iCloud and Time Machine both offer ways to store data from your Mac. Time Machine lets you create local backups on an external drive. While iCloud Drive lets you upload documents to Apple’s servers for online access.
But no matter how much iCloud storage you have, you can’t tell Time Machine to back up your Mac to iCloud Drive. In fact, unlike on iPhone or iPad, Apple offers no official way to back up your Mac to iCloud.
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Time Machine vs. iCloud Drive
Time Machine backs up every file stored on your Mac to an external drive. Since this is a complete backup, it includes every system file, preference, application, and other piece of data from your Mac.
This means you won’t lose anything if you need to restore a backup from Time Machine.
In contrast, while Apple backs up all your iCloud Drive content on its servers, you can only use iCloud to sync particular files from your Mac. This includes your Desktop, Documents, Photos, Calendar, Reminders, and more.
But iCloud Drive doesn’t sync your applications, user preferences, or other system files. iCloud Drive also only keeps your deleted files for 30 days. It’s easy to restore data from iCloud, but these backups are severely limited compared to Time Machine, which saves multiple different versions of everything.
All together, this makes iCloud Drive an unsuitable option for backing up your Mac unless the only files you care to protect are your most recent documents.
That said, you can manually upload system files and applications to iCloud Drive to act as a makeshift back up. This method is a little “clunky” and not as reliable as Time Machine though, so we don’t recommend it.
How to back up Mac system files to iCloud Drive
Although Apple doesn’t make it easy to back up your Mac to iCloud Drive—and we don’t recommend it as a primary back up method—you can create a workaround if you wish.
Creating a manual backup involves using Finder to copy and paste into the iCloud Drive folder any files you want to back up from your Mac. Once you do so, your Mac will upload those files to iCloud Drive making them available to you if you ever need to restore a backup.
Simply navigate to the System, Applications, Library, or User folders in Finder. Then control-click a file or folder and choose to Copy. Finally, open the iCloud Drive folder and paste your files.
You need enough free storage on your Mac to copy these files before they upload to iCloud. After uploading, you can reclaim the storage if you control-click each file and choose to Remove Download.
Of course, you’ll need to manually update the files in iCloud Drive whenever you make significant changes to your Mac. To do this, copy a new file and replace the old one.
You’ll also need to manually put these files in their proper place amongst your Mac system files if you ever restore them.
Use AirPort Time Capsule to create wireless Mac backups
Apple used to offer a product that let you create a backup of your Mac over Wi-Fi: the AirPort Time Capsule. The Time Capsule lay partway between iCloud and Time Machine backups since it stored your backup locally but was available over Wi-Fi.
Although Apple discontinued the Time Capsule in 2018, you can still find used ones on eBay and Craigslist.
With a Time Capsule in hand, you can create Time Machine backups over Wi-Fi. This means you never need to worry about connecting your external drive to back up your Mac again. Just let your Time Capsule take care of it instead.
Use a third-party service to back up your Mac to the cloud
Rather than manually copying files to iCloud Drive to create a makeshift iCloud backup for your Mac, you should consider paying for a third-party service instead.
Although Apple doesn’t offer an iCloud Backup option for the Mac, other services do. The most popular cloud backup service at the moment is Backblaze.
With a Backblaze subscription, you can back up every file on your Mac to the cloud. This works similarly to Time Machine, by keeping your old files for at least a year after creating a new backup. Except you don’t need to depend on a physical drive.
Subscriptions start at $6/month and Backblaze offers unlimited storage for file backups. Until Apple releases an iCloud backup option for Mac—which it may never do—Backblaze and other similar services are the best backup option.
Two is one, one is none
There’s a well-known rule regarding backups: two is one, one is none. Essentially, this means that one copy of a file is not enough. Similarly, one copy of your backup isn’t enough either.
If your Mac breaks and you lose your backup drive, then your data is lost as well.
It’s always a good idea to create multiple backups of your Mac and to keep them in multiple different places. That might include an external drive in your home, a Time Capsule at work, and a cloud backup on Backblaze’s servers.
Whatever method you choose to back up your Mac, we suggest you create a Time Machine backup on a spare drive to store as well. You can buy these relatively cheaply and store them around your home with little effort.