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Time Machine vs. iCloud Drive: What Should You Use to Back Up Your Mac?

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With our digital data becoming more important each day, no one wants to lose their valuable files and photos, either to a corrupted hard drive or a stolen machine. This is why having a backup of your Mac is essential, to help you in those bad times (if they ever do come.)

There are two methods available for Apple users to back up their data—iCloud Drive and Time Machine. While they can ultimately serve a similar purpose, the way both services work is significantly different.

Today we'll cover which service should you be using for your Mac backups, and how they both differ.

How Does iCloud Drive Work for Mac?

We first need to understand how iCloud Drive and Time Machine work to truly understand the difference between the two. Most people are familiar with "cloud" backups but don't know how they actually work. When you sync your iPhone or Mac to iCloud, your device uploads all the selected data to a secure server owned by Apple. Apple has tons of facilities around the world filled with such servers, providing them with more than enough bytes of data.

These servers are backed up regularly, so even if one fails, your data can be restored from a backup. Your data remains secure on the specific server and can be downloaded back onto your device if the need arises. You can sync and store specific files on iCloud Drive (such as documents and photos), but you can't store system files or make complete system backups for your Mac.

Related: How to Choose Who Can View and Edit Your Shared Files in iCloud Drive

iCloud Drive also allows you to offload data from your Mac onto the cloud if your Mac is running low on storage. This basically means that all files that you rarely use are backed up on the cloud and deleted from your system. However, a file shortcut is still present in the same location on your Mac, and in the case that you need to access it again, the original file is downloaded and opened on your system immediately. This allows you to save some crucial storage space on your Mac.

How Does Time Machine Work for Mac?

Whilst iCloud has an internet-based approach to backing up your data, Time Machine has a more local, hands-on approach for data backup. Time Machine is a feature available in macOS that automatically backs up your files to an external hard drive every hour or so (depending on the backup duration you have set.)

This means that the backup is available to you locally on your external hard drive as opposed to over the internet. Time Machine also backs up your system files and settings, creating an entire clone of your Mac. You can use this to restore your Mac later if needed.

iCloud Drive vs. Time Machine

Now that we've talked about how both options work, we'll take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of using iCloud Drive or Time Machine for your backups.

Benefits and Drawbacks of iCloud Drive

A benefit of iCloud Drive is that alongside your files being synced to the internet server, they are also synced to all of your other Apple devices. This means that you can access them from anywhere. As soon as you make any changes in your files (such as editing a document), the new version is automatically synced to the cloud.

Cloud Logo

You may also be able to access the file version history in iCloud Drive. This depends on the file type, but it usually allows you to view and restore previously saved versions (if you require them).

Many users who prefer to use iCloud Drive over Time Machine do so because they don't want to deal with the hassle of managing an external hard drive all the time. Since iCloud Drive only requires an active internet connection to back up your files, it's much easier to manage.

iCloud Drive also has some drawbacks, as you might imagine. Since it's a subscription-based service, there's a monthly fee depending on how much online storage you use. 5GB is offered for free, whereas upgrades are available to 50GB for $0.99 per month, 200GB for $2.99 per month, or 2TB for $9.99 per month.

Another drawback is that iCloud Drive only syncs user files with the server. No system files or system backups are performed. This means that if you needed to restore a new Mac, you can only retrieve your files (such as your documents and photos) from iCloud Drive. You won't be able to restore your entire system from the cloud.

You can also only restore deleted files from the last 30 days, which is a major downside if you might need to recover lost data from more than a month ago.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Time Machine

Time Machine allows you to create a backup of your entire system, including both user and system files. This will allow you to restore your entire system from a Time Machine backup if the need ever arises, which is why many users recommend frequent Time Machine backups for your system.

Related: How to Use Time Machine to Back Up Your Mac

It's important to note that Time Machine doesn't back up every file every hour. Instead, it only backs up the files that have changed during the last hour. So if you haven't done anything in the last hour, your Mac won't probably take much time to do a back up. However, major system changes can take more time to back up to your external drive.

Time Machine doesn't cost much apart from the one-time investment in an external hard drive or SSD. Since the hard drive is a local storage site and doesn't rely on the internet for access, you can keep it somewhere safe and secure. However, you also have to remember that hard drives do eventually fail after a few years, so you'll have to change your drive after a while. It also won't help you much if you lose your hard drive with your Mac.

Time Machine is usually very easy to set up, but it can become a bit complicated if you plan to use network storage devices for the backup. A Time Machine backup also isn't as accessible as iCloud Drive, since the data on there can only be accessed on a Mac and not on any other device.

What's more, if you're already using iCloud Drive, you'll need to download all offloaded data onto your Mac to back it up using Time Machine.

The fundamental difference between iCloud Drive and Time Machine is that Time Machine is meant for complete system backups, including system files and settings. In case your Mac stops working or gets stolen, you can set up a new Mac using the Time Machine backup. Everything will be exactly the same as it was on your previous Mac.

Which One Should You Use?

The debate between using iCloud Drive or Time Machine is a long-standing one, and won't be ending anytime soon. Each backup method has its pros and cons. We recommend you use both if you can, using iCloud Drive for syncing your files to the cloud and keeping them accessible on different devices, and using Time Machine as an ultimate redundancy in case something goes wrong.

However, if you'd like to use only one of them, we recommend using Time Machine only. This it offers a complete system backup that can be used for a full system restore as compared to the user files backed up by iCloud Drive.

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