

The secret to leveraging iCloud for this purpose is a “hidden” folder that stores your iCloud data, and that can, in essence, be used as a receptacle for files you want to share. This folder is found at ~/Library/Mobile Documents; for those unfamiliar with that type of path, in the Finder, hold down the Option key, click on the Go menu, and choose Library. (You won’t see the Library folder listed there if you don’t hold down the Option key.) Then go to the Mobile Documents folder in the Library folder.

If you have two Macs, you can see how this works immediately. Create a new folder inside this Mobile Documents folder, or copy a file to it. Check the same location on your other Mac, and, as long as you have network access, and the file’s not too big, you should see it there in a few seconds. It also seems to sync more quickly than Dropbox; perhaps the iCloud process polls for new files more frequently. (In the screenshot below, I created a folder called “iCloud;” the other folders are used by different applications that store data on iCloud.)

Since this folder contains other folders for applications you use that sync data using iCloud, it can be a bit messy. So create a new folder, call it something like My Dropbox, or My Shared Folder, or even just iCloud, to remind you were files are. Then, make an alias of that folder; press Command-L, or hold down the Shift and Option keys and drag it to a new location. You might want to put it on your Desktop, or in your Documents folder. Put it somewhere easy to access. Instead of creating an alias, you might want to simply put it in your Finder sidebar; press Command-T to do this.

You can now use this folder to store and sync files from one Mac to another. Basic iCloud accounts come with 5 GB of free storage, so if you just need to sync a few files, you won’t hit the limit easily. (Though this may depend on what kinds of files other applications sync to iCloud; this 5 GB also includes space used by your iCloud e-mail account; and if you back up iOS devices to iCloud, these backups use space as well.) If you’re a MobileMe member, Apple has given you an extra 20 GB through June 30, 2012, so you currently have 25 GB. If you like this idea, and need more storage, you can buy an additional 20 GB for $40 a year.

It’s worth noting that one problem with Dropbox is that, if you have folders shared by others in your Dropbox folder, they count against your quota. (I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case a while ago, but I’m currently sharing a couple of large folders with clients, and these are using up most of my 2 GB.) So using this iCloud folder can give you more space, if your running out of room in your Dropbox folder, and don’t want to pay more.

This trick works well for files you only need to sync between your own Macs. Unlike Dropbox, there is no web access to files, no way to share subfolders with others, and no Public folder, where you can give a friend a link to download a file that you’ve stored in your Dropbox folder. But it’s a good way to keep some basic files up to date on multiple Macs. (If you don’t have a Dropbox account, you can get a free account with 2 GB of storage.)

Note: A Macworld colleague pointed out that Apple says that using this folder in the manner described above may lead to data loss. I’d be careful, then, in putting your only copies of files there, unless you have a backup. I haven’t seen any issues with it, but I’ll follow it over time and see if anything unexpected occurs.

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17 replies
  1. Les Kern says:

    Seriously… I cannot think of any reason using this method would result in data loss. Does it erase files already there if the GB limit is reached? But the article says “if you just need to sync a few files, you won’t hit the limit easily”. Is that it? Has to be I am thinking.

    • kirk says:

      I agree. But if Apple is making such a suggestion, maybe they don’t feel their servers are reliable enough.

  2. Drew says:

    It’s probably more to do with the fact that this folder isn’t designed to be used like this & Apple won’t guarantee that a reinstall, for example, won’t overwrite your folder. Of course Apple will issue a caveat about this method. If Apple weren’t sure of the reliability of their server then they wouldn’t use them at all, clearly…

  3. Ken says:

    Apparently no one has heard of SugarSync. It’s a much better solution than this iCloud hack and easier to use than DropBox.

    SugarSync gives you 5GB for free. You can earn more free storage by referring people or just by taking their tutorial. You can sync as many folders as you like between machines, and you get to choose the sync folders. There is no special sync folder as with DropBox.

    SugarSync automatically syncs the folders and stores the files in the cloud.

    I can edit a file on my MacBook Pro, then go to my iMac and continue editing it there. You can access the files on the web, or on your iPad or iPhone.

    • Bryan says:

      Apparently you don’t know Dropbox at all.

      EVERY folder/file in Dropbox is synced. There is “Sync” Folder that you speak of.

      I tried SugarSync, but went back to Dropbox in spite of the initial larger storage space. I have over 5GB in Dropbox now from referrals, etc.

      Dropbox just works. SugarSync seemed cumbersome after a few weeks of use, in comparison.

      • kirk says:

        I think what the poster meant is that it syncs the Dropbox folder, but that you can’t select other folders to sync, if they’re not in that folder.

  4. cashxx says:

    It hasn’t been reliable for me. I did this months ago on my work computer and home computer. Bookmark sync works good. But keeping the Mobile Documents folder working is a pain. It worked great for a month or two and then I was forced to change my AppleID password and when I logged into my Macs iCloud came up and said it couldn’t connect, I put in my new password and ever since then it hasn’t worked.

    What happens? OS X keeps creating a new folder and takes the old folder and time and date stamps it and the contents that I want synced gets left in that folder and the new Mobile Documents folder is empty. I have cleared everything on all clients and iCloud and set it up again and still the same thing or it just doesn’t sync anything. The new folder gets created on every login. This sucks because I think this should have been an option built in to sync files manually.

    I turned it off now, I’m tired of messing with it. I hope Apple will fix it, but its not supposed to be used this way so I doubt it for now unless enough people pest Apple to make it an available feature.

    Wish I could get it working again!

  5. Rosswell says:

    What’s the effective difference between this and just using iCloud’s ‘documents synch’ options? I haven’t tried the documents sync option, but I suppose it wants to sync the Documents folder. But aside from that it sounds like it already gives partial support for a dropbox like environment.

    • kirk says:

      iCloud’s document syncing is managed by individual applications. You can just put files in a folder; they have to be files that you create or modify with specific programs that support syncing with iCloud.

  6. JOhn says:

    What I really want is everything that iCloud offers… only without the “cloud”. It really should be an option.

    I don’t want my data/files anywhere else except on my devices and, for all intents and purposes, the “cloud” is simply another device… that belongs to someone else.

    All I want is for my devices to sync when they are together within my wireless home/office network. The don’t need to sync when I’m away.

    I don’t need or want Apple’s “storage”… I have plenty of my own… and backups as well.

  7. Aaron says:

    With dropbox, you can add a symbolic link to folders in the dropbox, and it will sync the entire folder. Has anyone tried it to see if it works with this too?

    Dropbox is still more useful by the way because of the native iOS app. Does someone know of a way to get a similar feature with this?

  8. Thomas903 says:

    This article is useful, but WHY should it be necessary?

    Apple should provide a personal dropbox as a standard feature of iCloud. Not only is the service convenient for users, but it means a greater demand for Apple’s iCloud services.

    Surely this will be a feature offered in new iCloud updates …

  9. Soila Leuenberger says:

    Currently the only reason I have a cloud storage account is due to the unlimited music storage. Otherwise I really do not use it, as I am not going to waste all week recreating folders for my files. Also I am unhappy that the Kindle Fire really does not interact with the cloud store items as I have a few photos on there that it does not see.


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