In short, we believe documents belong in the Documents folder, temporary projects or routine items you’re absolutely certain you won’t accidentally “clean up” can go on the Desktop, volumes formatted for anything besides APFS or Mac OS Extended may cause great pain so reformat your thumb drives or external drives, your best bet is to keep your documents on local storage, Time Machine + cloud backup is the bee’s knees, and iCloud Drive has a gotcha you need to consider every time you turn it off. Read on for some color!
Documents belong in Documents? Really? Really.
We strongly recommend you save your documents in your Documents folder. It’s out of the way enough to protect your files from cleanup “accidents” and a breeze to get to when you know how. From the Finder, go to the Go menu at the top of your screen, above all open windows, and click the Documents menu item. Or look to the sidebar on the left of an open Finder window, where you’ll usually see a Documents item you can click. Or, our favorite, use the Documents keyboard shortcut: Command (⌘) – Shift – O (the letter).
Why not on the Desktop?
We don’t usually recommend you save your documents on the Desktop. It’s a great place for temporary projects, and can also work for items you use every day – but there’s a potential gotcha: the Desktop begs you to clean it. With cleaning comes accidents. Those accidents can cost you a single file or a whole passel. It really, really hurts to lose a file with all of your financial history or a folder full of video you imported from – then deleted from – a camera a while back but haven’t gotten around to editing. We’ve seen too many accidents like that over the years, hence our recommendation: If you feel right at home using the Desktop for long-term storage, go right ahead – but if you’re not so sure about that keyboard shortcut we mentioned to get to the Documents folder (Command (⌘) – Shift – O), or didn’t know how to get there before you read this, give the Documents folder a chance.
What about thumb drives or external drives?
Most storage devices you buy for your Mac will come formatted for use in a Windows world, typically with the FAT32 or ExFAT filesystems. macOS provides basic support for these formats, so your new thumb drive or external drive will work out of the box, for the most part, but Apple has never guaranteed complete compatibility. Since macOS 10.15 Catalina, however, their support for FAT and ExFAT has gone from fair to you’d better have a backup. Try moving an open document in Preview on macOS 11.5 or later from an APFS or Mac OS Extended volume to a FAT volume and you’ll see what we mean. If you’re a developer, check out what happens when you use NSFileManager or copyfile() on macOS 11.5 or later to copy a file to a FAT volume. We can’t say for sure, but we believe these issues stem from a series of security-related changes in macOS Catalina and later that Apple’s FAT and ExFAT support was never tested against. Because, if Apple had tested, these issues wouldn’t have made it to anyone’s Mac… Right? We’ve reported the issues we know of to Apple and will keep you posted.
We say all of that to drive home that you really need to reformat thumb drives or external drives as soon as you plug them into your Mac. In general, if it’s SSD or flash-based, or a thumb drive, use APFS, and if it’s HDD or spinning media, use Mac OS Extended. With the Mac’s recent track record with FAT and ExFAT, you just don’t want to skip this step. If you’ve already got data on a drive and need to reformat, you’ll want to copy everything to a temporary folder in a volume on another drive before you go through with it. Read up on how to reformat or erase a volume here – and please pay attention to that first step.
But aren’t thumb drives more reliable than hard drives?
A lot of us have lost data when a hard drive bombed or our Mac was stolen. Some turn to thumb drives because they don’t trust hard drives anymore or want to keep their most valuable data in a safe place. We wouldn’t recommend that at all. We just don’t consider thumb drives an option for long-term data storage. They’re the modern floppy disk, really. You remember the 80’s and 90’s and the joys of floppy disks, right? No? Well, a reminder: the failure rate was up there with the Yugo and New Year’s resolutions. It’s true some floppies never died, but the ones that did often broke your heart or at least kicked off an all-nighter to crank out another copy of that term paper or spreadsheet. Thumb drives are in the same league: they tend toward cheaper construction and significantly slower flash storage, they can be physically torqued while inserted, bending their connectors with the potential to rip them from the circuitry within, and it’s not uncommon to forget you need to eject them before removing them, upping the chances of corruption. Like floppies, we’ve seen many fail. Would you trust a $5 thumb drive over the storage you paid Apple a premium to build into your Mac? Our recommendation is to reformat thumb drives to APFS as soon as you can and only use them for temporary storage, moving files between devices, or occasional backups. Again, read up on how to reformat or erase a volume here – and, again, please pay attention to that first step. If you need a long-term backup solution, keep reading.
Can I keep my documents on a file server or in a shared folder on another computer?
Whether we’re talking live documents you actually work in or backups made from within the application, using the Finder, or with third-party backup software, the answer is it depends, but we wouldn’t recommend it unless you know the risks of your particular situation.
If you’re using SMB, in general, the Mac’s client will get the job done. The devil, of course, is in the details. In this case, instead of seven levels of Hell, the Mac sees seven different kinds, or flavors, of SMB, depending on the server and the filesystem format of the shared volume, and it can behave differently for each flavor.
To see the SMB flavor the Mac is using for a shared volume, click the Finder icon on your Dock, go to the Go menu, click the Computer menu item, single-click the volume’s icon, go to the File menu, click the Get Info menu item, and look for the Format in the General section near the top of the window.
As of macOS 11.6, our tests show the best compatibility with the SMB (OS X) and SMB (NTFS) flavors. Outside of those two, we see a pair of risks you won’t want to ignore: NSFileManager and copyfile() on macOS 11.5 were unable to copy files to other SMB flavors, a situation Apple didn’t address for 7.5 weeks, which led to data loss in numerous applications, including some of Apple’s own, and, as appears to have been the case for years, NSFileManager sometimes – anywhere from 0.5% to 16% of the time, depending on the underlying filesystem format – reports it can’t copy or remove a file because of a permissions issue. As an aside, the Finder was immune to the first issue, which appeared to be security-related and the Finder likely had a blessed way around such, but it is not immune to the second issue. As an added bonus, the Finder won’t tell you when a copy fails in this particular fashion.
Try it for yourself: Go to the Finder, create a folder, put a few hundred files in it, then copy it to an XFS volume on a Linux Mint server shared with SMB. We just did it and 8 out of 210 files are junk. We didn’t record that test, but here’s another where 4 out of 210 files ended up as 4K instead of 50K like the original – with no error at all from the Finder:
If the Finder can’t see these kinds of things coming, the rest of us are probably in for it. So, based on how we’ve seen the Mac’s SMB client perform in various conditions, we’re updating our applications to do their best to warn when you interact with volumes like these on macOS 11.5 or later. The same issues may affect older versions of macOS but we haven’t had a chance to test yet. These warnings can be disabled so, if you accept the risks or they don’t apply, you can carry on.
If you’re using AFP, odds are also good things will go smoothly. We haven’t seen it fail at basic file copying lately, but let us know if you do and we’ll dig in with you.
If you’re using any other protocol, like NFS, you’re in a greyer area than we can really get into. As with the majority of SMB flavors, we’re updating our applications to try to warn about the risks of other protocols on macOS 11.5 and later. The same issues may affect older versions of macOS but we haven’t had a chance to test yet. Again, the warnings can be disabled so, if the risks don’t faze you or aren’t a factor in your situation, they won’t get in your way.
Thoughts on backups?
The Mac’s Time Machine is, hands-down, your easiest backup solution. It may not always deliver on the promise to completely restore your Mac exactly as it was before a catastrophe, but it’ll usually save your bacon if you lose or mangle a file and need to go back a day or six months to find an earlier version. We can’t recommend strongly enough Time Machine and a backup drive about twice the size of your startup volume – unless you’re backing up other drives, as well, in which case you’ll want about twice the total you’re backing up.
But Time Machine isn’t always the only answer. It stores your data on a device that can fail – and while your data is now on two devices, so failure is less of an issue, both of those devices are probably under the same roof. A roof that tops a building that can burn, flood, fall over…you get the idea. If you can’t regularly store a second Time Machine drive (which Time Machine does allow) at another physical location, we recommend exploring cloud storage or backup solutions. Something like BackBlaze or Carbonite will probably do, though we’re not pushing a particular vendor. Now you’re protected from failure, disaster, and thievery. The trifecta!
And syncing Desktop & Documents with iCloud Drive?
iCloud Drive’s Desktop & Documents Folders option makes a lot of sense for a lot of folks. It sends whatever you put in these two folders up to iCloud Drive, syncs it to all of your devices, and everyone lives happily ever after. Until…you turn it off. And maybe back on. And maybe off again. Then things get…weird.
Each time you turn iCloud Drive off it creates a backup folder called “iCloud Drive (Archive)” containing everything you had stored in iCloud Drive and stores it in your home folder. When you turn iCloud Drive back on, that iCloud Drive (Archive) folder stays put – nothing in it moves back into place. If no other devices removed anything from iCloud Drive in the meantime, everything should sync back down to your Mac as your bandwidth allows. If that doesn’t work out, though, and you need anything from your previous iCloud Drive storage, you’ll have to go dig it up in the iCloud Drive (Archive) folder. When you turn iCloud Drive back off, another iCloud Drive (Archive) folder is created, with an incrementing number at the end of its name. As you can guess, as iCloud Drive is turned off and on, the cycle continues and you can end up with any number of iCloud Drive (Archive) folders.
Things get especially tricky when you use the Desktop & Documents Folders option since, like everything else in iCloud Drive, those two folders will be moved to the iCloud Drive (Archive) folder when you turn off iCloud Drive. That means everything in those two folders on your Mac will disappear. The files aren’t really gone, they’re just in a different folder where you’ll likely never think or know to look. Worse, in true Mac fashion almost every application tracks your documents with aliases or bookmarks so they can automatically find things in that iCloud Drive (Archive) folder without asking you for help. That doesn’t sound worse, at first – because yay! your data is still there and you didn’t have to do anything to go find it – but you probably didn’t even know it moved in the first place…so when you come across that iCloud Drive (Archive) folder you might end up doing the unspeakable: you might throw it in the Trash and empty it without looking inside or, even if you do look in there, you may not recognize everything that’s within or realize what it means to throw it all out. Long story short, you’re setting up to lose data. And we mention all of this because we see it happen a lot. So we like iCloud Drive and recommend it, but if you ever turn it off, immediately go find that iCloud Drive (Archive) folder, open it, move everything from the Desktop folder to your actual Desktop, move everything from the Documents folder to your actual Documents folder, and poke around the other folders in there to see if there’s anything you need to keep on your Mac. In the end, you don’t want to keep the iCloud Drive (Archive) folder around. If you do, the next time this whole cycle repeats you’ll have two of them to deal with, then three, four, and so on.
If you need help
We just laid out a ton of information and you’re bound to have questions, especially if Audiobook Builder, CheckBook, or CheckBook Pro just sent you here. Get in touch at email@example.com and we’ll be happy to provide any additional details you need!