Using iCloud for Data Storage

Save any file to iCloud from the Finder

iCloud signs at WWDC 2011

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 

Apple's iCloud service links Macs and iOS devices for sharing, storing, and syncing the data created by some of Apple's apps, such as Mail, Calendar, and Contacts. You can even use iCloud with Windows, although with a much more limited set of data. One thing that's missing from iCloud is raw data storage; that is, the ability to save any file to iCloud, regardless of the app that was used to create it.

Update: With the advent of OS X Yosemite, Apple updated the iCloud service with a vastly improved iCloud drive. that now performs pretty much how you would expect from a cloud-based storage service. If you're using OS X Yosemite or later, you can jump to the end of this article to read about iCloud drive features specific to later versions of the Mac OS.

If on the other hand your using a pre-OS X Yosemite version of the OS, then read on to discover some pretty nifty tricks that will make iCloud Drive more useful.​

iCloud is designed to be an application-centric service; it's accessible through an application's Save or Open dialog boxes. Each iCloud-enabled app can see the data files that it has created and that are stored in the cloud, but it can't access data files created by other apps. This very limiting behavior may be a result of Apple's desire to simplify the process of working with cloud-based documents. Or perhaps Apple wanted iCloud to be iOS-centric in design, and prevent access to the underlying file system.

But the Mac isn't an iOS device. Unlike iOS devices, which prevent users from accessing the underlying file system, OS X lets us access all of the files on our system, using the Finder or Terminal. So, why should we be limited to an app-centric iCloud service?

The answer, at least with OS X Mountain Lion through OS X Mavericks, is that we aren't. Since the introduction of Mountain Lion, iCloud has stored all of the previously hidden data in a user's Library folder. Once you navigate to this folder in the Finder, you can use any stored iCloud data with any app that supports the file type of the selected data, not just the app that created the data. For example, you can use Word, which currently isn't iCloud-savvy, to read a TextEdit document that you have stored in iCloud. You can even move and organize documents, something you have no control over from the standard iCloud system.

The Return of iDisk

You also have the ability to recreate iDisk, which was part of the older MobileMe cloud service. iDisk was a simple cloud-based storage system; anything you placed in the iDisk was synced to the cloud and made available to any Mac to which you had access. Many Mac users stored photos, music, and other files in iDisk, since the Finder viewed iDisk as just another mounted drive.

When Apple replaced MobileMe with iCloud, it discontinued the iDisk service. But with a little bit of tweaking, you can recreate iDisk and gain access to your iCloud storage directly from the Finder.

Accessing iCloud From the Finder OS X Mavericks and Earlier

Your Mac stores all of your iCloud data in a folder named Mobile Documents, which is located within your user Library folder. (The Library folder is normally hidden; we explain how to make it visible, below.)

The Mobile Documents folder is created automatically the first time you make use of the iCloud service. Simply setting up iCloud services isn't enough to create the Mobile Documents folder; you must save a document to iCloud using an iCloud-enabled app, such as TextEdit.

If you haven't saved a document to iCloud before, here's how to create the Mobile Documents folder:

  1. Launch TextEdit, located at /Applications.

  2. In the lower left corner of the dialog box that opens, click the New Document button.

  3. In the new TextEdit document that opens, enter some text; any text will do.

  4. From the TextEdit File menu, select Save.

  5. In the Save dialog box that opens, give the file a name.

  6. Make sure the "Where" drop-down menu is set to iCloud.

  7. Click the Save button.

  8. Quit TextEdit.

  9. The Mobile Documents folder has been created, along with the file you saved.

Accessing the Mobile Documents Folder

The Mobile Documents folder is located in your user Library folder. The Library folder is hidden but you can easily access it using this simple trick:

  1. Click on an open area of the Desktop.

  2. Hold down the Option key, click the Finder's Go menu, and select Library.

  3. A new Finder window will open, displaying the contents of the hidden Library folder.

  4. Scroll down and open the Mobile Documents folder.

Mobile Documents Folder Structure

Each application that saves a document to iCloud will create a folder within the Mobile Documents folder. The name of the app's folder will have the following naming convention:

App Folder Names OS X Mavericks and Earlier

where "domain" is the name of the app's creator and "appname" is the name of the application. For example, if you used TextEdit to create and save a file, the folder name would be:

Within each app folder will be a Documents folder that contains the files that app has created.

You can add files to or delete files from an app's Documents folder as you see fit, but remember that any changes you make are synced to any other device that's connected to the same Apple account ID. For example, deleting a file from the TextEdit folder on your Mac deletes the file from any Mac or iOS device on which you've set up the same Apple ID. Likewise, adding a file adds it to all linked Macs and iOS devices.

When adding files to an app's Documents folder, only add files that the app can open.

Creating Your Own Storage Space in iCloud

Since iCloud syncs everything that's in the Mobile Documents folder to the cloud, we now have a general cloud-based storage system. The only thing left to do is to create an easy way to bypass the hidden Library folder and access the Mobile Documents folder directly.

There are a few ways to accomplish this; we'll show you three of the simplest. You can create an alias to the Mobile Documents folder and then add the alias to the Finder sidebar or the Mac Desktop (or both, if you wish).

Add iCloud's Mobile Documents Folder to the Finder Sidebar or the Desktop

  1. From the Finder, open the Library folder (see instructions, above, for how to access the hidden Library folder), and scroll down to find the Mobile Documents folder.

  2. Right-click the Mobile Documents folder and select "Make Alias" from the pop-up menu.

  3. A new item called "Mobile Documents alias" will be created in the Library folder.

  4. To add the alias to the Finder's sidebar, simply open a Finder window and drag the alias into the Favorites area of the sidebar. One advantage of placing the alias in the Finder's sidebar is that it will show up in any Open or Save dialog box's "Where" drop-down menu, or in a dialog box's sidebar, so that accessing the Mobile Documents folder is a breeze.

  5. To add the alias to the Desktop, simply drag the Mobile Documents alias from the Library folder to the Desktop. To access the Library folder, just double-click on its alias.

  6. You can also drag the alias to the Dock, if you wish.

Using iCloud for General Storage

Now that you have an easy way to access your iCloud storage, you may find it a much better and more useful service than the application-centric system that Apple devised. And with easy access to the Mobile Documents folder, you can use it for cloud-based storage. Any file you move to the Mobile Documents folder is quickly synced to your iCloud account.

iCloud doesn't just sync files; it also syncs any folders you create. You can easily organize the files in the Mobile Documents folder by creating your own folders.

If you need more than the 5 GB of free storage that iCloud provides, you can use the iCloud preference pane to purchase additional space.

With these tweaks, using iCloud to share information between other Macs you have access to is a lot easier. As for your iOS devices, they will work with iCloud the same way they did before you improved iCloud's Mac access method.

iCloud Drive OS X Yosemite and Later

iCloud, and more specifically iCloud Drive underwent quite a few changes with the introduction of OS X Yosemite. Gone for the most part is the overly app centric view of storing data. While documents you save in iCloud are still stored in a folder structure revolving around the app that created the document, the folder names themselves have been shorten to just the applications name.

In addition, you are able to create your own folders within iCoud Drive, as well as store data anywhere within that you wish.

OS X Yosemite, as well as later versions of the operating system really simplified how iCloud Drive works, and it is highly recommended that you update your OS to gain the advantages of the newer version of iCloud and it's storage technology. If you do upgrade to the most current version of the OS and iCloud Drive, you will find that many of the tips in this article are done for you automatically by the newer version of iCloud.

You can find out more in the article: iCloud Drive: Features and Costs