We think of “the cloud” as an amorphous space without limits. That may be true in the aggregate, but each of our personal cloud storage accounts has limits, and in comparison to the terabyte-sized drives in our Macs, our cloud accounts are often quite small. Nevertheless, you can usually go for years without bumping into their limits. I certainly did.
But when you do run out of space, it can be a major problem, since files may stop syncing, email could get rejected, and all sorts of other havoc could ensue. I recently hit this problem with iCloud, Dropbox, and Google.
Here’s how to deal with such a situation.
Find Out How Much You’re Using
First off, how much cloud storage space do you have, and how much are you using? These numbers aren’t hard to determine, and here’s where to look.
You can determine your iCloud limit and usage on either a Mac or an iOS device. In macOS 10.14 Mojave, look at the graph at the bottom of System Preferences > iCloud. In 10.15 Catalina, the graph is in System Preferences > Apple ID > iCloud. In iOS, you’ll find a similar graph at Settings > Your Name > iCloud.
For Dropbox, you could look on the service’s Web site, but it’s easiest to click the Dropbox icon in your menu bar and then click your avatar in the upper-right corner. You can see that I solved my Dropbox problem a few months back.
In Google Drive, look at the bottom of the left-hand sidebar. You can also find that number at the bottom-left corner of the Gmail Web interface. I was at 35.95 GB of 36 GB before I did some cleaning, and I can clear more space quickly if necessary.
Buy More Space
There is an easy solution to running out of space, of course, which is to buy more storage. Apple, Dropbox, and Google all charge $9.99 per month for 2 TB of space. Apple and Google are considerate enough to provide less expensive plans as well. You can buy 50 GB of iCloud storage for $0.99 per month, or 200 GB for $2.99 per month. If you need more space from Google, it will charge you $1.99 per month for 100 GB or $2.99 per month for 200 GB.
Unsurprisingly, given that it doesn’t have other lines of business, Dropbox is the pushiest about encouraging you to upgrade. It provides only 2 GB for free, although many people have more from recommending the service to friends in the past. Apple is the next stingiest, with only 5 GB of free iCloud storage, after which you’ll need to buy more. Google offers 15 GB for free, but that still may not last long, between Gmail, Google Drive, Google Photos, and more.
(I’ve never seriously used Microsoft OneDrive, so I can’t comment on how well it compares to the others functionally. It provides either 5 GB for free for anyone or 1 TB per user for free with an Office 365 subscription. You can expand that in 200 GB chunks for $2 per 200 GB, up to 2 TB total.)
Buying more space is unsatisfying, however, particularly if you’re on the edge of your free allotment and don’t want to deal with another monthly bill. Dropbox is annoying in a slightly different way—you might be offended at having to pay for 2 TB when you’ll never use more than 20 GB.
Happily, if you’re anything like me, there are a number of ways you can reduce the amount of storage that you’re using, and thus either delay or eliminate the need to ante up for more space. They vary a bit by service, so let’s touch on each in turn.
Remove Unnecessary iCloud Device Backups
With iCloud, there’s often an easy way you can recover multiple gigabytes of storage quickly. If you back up your iPhone and iPad to iCloud, those backups count against your overall storage space. And count they do—the backup of my iPhone 11 Pro consumes 10.1 GB.
It’s likely, however, that you’re storing backups for older devices unnecessarily. Navigate to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Manage Storage > Backups to see what you have. When Tonya and I did that, we discovered that we both had backups for our previous iPhones still in iCloud. At over 5 GB each, deleting those (tap one and then tap Delete Backup) cleared a bunch of space quickly.
(The fact that we’re sharing 200 GB for our family account meant both that Tristan and we would all have been impacted if we’d run out of space, and that all of us could help by clearing useless backups.)
Scan for and Clear Out Bloated iOS Apps
While you’re in the iCloud Storage screen (the leftmost screenshot above), look at the other apps at the top of the list. If you use iCloud Photos, the Photos app will likely be using far and above the most storage, but there isn’t much you can do about that, apart from deleting unnecessary screenshots, duplicate photos, and accidental videos of your feet in Photos. You may be able to automate some of that work, but there will likely be plenty of manual effort as well.
However, some other apps may be using space unnecessarily. When I got Apple’s warning and checked the iCloud Storage screen, the Camera+ 2 app was one of the top offenders. That’s because I used it to take nearly 2000 burst photos of cross country races. I had gone through each burst, picked the best shot, and saved it to Photos for editing and sharing. But I hadn’t deleted all the lesser images, and they were consuming over 11 GB of iCloud space: 5.69 GB in iCloud itself and another 5.69 GB in my iCloud backup. Oops.
Similarly, Apple Books was eating 1.6 GB of space, but when I went to see what was actually in there, I realized I had 40 or 50 old Take Control books still stored. I have all those elsewhere, so deleting them cleared another 600 MB of space.
Finally, pay attention to Messages. If you regularly trade photos and videos in chat conversations, it could be another place you can save significant space. In the iCloud Storage screen, tap Messages > Top Conversations to see which of your conversations are the largest. Tap one to switch to Messages, tap the person’s avatar at the top of the conversation, tap the Info button, scroll down to see the photos, and tap Show All Photos. Tap Select, tap photos you have no desire to keep, and then tap Delete at the bottom-right of the screen.
Also, enabling Messages in iCloud can save a little space because iCloud has to store only one copy of each message, rather than a copy for each device you back up. Turn it on by enabling the Messages switch in Settings > Your Name > iCloud.
Stop Backing Up Bloated iOS Apps
There is one other way you can save space in your iCloud backups—avoid backing up apps that contain large quantities of unnecessary data. In my case, Camera+ 2 is likely to have a lot of data in it regularly, so it might make sense to exclude it from my iCloud backups, especially since I usually process my photos quickly after a race, so they would be vulnerable to being lost for only a day or two.
To see if you have any apps that are consuming a lot of space in your backups, navigate back to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Manage Storage > Backups, and tap the name of the device you’re on. Along with telling you when your last backup was, how big it was, and how big the next one will be, that screen (eventually; it’s not quick) tells you which apps are consuming the most space in your backup. Tap the toggle switch next to an app to stop backing it up and delete its data from your backup.
Delete Old Email
Both iCloud and Gmail count your email against your storage space, which means that if you run out of space, they’ll reject incoming messages. That would be bad, so you don’t want to get to that point.
For most people, email probably isn’t as significant a consumer of storage space as files, but if you’re an email packrat like me, you could be wasting gigabytes of space on unnecessary messages. How you deal with these varies by service.
When it comes to clearing email, iCloud is no different from any other IMAP-based email provider. I’ll assume you’re using Apple’s Mail; the general principles, if not the specific steps, may work for other email clients.
If you want to archive messages locally before deleting them from iCloud, you can do that in one of two ways.
- Choose Mailbox > New Mailbox, choose On My Mac from the Location pop-up menu, and name your mailbox. Then select the messages you want to save and choose your newly created mailbox from the Move To button’s menu in Mail’s toolbar.
- If you want to archive an entire mailbox, first drag it from the iCloud account section of the sidebar in Mail to the On My Mac section to copy it there. It may take a while to copy.
To delete individual messages, you can just select them and delete them however you normally do that (I press the Delete key). However, if you’re looking for the most bang for your bump, choose View > Sort by > Size first to put the largest messages at the top so you can delete those first.
Of course, deleting messages normally just moves them to the Trash mailbox; to reclaim the space they occupy on iCloud, choose Mailbox > Erase Deleted Items > AccountName. Once you do that, the messages are gone for good.
If you want to remove an entire mailbox and its contents, select it in the sidebar and choose Mailbox > Delete Mailbox. That deletes all of its messages immediately and can’t be undone.
One note: Mail has a Message > Remove Attachments command that, as you’d expect, removes attachments from selected messages. Since attachments are often the point of the messages I receive, that command makes me uncomfortable, but if you don’t value attachments much, or just want to remove some egregiously large attachments from certain messages, it could help you save space quickly. I recommend using it after sorting by size and filtering by messages with attachments, as you can see in the screenshot above.
Because Gmail’s IMAP support was tacked on to give users the option of using email clients like Apple’s Mail, it’s best to work in Gmail’s native Web interface when clearing space. But first, what if you want a local archive of a collection of messages before you delete them?
I had some Gmail labels (which Mail maps to mailboxes) that I no longer needed, but that I was didn’t want to delete permanently. I never know when I might want something buried in the archeological depths of my email, so I made local copies of those messages before removing them. I tried several techniques before deciding that the most straightforward approach was also the best.
First, since I don’t really use Mail much, I had to enable the On My Mac section of the Mail sidebar by choosing Mailbox > New Mailbox, choosing On My Mac from the Location pop-up menu, and then naming the mailbox (which I wasn’t planning to use; I deleted it later).
Then I dragged the mailbox I wanted to download locally from its position in the Gmail mailbox hierarchy to the On My Mac section. That copies the entire mailbox locally—it doesn’t change the Gmail version at all. Depending on the size of the mailbox (most of my mailboxes had as many as 30,000 messages, and my largest one contained nearly 325,000 messages), it could take many minutes or even hours. And remember, a watched copy never completes—let it run while you do other things or even overnight.
Once you’re certain that the entire mailbox has copied locally—I recommend spot-checking messages from the top, middle, and bottom of the mailbox—it’s time to delete the messages within Gmail. As I noted, do this in Gmail’s Web interface; anything else is prone to confusion and error. Follow these steps:
- Either click a label or perform a search to select the messages you want to delete. If you’re searching, be very, very careful that you’re not accidentally finding good messages too. Remember that you can add
-searchtermto a search to exclude messages that contain “searchterm” as well.
- Click the checkbox at the top of the checkbox column. That selects all the messages showing on that screen. In most cases, there will be many more screens; Gmail can only display 100 messages per screen.
- In the banner at the top, click “Select all X conversations in ‘LabelName.’” Gmail changes the banner to indicate that all the conversations are selected.
- Click Delete in the toolbar to move all those messages to Trash (or, in Gmail terms, to apply the Trash label to those messages). If you’re working with tens of thousands of messages, this may take several minutes. And if, like me, you have hundreds of thousands of messages to trash, Gmail may be able to work with only 5,000 or 10,000 or so at a time, requiring you to repeat the selection and trashing process many times.
- Click Trash in the label list sidebar. You may need to click More at the bottom of the sidebar to see it.
- The banner at the top tells you that messages in Trash for more than 30 days will be deleted automatically. If you aren’t hurting for space immediately, you could let the automatic countdown delete these messages for good. If you need the space back right away, click Empty Trash Now.
- A dialog appears, telling you how many messages will be deleted. In my experience, Gmail often fails to delete all of them at once, so if the dialog disappears and messages remain in Trash, just click Empty Trash Now as many times as is necessary to clear everything.
A search that you might find useful in Step 1 is
has:attachment larger:10m. As you might expect, it finds messages with attachments that are larger than 10 MB. You can change that number to any other size you want.
Remember that you can open multiple browser windows for Gmail, which makes it easy to do the slow-motion delete/trash dance repetitively throughout the day while still being able to read and reply to new messages.
It can take some time—perhaps even a day or two—for Gmail’s space measurements at the bottom of the screen to update. I have to assume that Gmail is an insanely complex system behind the scenes, with data potentially distributed between data centers and backed up in various ways, so it doesn’t surprise me that there isn’t a tight connection between your actions and the space measurements. Avoid running completely out of space if you possibly can!
Remove Yourself from Shared Dropbox Folders
Folders that are shared with you by other people count against your Dropbox storage limits. That may not seem fair, but keep it in mind, since you may be able to recover significant amounts of storage by removing yourself from large shared folders.
To do that, look for folders in your Dropbox folder that have three little people on their icons. That indicates the folder is shared, although it doesn’t tell you whether or not you’re the owner.
To determine who the owner is, Control-click a shared Dropbox folder and choose Share from the contextual menu. Then, in the window that appears, look at the right side. If you’re not the owner, click the pop-up menu to the right of your name and click Remove My Access.
You will, of course, lose access to that shared folder immediately, and you can’t get it back without asking the owner to share with you again, so make sure you’ve made a local copy of any necessary data beforehand.
Google is much friendlier in this situation—anything in the Shared With Me category in the Google Drive sidebar does not count against your storage limit.
Scan for Large Files
Since Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud Drive all store standard files, one useful way to clear space is to evaluate their contents with a utility that reveals particularly large files and folders. Numerous apps can do this for any drive or folder, including the free GrandPerspective and OmniDiskSweeper. I’m partial to GrandPerspective’s graphical view, but OmniDiskSweeper’s textual approach is equally effective. If neither of them floats your boat, Josh Centers says he’s a big fan of the $9.99 DaisyDisk.
In either case, you’d want to scan the folders that correspond to your Dropbox folder, the Google Drive folder (assuming you’re using Google’s Backup and Sync app), and iCloud Drive. Then look for files that are especially large and either delete them outright or simply move them to another folder on your Mac.
There’s no magic here, and you should be careful when actually deleting files, but it’s common to discover that you’re wasting a significant amount of space on files that don’t matter.