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Sharing Files Between Mac OS X and Windows

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Popular belief is that Windows and Mac could not be more different and will never work well together. In a lot of ways, that’s true. There’s no native way to use most iCloud features on Windows, the filesystems often conflict in services like Dropbox due to a difference in naming—what’s hidden and what isn’t—and so on. 

Despite all this, Apple still built OS X with a function that allows file sharing with Windows. It’s hidden in System Preferences, though, and most people don’t know how to use it. In this tutorial, I’ll show you the basics of sharing files with Windows using OS X’s native solution, as well as a few alternatives.

How File Sharing Works

Every computer has the ability to share files with another machine over a network, whether it’s a local area network (LAN) or wireless local area network (WLAN). The devices use the router as a connection point to transmit files to each other. 

The term file sharing makes this technology sound limited—you can actually share entire folders with people on the same network as you. iTunes uses this technology to share your media library with other people on your network.

File sharing can often be a faster way to keep computers on your network updated with the latest files for a project. People usually use it with one platform or the other, not Mac-to-Windows or vice versa. 

It can, however, be a better way to collaborate in the office or give files to a friend without a USB drive or any external hardware aside from a network. If you don’t have a network or the Windows machine you’re using doesn’t have Wi-Fi, you can always use a direct Ethernet cable instead.

Users and File Sharing

Before you proceed, it’s important that you know administrator accounts have access to the entire Macintosh HD. 

On the Windows side, you’ll be prompted to log in to an account on the Mac for file sharing. If you use your administrator account, it will have access to everything on your computer. If you’d like to restrict the access, you can do so by adding a new user account and giving it access to those files. The Windows machine will then use its credentials and be sandboxed to those specific files and folders.

Adding a user account may be necessary if you need to keep some things private.

Another important note about administrator accounts in file sharing: they have read and write access. If you don’t want the Windows machine to have the ability to add, remove, or modify something on your Mac, ensure that you use an extra user account.

Setting Up Native File Sharing With Windows

Checking the On box beside your user will enable Windows file haring.

Configuring Windows file sharing is a pretty straightforward process and only takes about five minutes. Below is a step-by-step guide to getting started.

  1. Ensure you’re connected to the same network as the other computer(s).
  2. Launch System Preferences, select the Sharing pane, and unlock it if need be.
  3. Select File Sharing from the sidebar, but don’t check the box beside it just yet.
  4. If you chose to use the user-based file sharing method, you’ll need to set which folders to share. Under the Shared Folders menu, add a folder you would like to share by clicking +, locating it in the file browser, and double-clicking it. There may be a delay when clicking + while the system loads settings. By default, your user’s Public folder will be the only thing shared. You can copy items into it to share them.
  5. Click Options and check the On box beside your user in the Windows File Sharing box.
  6. Check the On box beside File Sharing in the left pane to switch it on.

Accessing the Files from Windows

Once you’ve set up file sharing on the Mac, accessing it is the second part of the challenge. Once again, I’ve compiled a quick step-by-step guide to make sure you can access the files.

The whole process is pretty quick.
  1. Launch Windows Explorer and click Network in the left pane. You may be asked to enable network visibility. You need to do this in order to access the files on your Mac.
  2. Find the Mac. It may be named something different than it is in System Preferences. For example, my computer’s local network name is FluffyMittenBook, but it appeared as MACBOOKPRO–14D8 on the Windows machine. You’ll find the machine under the Computer section of the Explorer window.
  3. Double-click the icon for the Mac. You’ll be asked for a username and password. These credentials will be the same as the ones associated with the user account from which you are sharing the files. To check the username, head to Finder and look at the name beside your home folder. Be sure to use the exact same name—it’s case-sensitive.
  4. Upon successful authentication, the Windows computer will be granted access to the folders that you have shared on the network. If you logged in with an administrator account, you’ll see its public folder, home folder, and the Macintosh HD, along with any other folders you shared.
  5. To test the connection with your Mac, try transferring a file from it to the desktop. If you have administrator access to the Mac in File sharing, you can also try transferring something to the Mac. These should be relatively fast, but it all depends on the speed of the router and computer WiFi cards.

OS X File Sharing Alternatives

It’s important to mention the other options available to Mac and Windows users. I’ve compiled a short list of the two best tools for the job below, along with a short description of why they’re useful. You may have your own preference, which you’re free to mention in the comments.

  • Dropbox. I use this cloud-based service for everything from photo backups to large file sharing. Most people don’t know that it has local network sync as well, so you can transfer large files from one computer to another quickly if they’re near each other.
  • Google Drive. This service is similar to Dropbox, but has more space for free and is powered by Google’s absurdly-vast array of servers. It has native apps available for both Mac and Windows, but unlike Dropbox it does not offer local network sync.

More Sharing

In this tutorial, I’ve described file sharing from Mac to Windows, common issues you may encounter, and some alternatives to the integrated options. For more on the topic, refer to “A Beginner’s Guide to OS X File Sharing”. 

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