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How to Turn Off Sierra’s Optimized Storage

When first introducing macOS 10.12 Sierra, Apple made much of Optimized Storage, a marketing term that encompasses various settings and cloud-related technologies for moving data from a Mac’s space-constrained local drive to the cloud. In “Explaining Sierra’s Optimized Storage” (19 September 2016), I tried to lay out what Optimized Storage covers, explain the Storage Management window interface, and give suggestions about what you should or should not enable manually. Since Optimized Storage deletes data from your local drive such that it may not exist in your backups, you should be aware of the implications of turning it on.

Unfortunately, because Sierra prompts you to enable Desktop and Documents folder syncing during installation and may enable the associated Optimize Mac Storage checkbox by default as well, many Mac users are unwittingly enrolling important data in Optimized Storage. Worse, reports have started circulating that Sierra may have enabled some previously disabled Optimized Storage features during the 10.12.1 update. That’s not OK.

For the record, I don’t believe that Optimized Storage is inherently evil. Some of its options, such as deleting the local copies of watched movies and TV shows purchased from the iTunes Store, have few downsides. However, many people wish to maintain complete control over local storage, so I’ll explain how to disable all of Optimized Storage’s options in this article.

iCloud Drive & Desktop and Documents Folder Syncing -- Technically speaking, Desktop and Documents folder syncing isn’t part of Optimized Storage. Its goal is to store your documents in iCloud Drive so you can access them from any of your Apple devices.

However, Optimized Storage can apply to all iCloud Drive-based documents and data, including the Desktop and Documents folders if they’re being synced through iCloud. If Optimized Storage does decide to start deleting local files to free up space, those files are most likely to come from your Documents folder. To keep your Desktop and Documents folders out of iCloud, and to ensure that data that is in iCloud is always mirrored locally, open System Preferences > iCloud > iCloud Drive > Options, and deselect both Desktop & Documents Folders at the top of the list and the Optimize Mac Storage checkbox at the bottom.

Be aware that turning off Desktop and Documents folder syncing is stressful. When you do so, in System Preferences > iCloud > iCloud Drive > Options, Sierra tells you that all your files will be available only in iCloud, which seems wrong: if you’re turning off syncing, you’re doing so because you want them locally. However, that dialog is followed immediately by another that tells you that you can recover your files from iCloud Drive.

In fact, what happens when you turn off that feature is that Sierra recreates empty Desktop and Documents folders in your home folder. You can’t replace those folders, so it’s not possible to drag the old Desktop and Documents folders from iCloud Drive to your home folder. Instead, you must open each folder in iCloud Drive and move (Command-drag) its contents to the new local Desktop and Documents folders in your home folder. You can try to delete the now-empty Desktop and Documents folders from iCloud Drive, but in my experience, iCloud keeps recreating at least the Desktop folder.

Photos -- Given the ease of taking and storing photos and videos, your Photos library may occupy more space than anything else — I’m not a prolific photographer and mine is still over 110 GB. If you have multiple Apple devices, using iCloud Photo Library lets you access, edit, and manage your photos from any device, which is great, even if it almost always requires that you pay for additional iCloud Drive space.

iCloud Photo Library was one of the first places where Apple dipped its toes into optimizing storage because many Photos libraries are far too large to fit on iOS devices. Plus, it’s not uncommon for someone to have an iMac at home but want to play with photos on a space-constrained MacBook Air while on vacation.

My recommendation is to keep Optimized Storage enabled for all iOS devices and secondary Mac notebooks where space is at a premium, but to turn it off on your main Mac so your photos are always included in your backups. To do this, open Photos > Preferences > iCloud, and select “Download Originals to this Mac.”

Mail -- If you work with people who send around presentations or videos on a regular basis, Mail is likely consuming a significant amount of drive space. Email messages themselves are small, so there’s no win in deleting them, but attachments are another story.

In previous versions of Mail, you could either download all attachments or leave them all on your IMAP server. Sierra’s version of Mail adds a third option to download only recent email attachments. When you open a message whose attachment hasn’t been downloaded, you can click a button to get it. If you want to see how much space you’d save by downloading only recent attachments, launch System Information, choose Window > Storage Management, and click Mail in the sidebar.

Apple has bundled these features into Optimized Storage, so if you want to make sure that your local mail archive always contains both messages and attachments, so in Mail, go to Mail > Preferences > Accounts > accountName > Account Information and choose All from the Download Attachments pop-up menu. Make sure to do this for each of your accounts!

iTunes -- Video can consume massive amounts of drive space, but it’s also slow to download. If you regularly purchase movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, you can use Optimized Storage to remove watched videos from iTunes automatically. But what if you’re buying content for a child who wants to watch things multiple times, or you want to ensure you can watch anything again without having to download again over a slow Internet connection?

To turn off Optimized Storage in iTunes and ensure that all the videos you purchase from the iTunes Store stick around even after you’ve watched them, navigate to iTunes > Preferences > Advanced and deselect the “Automatically delete watched movies and TV shows” checkbox.

Empty Trash Automatically -- All the previously mentioned features of Optimized Storage involve deleting the local copy of a file under the assumption that it can be retrieved from the cloud if necessary. The final aspect of Optimized Storage that you might want to turn off is different — it’s an option in the Finder that automatically deletes files in the Trash after they have been there for 30 days.

Frankly, there should be no downside to enabling this option. You should never depend on being able to go into the Trash to bring back a file that you deleted more than a month before. Just don’t delete any file that you might want again.

That said, if you want more control over when your Trash is emptied, go to Finder > Preferences > Advanced and deselect “Remove items from the Trash after 30 days.”

Manage Storage Manually -- If you’re uncomfortable with Optimized Storage but are still running out of space on your Mac’s drive, you can use the new Storage Management window to identify and delete large files. Open the System Information app, choose Window > Storage Management, and look at all the sidebar categories underneath Recommendations.

With a little attention paid to the old versions of apps, unnecessary downloads, and unexpectedly large documents scattered around your drive, you can often clear a surprising amount of space in just a few minutes while retaining complete control over your local storage.


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Comments about How to Turn Off Sierra’s Optimized Storage
(Comments are closed.)

JohnB (SciFiOne)   2016-11-10 22:59
Wow. That whole optimization process sounds really dumb, especially for someone who has managed their own files since the Mac Plus. I'm glad the only thing I have in iCloud is my mail.

I don't intend to upgrade, but I will need a new computer someday and will have to use the OS that comes with it. So I try to keep informed.

Thanks for the article.
Norbert E Fuchs  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2016-11-11 07:40
Adam writes:

"Sierra may have enabled some previously disabled Optimized Storage features during the 10.12.1 update."

Motivated by this article I controlled my iCloud settings and noticed that "Keychain" was checked though I do not recall to ever have it checked. I unchecked it.

Otherwise, I am not using "iCloud Drive" at all.
Turning on new features like this without the user's explicit consent is IMHO dangerous.

Turning them back on during the course of an update AFTER the user had already chosen to turn them off is, however, totally unacceptable in my book.

Do we have a firm indication this is actually what Apple has done?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-11-14 15:09
That's what the 9to5Mac article linked above says:

I haven't seen it personally, and we believe that Apple's algorithm for enabling Optimized Storage features has a variety of rules underlying it, so it's hard to predict in any given situation.
I wouldn't have even thought to check whether this setting had been surreptitiously turned back on by Apple. After reading this article I checked -- sure enough, my initial preferences were changed without warning. Very poor practice.
Paul Ellis  2016-11-11 17:47
You avoid all of these problems by signing out of iCloud beforehand and having nothing further to do with it. Simple. For contacts and calendar syncing, which is actually all anyone REALLY needs, use Fruux. For everything else, forgettaboutit. The 'gain' isn't worth the pain. Remember that these 'innovations' are primarily for Apple's benefit, not yours.

I'm still on El Capitan, waiting for 10.12.2. Before I 'upgrade' I will COMPLETELY REMOVE any remaining dependencies on iCloud. Job done.
Colleen Thompson  2016-11-15 10:08
Maybe *you* don't want to have anything to do with iCloud. It's very useful for a lot of people. While I don't want to have anything to do with Optimized Storage, I do synchronize a lot of stuff. I appreciate articles like this that help us understand the normally impenetrable Apple schema.
Thank you, Adam. This is great. I knew about some of the problems but not how to correctly change the settings.

You helped me reclaim my Documents folder and my Photos. By accident I had some of the preferences correct.

It's too bad the Sierra set up process didn't allow a little more explanation and flexibility with the installation.

I can see I may need to keep more and more in the cloud when I get my next MacBookPro, but for now my HD is 3TB and I'd rather own my own data and back it up onsite and offsite as I see fit. Your screen shots and narrative were wonderful!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-11-14 15:09
Thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad it was helpful!
I like iCloud Drive and the unified Desktop and Documents folders Sierra provides for all my machines. I had Optimised Storage turned on on my MBP due to limited local storage, and it worked perfectly. I always had a very healthy amount of free space. I also did not have any trouble as was reported happening here and there with files getting lost.
My MBP is from mid 2010 and has been on 24/7 mostly, so it came as not too big a surprise when my HD died last week. So I put in a 3TB Fusion Drive on Thursday and now I've turned off Optimised Storage and the likes everywhere. Sierra still has to download data from iCloud and it is taking its time for that, still 193GB to go at time of writing.
Scott M.  2016-11-14 12:52
Adam writes:

"Unfortunately, because Sierra prompts you to enable Desktop and Documents folder syncing during installation and may enable the associated Optimize Mac Storage checkbox by default as well, many Mac users are unwittingly enrolling important data in Optimized Storage. Worse, reports have started circulating that Sierra may have enabled some previously disabled Optimized Storage features during the 10.12.1 update. That’s not OK."

Sorry, but "That's not OK." is a SIGNIFICANT understatement.

The above highlights why I have not upgrade to Sierra to date. I thought I was getting close, but this just scrapped any plans of upgrading to Sierra anytime soon until I am assured that Apple will not hose my setup with some "feature" that I do not want.

And this is also why I do not have "automatic" system updates turned on (and basically the same reason why I have no interest in Windows 10 on my Windows machines). I have zero trust in Apple not to screw up my machine. Yes, I get that automatic updates would in theory make my Mac (and Windows machines) more secure, but I don't want them at the risk of completely screwing up my system and my work flow.

And this is also why when I do finally do an upgrade or even just a "dot" upgrade, I always update my clone of my Mac (and Windows machines) before doing it. Then if Apple (or Microsoft) does screw something up, I can relatively easily revert to my previous setup.
Scott M.  2016-11-14 13:05
Adam writes:

"Some of its options, such as deleting the local copies of watched movies and TV shows purchased from the iTunes Store, have few downsides."

I disagree. While technically it might have "few downsides", those few downsides could be major.

I like to have local copies of my movies and TV shows, even if I watched them. I paid for them after all. And I don't trust Apple to always have them available for me to download again. And I definitely don't trust Apple to consistently stream them to something like an Apple TV. This is because I have had too many times where I try to go stream a movie that I have purchased on my Apple TV only for an error message or for it to take forever (if ever) to load and start streaming. And I have 70+ Mbps cable Internet, so it is not my Internet connection.

Where it can be a significant problem is if one does not have a fast Internet connection or has some small data cap. While I don't suffer from either, others do. And if they have their movies and TV shows downloaded and then Apple turns on the iTunes part of Optimized Storage and nukes all those local copies, now that person might have to download all that content again. And that might take a long time due to a slow connection and/or monthly caps. To me, that is not a small downside.

Of course, if that person was smart, they had a local backup, but it no longer surprises me how many people do not backup their files.

Even if they should have had a backup, however, Apple should not be turning on such potentially destructive features by default, whether intentionally or by accident (i.e. a bug). If they are doing it intentionally, then that is grounds for me to finally punt on using the Mac if I reach the point where I am essentially forced to upgrade to reluctant I as I would be to do that. If it is happening because of a bug, then that tells me that their overall design of this "feature" is flawed as there should be redundancies in the design of the "feature" so that people's data does not get destroyed (i.e. repeated confirmation requests of "are you sure you want to turn this on").
Eric Ladner  2016-11-14 19:52
Hi Adam,
I'm sort of confused. I was concerned when I first started reading about this in many sources, especially since having your Documents only in iCloud seems to mean that you cannot access them when you do not have Internet access.

But as a test I have turned off WiFi, and found that I still had access to Documents, even though the folder appears only under iCloud.

You recommend deselecting both storing Documents and Desktop in iCloud, and Optimize Storage. Can't I have iCloud backups of and access to my documents, and avoid the risk of having them deleted from local storage, if I deselect only Optimize Storage?

Many thanks for all the information you provide.

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-11-14 21:24
Yes, it's "Desktop and Documents folder syncing" so when you're offline, you simply are working on the local copy and your changes aren't being synced up to iClloud and made available to other devices.

And yes, again, you can have Desktop and Documents folder syncing but not have them subject to Optimized Storage, if you deselect Optimize Mac Storage in that iCloud options dialog.
Eric Ladner  2016-11-15 12:30
tom powers  2016-11-15 14:13
I miss the days when Apple didn't even know I existed. What was the first version of the OS that required an AppleID or its equivalent before you could complete the installation or post-purchase setup?

I want nothing to do with iCloud. Apple has aborted too many support efforts (,mac, .me) to make me trust them.

As SciFiOne said, the whole storage management process is "dumb" for people who know how they want to store and access their files. iOS is "dumb" for the same reason: you don't have control over your storage.

Even if all you want/need to do is sync across devices and/or family members, there are simpler ways to do this.
"Let-me-do-that-for-you" features should be simple to turn off or avoid if they represent a change in workflow. Even Time Machine needs affirmative action to set up past the you've-attached-a-new-disk-is-it-for-Time-Machine interaction.

I'm coming to appreciate the Amish concept of "simplicity" as a matter of choice and control, not just minimalism.
I have to agree with you.

I find it rather rude that after purchasing a 1 k€ phone I'm forced to set up an Apple ID to use it. It's this lack of awareness for privacy concerns that makes Apple come off like the MS of the 90s.

I find myself wondering if maybe the only cure for Apple's bad behavior is that they lose large parts of their market shares so that they are once again forced to focus on excellence and "being different". They were much better when they were the underdog IMHO.
Gustavo Domínguez  2016-11-15 16:18
Since I use several Macs, relying on Cloud-based syncing of the Desktop and the Documents folders is just too slow specially with huge files, multi-gigabyte files and the like.

I approach is to use a centralized NAS server but that doesn't quite work when afar from the network, macOS Server's Caching Service is supposed to mimic a local iCloud server so syncing goes faster but since I don't store all that much data in those two folders to begin with I haven't tested it at full.

Instead I went with this suggestion that was given to me on Quora, I wanted to do something like Window's Offline Folders and the solution was BitTorrent Sync; this small utility that syncs selected folders and uses the BitTorrent protocol so it requests the file from all available servers in pieces resulting in crazy-fast sync speeds and it's completely automatic and if that isn't enough, it works over the internet too, no port forwarding necessary.

Eventually I move to the paid version 2, now called Resilio
Gustavo Domínguez  2016-11-15 16:27
and it automates the process, I just store my sync key on an iCloud Notes document, feed it to a new install of Resilio and it retrieves the folder list to be synced, and even the purchase key so the new Resilio install automatically upgrades itself to Pro.

Totally worth it.

As a precaution one of the computers Resilio syncs data with has also installed Synology Cloud Station so I get an extra copy on my NAS array.

I didn't write it before bc I freaked out about character count, Resilio version 1 (AKA BitTorrent Sync) although completely free with no upgrades whatsoever has this bug that duplicates temporary sync files in hidden folders, easy to spot but a couple of times I found myself without any space left on my startup volume overnight.

In version 2 this is fixed now. Overall Resilio It's not perfect but it's from the best out there.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2016-11-15 19:33
What ever happened to "Keep it simple, stupid?" Having to visit so many locations to turn off Optimized Storage is, to my mind, a nightmare scenario. In fact the whole iCloud business has gotten way too complex.

But thanks for the warning. I'll be keeping an eye out tomorrow when I upgrade a client's computer to Sierra. He wants to be able to use Siri to simplify some note taking chores. I'll be backing up his system before the upgrade in case Sierra breaks some program(s) he relies on.

Personally I've avoided iCloud Drive along with most other cloud based services. All I use iCloud for is syncing calendars, contacts and bookmarks. No Keychain syncing, photos or music.

And I'll be keeping a copy of this article so I can check to see that everything is turned off that should be turned off when I upgrade to Sierra (for clients, not for myself).

Sadly, the Apple eco system has become a maze.
Brian S  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2016-11-18 00:42
"What ever happened to "Keep it simple, stupid?" Having to visit so many locations to turn off Optimized Storage is, to my mind, a nightmare scenario" Agreed. Reading Adam's article ( thank you very much! ) produced a similar response here and I'm an experienced Mac user. My suspicion is many typical non-geek users ( no offense meant ) would probably be overwhelmed even by Adam's wonderful explanations.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-11-18 13:19
To be fair, I think Apple basically made a mistake in combining all these separate features under the marketing term "Optimized Storage." If they had just introduced these features separately, without trying to aggregate them and turn them on aggressively, they would likely have been less stressful.
Steve L'Heureux  2016-11-18 01:07
I'm sorry to have to continue to be negative on Apple, but OMG, what are their people thinking??!! What ever happened to keeping computing intuitive??!! This was what made Apple different. They have lost their way.
I've been an Apple Consultant now for 26 years. Most of my clients are home users. They do email, web surfing, photo's, and not much more. This continual drilling down for options, smoke, and mirrors, to me suggests that Apple has lost it's fundamental Wisdom on OS X interface. You know the saying "KISS", yeah, keep it simple stupid! I think their software folks are being driven by marketings' desire to present new every year. This is wrong. And think is where Tim Cook fails. Apple needs a Nudge like Steve Jobs to identify stupid ideas and to say no! And don't get me started on iCloud Keychain Storage!!! Grrrr. AND, now look at Microsoft pitching Surface Pro as superior to Mac! I bet Steve is turning over in his grave! :-( What is this world coming to?
While I basically keep all my files on my iCloud Drive, sync all my contacts, calendars, mail and photos with iCloud; I just can't bring myself to use Optimized Storage or Desktop & Documents syncing.
Robert Tracy  2016-11-19 12:24
Following the procedure you outlined and ignoring the catatistrafically sounding error messages, on 11/17/16 I successfully Turned off iCloud Drive and the syncing of Desktop and Documents to two computers. So now I’m down to copying my Documents and any other folders to a thunderbolt hard drive which is then used to update any other computers with a thunderbolt port; and vice-versa between computers. There are no Documents or Desktop folders on ICloud Drive (totally empty).
At least my files are being backed up.