Utility software

Stay in Sync

The days of the solo employee toiling away on a single computer are long gone. Whether telecommuting from a home system, collaborating via a company laptop, or conferencing over a cell phone, people today use an array of devices in a variety of places to access and share the data they need, whenever they need it.

But ensuring that you have the most current versions of your files at hand when you need them hasn't always been easy; typically it involves making manual uploads to a shared server or sending multiple e-mail attachments. Fortunately, more-elegant alternatives are becoming available, as a new crop of services allow users to transfer files to other PCs and share them with friends or colleagues via the Internet--all the while keeping the data in sync no matter where it might reside. Some also offer remote-access features, so you can operate one PC from the desktop of another.

I put five services--Dropbox, Microsoft's Live Mesh, Phoenix Technologies' BeInSync Professional, Sharpcast's SugarSync, and Syncplicity--through their paces. All of them allow you to keep your document files in sync with versions on other computers, and to store copies online. Most make it easy to share the files with other people; and two, Dropbox and Syncplicity, permit you to store multiple file versions so you can recover earlier drafts.

Any of these offerings provide a real service for users who have to wrangle files on several computers, but Syncplicity's feature set and ease of use made it my top pick. (Note that I was not able to test all newcomers in this rapidly growing category: Memeo, for example, provides similar services in a more piecemeal manner.)

Though all have similar functionality, they differ in their implementation of certain features. For example, all inform you--even if only via a taskbar tool tip--when files are up-to-date or uploads are complete. But BeInSync and Live Mesh make you search for the extensive information they provide in a window or on a Web page; I prefer the way Dropbox and Syncplicity simply put overlays (such as a green check mark) on the icons of all up-to-date files in your sync folders.

Most of these programs have a browser-based file manager so you can work with the online copies of your files from any computer. Unfortunately such efforts are generally disappointing, with minimal file tools and clumsy check-box selections.

In my tests, performance varied. SugarSync and Live Mesh proved to be speed demons in my upload test, with Syncplicity and Dropbox bringing up the rear. However, the speed (or the lack thereof) is really noticeable only the first time you sync or upload a large amount of data. After that, updates are all reasonably swift, so I did not weigh performance heavily in my ratings.

All of these products have some way of dealing with file conflicts--for example, when two people edit the same file remotely, producing different versions. Most of them store both copies in all synced locations but rename them, sometimes with information about the version (such as the author account or date of creation).

Dropbox and Live Mesh were in beta testing at the time of this writing, so prices were not available; consequently, I did not assign them ratings. The others charge monthly or annual fees that vary depending on how much storage capacity you need.

Read Our Reviews

To find out how each of the services performed, click the links below to read the reviews and to see the ranked chart. 

  1. Syncplicity
  2. BeInSync
  3. SugarSync
  4. Dropbox
  5. Live Mesh

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