For a normal Mac laptop user, it would seem that almost everything important (Documents, Desktop, photos) are backed up on iCloud. Most apps needs to get downloaded again anyway.

Does iCloud retain versions?

What would you lose if your hard drive died?

  • 5
    This raises a very interesting question, for me. As an oldie, I've never trusted* iCloud for anything more than ephemeral backups & cross-device synchronisation. I don't put my photos on there even, I just don't "trust it" to never lose them. My 'real' backups are a) locally on Time Machine & b) on Backblaze, in case the house burns down. [My iDevices are also backed to my Mac, with the same TM/BB redundancy.] Re: 'trusted' *I've never thought iCloud may 'fail' I've just always thought user error could wipe the lot.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 31, 2020 at 20:11
  • 1
    As an oldie, I don't want Apple (or anyone) having copies of all my private files! Even if they were entirely benign (which they're arguably not), there's still a non-zero risk of my data being stolen; an attacker could probably find plenty of material with which to commit fraud (‘identity theft’), blackmail,…
    – gidds
    Feb 3, 2020 at 17:13

3 Answers 3


iCloud is sync service. Time Machine is a backup tool.

They're both important and not interchangeable.

You use iCloud to sync content across all your devices. This way, you can access the most current version of a file, document, or photo, from any device where you're signed-in with the same Apple ID.

Time Machine is designed to create and store backups, including versions. This is only accessible from a device that locate and mount the TM backup. Nothing stays in sync across your devices.

If your local hard drive fails, you can use your Time Machine backup to restore your files and retain your version. iCloud will only allow you to sync the most-recent version of your files back to your drive, without version history.

I recommend using both of these but use, and understand, them appropriately.

  • 2
    , it's just interesting that apple discontinued the airport time machine.
    – breuklyner
    Jan 31, 2020 at 22:17
  • 2
    @breuklyner They apparently wanted to get out of the router business. The Time Machine server software is now present in MacOs itself, so you can set up a server Mac to function similar to a Time Capsule. I think it is a bad decision. I love my Time Capsule. Feb 2, 2020 at 1:11
  • Notably, Time Machine backs up data not stored in iCloud: app preferences, your Downloads folder, software you've installed, etc. Feb 3, 2020 at 17:09

iCloud may retain versions for those applications that use Apple's Auto-save and Versioning paradigm, but you won't have the same 'snapshot' archive that a TM backup gives you.

TM backups everything: not just Desktop and Documents, Photos; but preferences, applications, system files. You can restore an entire volume from a TM backup. Over the years, I thought I could rely on the internet to archive stuff and just download it again - installer pkgs, applications, documentation - but I've found that things can often be withdrawn, disappear or be changed.

TM also keeps files you've deleted. That's not the case for iCloud Drive.

Most of all, a TM disk connected to your Mac is much faster than downloading from the internet, particularly if you have to recover everything. Don't forget that internet outages are a thing.

A backup is a very particular thing. TM is a backup. iCloud is not.

  • All fair points. But it does seem like, for the average user, the items you list are significantly less important than photos, etc.
    – breuklyner
    Jan 31, 2020 at 21:23
  • 4
    Just browse this site to see how often "the average user" comes unstuck because they don't have a TM backup.
    – benwiggy
    Jan 31, 2020 at 21:58
  • I disagree with the last sentence. iCloud is a backup by any sensible definition. It shouldn’t be your only backup - but nothing should be your only backup
    – Tim
    Feb 1, 2020 at 10:11
  • 12
    @Tim: The job of a backup is to allow you to go back to a known-good version if you accidentally destroy something. The job of a sync service, is to ensure that if you accidentally destroy something, it is accidentally destroyed on all your devices. That is a very important difference. (And to complete the trifecta: the job of a version control system is to record additional metadata about who destroyed something and why.) Feb 1, 2020 at 10:38

iCloud is no protection for unintentionally deleted or corrupted data. Yes, could re-install the OS and your apps and get your data back, but not that file you accidentally deleted three months ago.

This is the real difference between a sync service and a backup service .

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .