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.