How to synchronize Desktop & Documents folders across other Macs, iOS devices & PCs

By , Nov 9, 2016

macOS Sierra Desktop Documents iCloud Drive sync all platforms Mac screenshot 001

iCloud keeps your personal data like contacts, photos and calendars, along with other files, in perfect sync across multiple macOS, iOS and Windows devices. And with macOS Sierra or later, you can have the same exact files on the desktop and in your Documents folder across multiple Macs.

In this tutorial, you’re going to learn how to set up and use Desktop and Documents sync in macOS Sierra, manage and synchronize the files across multiple Mac and Windows PCs, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices and more.

About Desktop & Documents sync

Your Mac can keep everything on the desktop and in the Documents folders in iCloud Drive. And with the iCloud Drive for iOS app and the web app on iCloud.com, you can safely access and update files found on your desktop or stored in the Documents folders across other Mac or Windows computers, as well as your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch and via platforms through a web browser.

macOS Sierra Desktop and Documents sync iCLoud Drive web screenshot 001
Browsing my Mac’s desktop in a web browser via iCloud.com.

You must set up Desktop and Documents sync on every Mac you wish to keep in sync. With this feature, you don’t have to worry about manually syncing files—simply save files on the desktop or tuck them in the Documents folder where most people keep them and they become available on all your iCloud devices.

System requirements

Your Mac and other devices must meet the minimum iCloud system requirements to take advantage of Desktop & Documents sync and be able to see and access any synced files in iCloud Drive.

Mac

In order to use Desktop and Documents sync on your Mac, your must use macOS Sierra or later and be signed into iCloud in System Preferences → iCloud.

macOS Sierra System Preferences iCloud Drive enabled Mac screenshot 001

Needless to say, iCloud Drive must be turned on in System Preferences.

If you want to access your Mac’s synced Desktop and Documents folder from another computer, it must run macOS 10.10 Yosemite or later.

iPhone, iPad & iPod touch

To access the contents of your Mac’s Desktop and Documents folders on an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, your iOS device must run iOS 8 or later and be signed into the same iCloud account as your Mac.

iOS 10 Settings iCloud Drive enabled iPHone screenshot 001

Of course, iCloud Drive must be turned on in Settings → iCloud → iCloud Drive. If you don’t have the iCloud Drive app on your device, go to the App Store and download it.

Windows PC

To access Desktop and Documents folders across PCs through iCloud Drive, be sure to use Windows 7 or later and the latest version of Apple’s iCloud for Windows application.

iCloud for Windows enable iCloud Drive

Plus, you must sign into iCloud for Windows with the same iCloud account as on your Mac and enable iCloud Drive on your PC.

How to set up Desktop & Documents on Mac

1) Click the System Preferences icon in the Dock or choose System Preferences option from the Apple menu.

2) Click iCloud, then tick the iCloud Drive box if it’s not selected already.

Tip: If you cannot select iCloud Drive, you are not signed in to iCloud already. You must set up iCloud in System Preferences → iCloud before you can use iCloud Drive.  The first time you enable the iCloud Drive feature on any of your devices, your documents and data currently stored in iCloud are moved to iCloud Drive.

3) Now click the Options button next to iCloud Drive.

4) Click the Documents tab, then tick the box next to Desktop & Documents Folder.

macOS Sierra System Preferences iCloud Drive Desktop and Documents sync Mac screenshot 001
Delete unwanted/huge items from Desktop/Documents folders before enabling sync.

If you see a message saying “Setting up”, click Done and continue using your computer as it finishes setting up Desktop & Documents sync in the background.

This process can take anywhere from a few seconds or minutes to a few hours or even days or weeks, depending on your Internet connection and how much space the files on your desktop and in the Documents folder are taking up.

Congratulations, now everything you save on the desktop or keep in your Mac’s Documents folder will be synced through iCloud and made available to other Macs and iOS devices that use the same iCloud account (don’t worry, device icons, network shares and mounted volumes on the desktop won’t be synced).

Now’s also the right time to change the location where screenshots taken on your Mac are saved. Screenshots are created in the PNG image format that produces larger file sizes than JPGs. By default, screenshots are saved on the desktop and you probably don’t want to have them synced across other Macs.

macOS Sierra Desktop Documents sync Finder Mac screenshot 001
Local files being currently synced with iCloud Drive have a circular icon next to them in the Finder which indicates how far along the upload process has come.

Keep in mind that if your other devices have iCloud Drive turned off, documents and data on those devices won’t be kept up to date with documents and data on your devices with iCloud Drive turned on.

If you disable syncing, your Mac’s Desktop and the Documents folder will stop being accessible from other devices and any new local files you add to these locations will no longer by synced with other iCloud devices.

Wow, where did my files go?

This is what happens the first time you enable Desktop & Documents sync.

  • Your Mac’s Desktop and Documents folders are moved to iCloud Drive and replaced with their “canonical” iCloud versions
  • The Finder stops showing Desktop and Documents in your user account folder
  • Desktop and Documents icons in the Finder’s sidebar are moved from their default Favorites header to the iCloud Drive header

Be sure to have enough storage space on iCloud to fit your Desktop and Documents folders. You can see how much cloud-storage space you have left in System Preferences → iCloud.

macOS Sierra System Preferences iCloud Mac screenshot 001
Your free iCloud storage space is listed at the bottom of this window.

To see how much storage space downloaded iCloud Drive files are taking up on your Mac, Control (⌃)-click or right-click iCloud Drive underneath the iCloud heading in the Finder’s sidebar, then choose Get Info in the popup menu.

macOS Sierra Finder sidebar iCLoud Drive Mac screenshot 001
Select the Get Info option to see the amount of storage space used by iCloud Drive.

The amount of space your iCloud Drive files consume is shown in the Get Info window.

macOS Sierra Finder sidebar iCLoud Drive Mac screenshot 002

For reference, here are Apple’s current iCloud storage upgrades:

  • 5GB—Free
  • 50GB—$0.99 per month
  • 200GB—$2.99 per month
  • 1TB—$9.99 per month
  • 2TB—$19.99 per mont

To buy iCloud storage, tap Settings → iCloud → Storage → Change Storage Plan.

For those wondering, iCloud Drive shares iCloud storage with iCloud Photo Library, iOS device backups, messages and attachments in iCloud Mail and more.

If your iCloud storage is full, you won’t be able to move or save a document to iCloud Drive. But don’t worry, the document stays on your Mac and is uploaded to iCloud Drive when space becomes available.

Accessing Desktop and Documents folders in Finder

iOS 8 and macOS 10.10 Yosemite debuted the iCloud Drive feature.

In iOS 10 and macOS Sierra and later, iCloud Drive is smart about caching files in a way that preserves your local storage space. Rather than download all the files and folders in iCloud Drive to your Mac like before, the system downloads files on demand.

Accessing a large file in iCloud Drive for the first time can take some time, depending on the speed of your Internet connection and the size of the file.

Files in iCloud Drive that aren’t downloaded to this Mac have a cloud icon with an arrow inside pointing in the downward direction next to them. To force a download by Option (⌥)-clicking a desired file or folder, then choose Download in the popup menu.

macOS Sierra iCLoud Drive Download Now Mac screenshot 001
iCloud syncing progress in the Finder’s sidebar. Screenshot via ArsTechnica.

After the items are on your Mac, you can work with them without an Internet connection.

To use Desktop and Documents locations in iCloud Drive when saving a new document or opening a document in a Mac app, click iCloud Drive in the sidebar of the Open/Save dialog which appears after you choose File → Save or File → Open.

Downloaded iCloud Drive files are cached for fast access in the future for as long as the computer doesn’t run into a low-storage situation. If Optimize Mac Storage is ticked at the bottom of the System Preferences → iCloud → iCloud Drive pane, older documents or infrequently accessed files may be deleted and stored in iCloud Drive when space is needed.

macOS Sierra System Preferences iCloud Drive Optimized Mac Storage Mac screenshot 001
If I were you, I’d deselect the Optimize Mac Storage option.

If you don’t want the Mac to optimize storage for you, deselect this feature.

It’s important to note that iCloud Drive uses incremental uploads to optimize bandwidth consumption. When you update the file, for example, the system is smart enough to only shoot changed content to iCloud Drive which speeds up syncing operations.

Other cloud-storage clients like Dropbox and OneDrive use this technique, too.

Using Terminal commands on Desktop and Documents folders

Even though your Desktop and Documents folders now live in iCloud Drive and the Finder no longer shows them in your user account folder, you can still refer to their regular locations in Terminal scripts and commands.

For example, you can still change the current directory to your Documents folder in Terminal by executing the “cd” command like you normally would.

In my case, I’d type the following into the Terminal window:

cd /Users/Chris/Documents/

or

cd /Users/Chris/Desktop/

to switch the current directory to my user account’s Desktop folder.

Customizing Desktop and Documents icons in Finder sidebar

As mentioned, turning on Desktop and Documents sync automatically repositions these icons in the Finder’s sidebar, moving them from their default Favorites header to underneath the iCloud Drive header.

Should you find the new arrangement confusing, you can move the icons back: click and hold the Desktop or the Documents icon in the Finder’s sidebar, drag it to a new location and let go.

macOS Sierra Finder sidebar move icons MAc screenshot 001
Rearrange icons in the Finder’s sidebar by way of drag-and-dropping.

If you don’t see the Documents/Desktop icons or the iCloud section is missing from the Finder’s sidebar, enable them manually. Firstly, choose Preferences from the Finder menu, then click the Sidebar tab. And secondly, tick the boxes next to “iCloud Drive”, “Desktop” and “Documents” underneath the “iCloud” heading.

macOS Sierra Finder preferences sidebar Mac screenshot 001

Any checked icons and sections should now be visible in the Finder’s sidebar.

Moving files outside of Desktop and Documents folders

Like with other iCloud files, attempting to move an item from iCloud Drive’s Desktop or Documents folder outside iCloud will yield a warning message saying that the item will be immediately deleted from iCloud Drive on this Mac and your other devices.

Confirm the operation by clicking the Move button, or hit Cancel to abort.

macOS Sierra Desktop and Documents sync iCLoud Drive Mac screenshot 005
Removing a file from iCloud Drive deletes it from all iCloud devices.

This is a sound warning because it’s quite easy to forget that the files on your desktop and in the Documents folder are now iCloud-synced. If you’d like, you can disable the warning message for when you move files outside of iCloud.

macOS Sierra Finder preferences iCLoud Drive warning messages Mac screenshot 001

To do so, choose Preferences from the Finder menu, click the Advanced tab and deselect the box labeled “Show warning before removing from iCloud Drive”.

Accessing Desktop and Documents folder on iPhone and iPad

With the iCloud Drive option selected in Settings → iCloud, the stock iCloud Drive app appears on your Home screen. Launch it to browse and use everything that’s kept in iCloud Drive, including files in your Mac’s synced Desktop and Documents folders.

iOS 10 iCloud Drive app Desktop Documents folders iPhone screenshot 001
Browsing cloud files on iPhone and iPad, including your Mac’s desktop and Documents folder, is easy with Apple’s iCloud Drive app.

With the iCloud Drive app, you can sort your files by date or title, switch between list or thumbnail view, open Office files, iWork documents, PDFs, images, videos and other supported file types, select one or more items, copy, delete or share files and more.

Accessing Desktop and Documents folders on the web

You can access the contents of your synced Desktop and Documents folder and other files in your iCloud Drive on the web, using any computer with a web browser.

Start by visiting iCloud.com/#iclouddrive, then sign in with your Apple ID account.

macOS Sierra Desktop and Documents sync iCLoud Drive web screenshot 002
My Mac’s Documents folder, as seen in a web browser.

The iCloud Drive web app presents you with thumbnails of your iCloud Drive files and folders. You can move the files around like you would in the Finder, rename or delete them, attach a file to an email message, download cloud files to your computer or upload local files to your iCloud Drive and more.

Accessing Desktop and Documents folders on Windows PCs

To access iCloud features on Windows PCs, download and install Apple’s iCloud for Windows program, then restart the machine. Launch the app from Start → Apps or Programs, enter your Apple ID to sign in to iCloud, choose the features and content that you want to keep up to date across your devices and click Apply.

iCloud for Windows PC screenshot 001
Be sure to select the iCloud Drive option in iCloud for Windows.

With iCloud Drive on, you should see an iCloud Drive folder in File Explorer. This is where any documents that you’ve stored in iCloud will automatically download to, including your synced Desktop and Documents folders. Needless to say, any items which you create on this PC and save in the Documents/Desktop folder or other folders in iCloud Drive automatically appear on all the other iCloud devices.

iCloud Drive Windows Explorer PC screenshot 001
Accessing iCloud Drive in File Explorer.

For instance, drop a file from your PC on your Mac’s synced Desktop folder in iCloud Drive and it’s pushed to your Mac and automatically appears on the desktop.

Using Desktop & Documents sync on multiple computers

After enabling Desktop & Documents sync on a second Mac, you may momentarily panic realizing all the files on the desktop have suddenly vanished. Don’t worry—everything that was already on your desktop will be moved to a subfolder inside the Desktop folder on iCloud Drive, named “Desktop — [Name of your Mac].” The same goes for your Mac’s Documents folder.

For example, if your Mac is named “HomeWorkstation”, you can find all the desktop files inside the Desktop — [HomeWorkstation] folder in iCloud Drive. Feel free to move those files around the a way you like to have the same desktop across multiple Macs.

In conclusion

I was very excited for Desktop and Documents sync in macOS Sierra and it didn’t disappoint me. Once you set it up, it works perfectly. The best thing about it is that nothing changes in terms of user experience—you still save files where you usually keep them, but they’re now available on all your computers and iOS devices.

It’s this ability to access the contents of my Mac’s Documents and Desktop folders through iCloud that had me reconsider my Dropbox subscription and ultimately stop using their service for my file-syncing needs.

And with the iCloud Drive app, I can access or update files from any Mac, iPhone, iPad or iPod touch device—even on other platforms via the web app at iCloud.com.

Everything that matters to you is now available on all of the devices you own through iCloud.

If you set up Desktop & Documents sync on a single Mac and use the iCloud Drive app to access these files across your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch devices, everything will “just work”. If you own multiple Macs and want to have the same desktop and files inside the Documents folder across all of them, however, expect certain annoyances due to the fact that your local files get moved into a subfolder on iCloud Drive.

It’s not even an issue—with a few clicks you can rearrange the items in your iCloud Drive to suit your personal preferences and that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of reaping the benefits of having your Mac’s Desktop and Documents folders synced across your other computers.

Would you consider using this feature?

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  • Itsdatnycdude

    iCloud is still such a terrible and broken product across the board.

    • AMB_07

      I only use it to backup my phone.

  • Xee

    5GB of free storage space is pathetic these days and has been for years! Free should start at 50GB…