Time Machine logo surrounded by iCloud logos

iCloud allows you to store all of your important documents, desktop items, photos, and more in the cloud for convenient access from any modern Apple device. In light of this, you might think that Time Machine backups and now redundant. But you’d be wrong.

iCloud Drive Is a Convenience

iCloud Drive is not a backup tool, it’s a cloud storage service that syncs data between locations. Apple doesn’t advertise it as a backup tool, and you shouldn’t use it as one even though it does copy a lot of your data to a remote location.

You can turn on iCloud Drive for your important Mac folders and other data under System Preferences > Apple ID. Click on “Options” next to iCloud Drive and check any folders and apps you would like to use with the service. Remember that items stored in iCloud drive count against your total storage total, of which you only get 5GB for free.

iCloud Drive apps and folders

Even if you pay for a hefty chunk of iCloud Drive space, you can’t use the service as a backup location using Apple’s Time Machine service. macOS simply won’t let you do so when you first set up the backup solution under System Preferences > Time Machine. If you want to back your Mac up to the web, you’ll have to use a service like Backblaze instead.

What iCloud Drive on the Mac is especially good at is making your files available across all of your devices, and even the web. The Files app on iPhone and iPad means you can access your Documents folder or screenshots that reside on your desktop, wherever you are.

You can even use iCloud Drive to access files on your Mac from a Windows or Android device. Simply head to iCloud.com and log in, then click on iCloud Drive. You can use this web interface to upload files that then appear on your Mac.

Folders in an iCloud drive

iCloud has a few limitations that Time Machine does not. To start with, only the most recent version of any files stored there are retained. This means you can’t roll back a project or document to a previous version if something unfortunate happens.

Apple’s cloud storage service also requires a monthly fee to be useful. 50GB starts at $0.99/month, with 200GB and 2TB options available for $2.99 and $9.99 respectively. Not everyone sees the value in such a service, and it would be nice to have a cheaper 1TB storage tier for closer to $4.99/month.

Time Machine Is a Safeguard

Time Machine does one thing and it does it well. By archiving everything on your Mac to a removable drive (or a network drive if you’re keen), you can rest safe knowing that if anything happens to your Mac or the solid-state drive inside, you have a local backup ready to go.

You can restore your entire Mac drive from Time Machine in a fraction of the time it would take to download that same amount of data from Apple’s servers. On top of this, Time Machine is an archival tool. It stores multiple versions of files in incremental backups, allowing you to roll back to earlier iterations of your projects and documents should you need to do so.

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iCloud Drive is a data syncing service, Time Machine covers absolutely everything. This includes applications installed on your machine, local device backups for your iPhone or iPad, music files you’ve ripped yourself, and everything in-between.

You can take your Time Machine backup drive and store it off-site if you want to, which covers you against data loss should a fire or natural disaster put your Mac out of action.

And while Time Machine does require an initial setup and occasionally plugging in and safely ejecting a drive, it’s a set and forget solution. Remember to connect the drive now and then and you’re covered. macOS will even bark at you when you haven’t backed up for a few weeks.

If plugging in a drive seems like a lot of work, you can even use another Mac on the same network as a Time Machine destination.

Don’t Just Keep Your Photos in iCloud

iCloud Photos allows you to store all of your photos in the cloud, which is very convenient for accessing media across devices. By default, the macOS Photos app uses the “Optimize Mac storage” setting to keep full-sized photos in the cloud. This lightens the load on your local storage, but also requires that you trust iCloud not to eat your photo library.

Storing all of your photos on your Mac too may seem impractical if you have an especially small solid-state drive (you can always upgrade it), but if you have a larger drive then it may be worth it for added peace of mind. If you have 1TB of storage on your Mac and 100GB of photos, using one-tenth of your total storage to safeguard your memories seems like a no-brainer.

iCloud Storage usage

This is where Time Machine comes in. When all of your photos and videos are stored locally on your Mac, Time Machine will pull double duty and back them up too. Your “Photos Library.photoslibrary” file is stored in the “Photos” folder in your user folder and will be included in each pass that Time Machine makes.

At this stage, you will have everything in iCloud, everything on your Mac, and everything on a separate removable drive.

To do this, open Photos and click on Photos > Preferences in the top-right corner of the screen. On the “iCloud” tab select “Download Originals to this Mac” and wait for the download to complete (it may take a while).

Store original photos on Mac

It’s important to point out that it’s unlikely that iCloud will swallow your photo library, but it’s not impossible. My iCloud Music Library emptied shortly after the service was introduced, which meant painstakingly adding albums and recreating playlists from scratch. Apple couldn’t recover the music, so who knows if the company can recover your media if something goes wrong?

RELATED: Can You Upgrade the Hard Drive or SSD In Your Mac?

Time Machine and iCloud Compliment Each Other

The point isn’t to throw shade at iCloud. The service is fast and highly convenient, especially in the latest builds of iOS and macOS. But don’t abandon the tried-and-tested Time Machine just yet, since it might save you in the event of a cloud catastrophe.

Your data is likely important to you, so make sure you take steps to protect it. Want to back up locally but hate Time Machine? Consider a Time Machine alternative instead.

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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