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5 Ways to Sync Files Between Your Macs

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Many of us often find ourselves using more than one Mac in different locations at some point and need a way of keeping the files we work on in sync. Sure, we can use a USB stick, but they're easily lost and not as practical as automated file matching. In this tutorial, we’ll detail five different ways you can easily keep your Mac’s files in sync.


Dropbox

Cost: Free up to 2GB (Paid Upgrades Available)
Requirements: Registration

DropBox is one of the few file syncing services we’ll be looking at today.
DropBox is one of the five file syncing services we’ll be looking at today.

Dropbox is known as the gold standard of file syncing and it’s not surprising. It’s available on a wide range of desktop and mobile operating systems and requires almost no user intervention to use - if ever there was an app that deserved to be described as “it just works”, then Dropbox would be it.

When you install Dropbox, it creates a folder on your computer (usually in your home folder) and anything you put in it is automatically synced to their cloud. What this means is that any computer you install Dropbox on will always have the exact same files and changes. Add a file, it’ll automatically show up on the other computers. Delete it and it deletes it from the others too. It’s like having the same folder with you on whatever computer you use.

Basics Dropbox accounts are free with 2GB of storage. They also have paid-for upgrades that can go all the way up to 1TB if necessary!

Tip: Dropbox also has a great web interface for uploading and downloading files. While not really suitable for editing files, it’s perfect for getting that much-needed on the go access!

Installation

Step 1: Visit Dropbox and click Download.

The Dropbox main page is very minimal and makes it really easy to download the app.
The Dropbox main page is very minimal and makes it really easy to download the app.

Step 2: Once downloaded, open the DMG file and drag the Dropbox application to your Applications folder.

DropBox requires no installation, just drag the app to the Applications folder.
DropBox requires no installation, just drag the app to the Applications folder.

Step 3: Double-click the Dropbox application to begin the first set up.

Setting Up

Now you’ve got the app running, it’s time to set up. If you’ve got a Dropbox account, sign in. If not, complete the quick registration form and you’ll get a free 2GB account.

Select whether you need to register or if you’ve already got a Dropbox account.
Select whether you need to register or if you’ve already got a Dropbox account.

Once signed in, complete the setup assistant. I’d recommend sticking to the default settings and keeping the Dropbox folder in your home folder.

You can register for a new Dropbox account during the setup process.
You can register for a new Dropbox account during the setup process.

In Use

Once you’ve installed Dropbox, you’ll notice a menu bar icon and a new folder in your home folder. Dropbox also sets up a shortcut link in the sidebar of the Finder.

Dropbox automatically creates it’s own folder that will always remain in sync.
Dropbox automatically creates its own folder that will always remain in sync.

During its first use and whenever you copy some files into the folder you’ll notice the Dropbox folder has a small blue “syncing” badge. Once it’s a green tick, it’s finished syncing.

If you’re without an internet connection - don’t worry, you will always have access to the files in your Dropbox because they’re always kept for offline use. If the Dropbox app can’t connect, the app’s icon will be greyed out.

Once you set up Dropbox on more than one computer, you’ll have instant access to all the files you have in your Dropbox folder on whichever computer you’re using. It’s like a USB key you’ll always have up to date and never have to carry around. And because Dropbox works across multiple platforms, you can use it on OS X, Windows and even Linux.

Tip: Dropbox and the other sync services we’re looking at don’t work too well with Applications stored in it and you may find trying to run apps that were synced with Dropbox won’t work properly. Keep Dropbox limited to files and folders and it’ll always be trouble-free.


Google Drive

Cost: Free up to 5GB (Paid Upgrades Available)
Requirements: Google Account

Google Drive
Google Drive

Google Drive is Google’s answer to keeping files in sync and on the cloud and it operates in almost the same way as Dropbox. Google Drive has a folder that resides on your Mac that it always keeps in sync. It has a web interface for accessing files on the go, but unlike Dropbox, Google provides it’s own suite of online productivity apps such as Google Docs and Google Spreadsheet. Whenever you create a new document or spreadsheet, it’ll save to your Google Drive too.

Installation

Step 1: Visit Google Drive and click Download for Desktop.

Google Drive’s main page is similar to Dropbox in that it quickly lets users download the app.
Google Drive’s main page is similar to Dropbox in that it quickly lets users download the app.

Step 2: Once downloaded, open the DMG file and drag the Google Drive application to your Applications folder.

Google Drive also requires no installation, just drag the app to the Applications folder.
Google Drive also requires no installation, just drag the app to the Applications folder.

Step 3: Double-click the Google Drive application to begin the first set up.

Setting Up

Using Google Drive requires signing in with a Google account. If you use Gmail then you can simply use that account.

Google Drive requires a Google account.
"Google Drive requires a Google account.

Once signed in, you can complete the (very short) setup assistant. Again, I recommend using the default settings.

Google Drive only requires a few steps to setup.
Google Drive only requires a few steps to setup.

In Use

Just like Dropbox, Google Drive adds a folder on your computer that will always be in sync. A blue sync icon will display over files that are currently syncing.

The Google Drive folder is where you’d keep any files you want to keep in sync.
The Google Drive folder is where you’d keep any files you want to keep in sync.

After that, it operates almost identically to Dropbox. Just keep files in the Google Drive folder to keep them in sync with other computers and devices you’ve set up Google Drive on.

Tip: If you’ve got any Microsoft Office-compatible documents within your Google Drive folder, then you can open them within the Google apps too.

Microsoft SkyDrive

Cost: Free up to 7GB (Paid Upgrades Available)
Requirements: Microsoft Live Account

Microsoft SkyDrive
Microsoft SkyDrive

Microsoft recently entered the file-syncing service arena earlier this year with their SkyDrive service. Initially offering 25GB, they reduced the amount for new account holders to 7GB. This means that SkyDrive currently offers the most space for a free account. Just like Dropbox and Google Drive, it sets up a folder that you place files/folders in to keep in sync with other computers and devices that SkyDrive has been set up on. No doubt you’ve noticed a trend Dropbox started with this whole “folder syncing” service!

Installation

Step 1: Visit SkyDrive to download SkyDrive for Mac. You’ll need to sign in here with a Microsoft Live account before you can download it.

Accessing SkyDrive for Mac isn’t as quick as Dropbox or Google Drive. You have to first log in and then download the app.
Accessing SkyDrive for Mac isn’t as quick as Dropbox or Google Drive. You have to first log in and then download the app.

Step 2: Once downloaded, you’ll find the SkyDrive app within your Downloads folder. Drag it to your applications folder. SkyDrive doesn’t download as a DMG, instead it’s simply a ZIP file with the application ready to move.

Step 3: Double-click the SkyDrive application to begin the first set up.

Setting Up

Using SkyDrive requires signing in with a Microsoft Live account. If you’re an Xbox, Hotmail or Outlook.com user, then you’ll already have one.

SkyDrive has an easy to follow setup assistant just like Dropbox and Google Drive.
Drive has an easy to follow setup assistant just like Dropbox and Google Drive.

Once you’ve signed in, the setup is actually a little shorter than the other apps we’ve looked at. Again, default settings are always recommended!

You can opt to have SkyDrive open at login (which should be done if you want to make sure it’s automatic).
You can opt to have SkyDrive open at login (which should be done if you want to make sure it’s automatic).

However, unlike Dropbox and Google Drive - there’s no default location for your SkyDrive folder when you first run. This is strange since the other services default to the home folder but give you the option to change. Instead, SkyDrive must be told where to store the folder. Click the Choose SkyDrive Folder Location button and specify where you want it to go. Keep it in your home folder to avoid any unexpected problems.

SkyDrive does specify the default location as your home folder when you choose the location, so usually it’s best just to click Choose this Location.
SkyDrive does specify the default location as your home folder when you choose the location, so usually it’s best just to click Choose this Location.

In Use

As usual, you’ll find a SkyDrive folder on your Mac within your home folder (unless you specified to have it elsewhere). Just like Dropbox and Google Drive, anything you keep in the folder is kept in sync with other computers and devices.

Tip: Just like Dropbox and Google Drive, you can access your files through a web interface too.

SugarSync

Cost: Free up to 5GB (Paid Upgrades Available)
Requirements: Registration

SugarSync
SugarSync

SugarSync is a popular alternative to the services we’ve gone through above. It’s extremely similar but has some key differences that might make or break your decision to use a service like Dropbox.

Unlike the services above which creates a dedicated sync folder, SugarSync’s difference is that it lets you pick the folders you want to sync. You can save documents to wherever you want and specify the enclosing folder is kept in sync. For example, with Dropbox, if you wanted all your documents saved then you’d save them all within the Dropbox folder. With SugarSync, you keep saving your documents to your usual Documents folder and just select it to be synced.

The benefit of this is that you don’t need to change your workflow. If you have a very specific (and complicated) file hierarchy and don’t really want to move it, SugarSync can let you keep it exactly where it is. And because SugarSync is designed for multiple devices, it’ll keep the other Macs’ (or PCs) folders in sync too.

Installation

Step 1: Visit SugarSync and click Download SugarSync for Free.

SugarSync has an easy to find download button just like Dropbox and Google Drive.
SugarSync has an easy to find download button just like Dropbox and Google Drive.

Step 2: Once downloaded, open the DMG file and drag the SugarSync application to your Applications folder.

SugarSync also requires no installation, just drag the app to the Applications folder.
SugarSync also requires no installation, just drag the app to the Applications folder.

Step 3: Double-click the SugarSync application to begin the first set up.

Setting Up

When you first run SugarSync, it will prompt you to either sign up for a new account or log in with an existing one.

SugarSync’s setup assistant first needs you to log in.
SugarSync’s setup assistant first needs you to log in.

Once you sign in, this is where SugarSync comes into it’s own. It doesn’t create a new folder to add files to, it will ask which folders you would like to sync. You can be as granular as you like too.

SugarSync’s unique selling point is that you tell it which folders to sync, not the other way around!
SugarSync’s unique selling point is that you tell it which folders to sync, not the other way around!

And that’s it! SugarSync also has a web interface as well and is cross-platform too.

In Use

SugarSync doesn’t require you to change where and how you save files. Simply work as normal and as long as you specified the folder you frequently use as one that is to be synced, it’ll take care of it for you.

iCloud (Documents in the Cloud)

Cost: Free up to 5GB (Paid Upgrades Available)
Requirements: iCloud Account and Mountain Lion

Apple iCloud
Apple iCloud

Now, before we get started with iCloud it’s important to know that Apple's version of "Documents in the Cloud" is not the same as that of Google or Dropbox. Instead of syncing files using the traditional file system of files and folders, the documents are kept in sync within the application’s environment. Confused? Let’s clear it up!

Documents in the Cloud

With the introduction of iCloud and Mountain Lion, certain applications can create documents within iCloud that will sync to any Mac (and iOS device) that is signed in to the same iCloud account.

iCloud includes a syncing feature called Documents in the Cloud
iCloud includes a syncing feature called Documents in the Cloud

Apple describes this syncing capability of iCloud as “Documents in the Cloud” and they summarize it with the following description on their website:

If you have the same iCloud-enabled apps on more than one device, iCloud automatically keeps the documents you create — and other important data used by your apps — up to date across all your devices.

Let’s give this a try using the application TextEdit.

Step 1: Open TextEdit and create a new document.

Open TextEdit to create a new document.
Open TextEdit to create a new document.

Step 2: Save the document, and where you would usually change the folder you want to save to, you’ll see a new option for iCloud.

title
Save the document and select iCloud as the destination.

Step 3: Hit save… and that’s it!

Once you’ve saved, there’s absolutely nothing to prompt you that it’s doing any syncing to iCloud. This file will now be accessible on another Macs running Mountain Lion you’re signed into iCloud on. Just like the other file syncing services we’ve looked at, the file will always be available on your Mac even if there is no internet connection. To test this:

Step 1: In TextEdit, click File > Open.

Step 2: When the open dialog box appears, click the iCloud button on the top-left.

There’s the file we just created!
There’s the file we just created!

Unlike the other services we’ve talked about, files saved using iCloud are only accessible with the apps you created them with. So for the TextEdit file we created above, we can only open it in TextEdit on the Mac. If we used Pages in iWork ’09, we’d be able to access it not only in Pages for Mountain Lion but also in Pages for iOS. The downside to this is that any files you could use different applications for (such as simple .txt files) can only be opened by those apps. You can then save them to your Mac normally and edit them in a different app.

While this isn’t ideal, it does make sense as it removes any compatibility issues when opening files. For novice users just wanting to edit documents, they may not want (or care for) a different app to open a file with.

Unlike the other services we’ve talked about, files saved using iCloud are only accessible with the apps you created them with.

Overall, Documents in the Cloud is great for those wanting a really simple and built-in ability to access common files on their Macs and iOS devices. Since Documents in the Cloud can be leveraged by any developer, it provides a very iOS-like experience on the Mac for a wide range of different apps.

A great 3rd-party app that leverages this is Byword, a writing utility that is available for OS X and iOS. Byword documents saved to iCloud are accessible on any device you have the app installed on.

Wrapping Up

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to file syncing between Macs. All of the services above (with the exception of iCloud) work on multiple platforms and devices. However, you want to manage your files across multiple Macs, you’ll find at least one of the above services will work for you. Which one you go for will be down to how you manage your workflow.

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