File Syncing Services Keep Your Laptop Up-to-Date

Still using only one computer? This might be the year that changes. You could use a netbook as a secondary laptop for taking into meetings or on business trips, for example. Or maybe you've decided to buy an Apple MacBook for personal use, while continuing to travel with the Windows laptop your company gave you.

The biggest downside to using multiple computers is that your files can be scattered across them, making it difficult to know where a particular file is at any given time. It doesn't need to be this way, though, because there are plenty of options for synchronizing files and information.

An online file syncing service makes documents from one computer accessible from other computers and, in some cases, mobile phones. Recently, I gave SharpCast SugarSync a try. The easy-to-use service works with Macs and Windows computers. It combines online backup, file syncing, file sharing, and remote access for monthly rates of $5 (for up to 30GB of data storage/syncing), $10 (60GB), $15 (100GB), and $25 (250GB).

Sync Files Automatically

To use SugarSync, download the free SugarSync Manager program to each computer you use. Then designate the folders you want synced. SugarSync will automatically upload files (including music and image files) from the designated folders over the Internet to the company's servers. When you revise an existing file on your computer, the latest version is automatically uploaded on SharpCast's servers, too.

With SugarSync, files from one computer are accessible from another and vice versa. For example, using my Windows Vista PC, I can access files that originated on my Apple MacBook Air, as long as those files exist in a folder I told SugarSync to sync.

You can sync and access your files several ways. One is to choose SugarSync Manager's "replicate folder" option, which duplicates a designated folder on one computer to a similarly named folder on another computer. This keeps files automatically synced between the two folders on the two different computers.

Internet Access Advised

When you revise a file on one computer, those changes are automatically replicated to the second computer, as long as both computers are connected to the Internet. If one computer isn't online when a file is revised, the changes are replicated as soon as that computer is connected to the Internet again.

To avoid inadvertently working on an outdated version of a file, you should connect the computer to the Internet before you start working, whenever possible. SugarSync Manager will tell you the status of your files with messages such as "All files are backed up and in sync." In my experience, the updates and syncs between computers happened quickly and transparently.

Another option is to sync files through SugarSync's Magic Briefcase folder feature. Files on one computer are automatically synced and downloaded to the Magic Briefcase folder on all your other computers. This makes it easy to drag and drop files to the folder for quick syncing.

You can also log in to your SugarSync account using a Web browser, or use SugarSync Manager, to directly download to one computer any file from a synced folder on another computer.

SugarSync iPhone App

Here's the cool thing about SugarSync: You can view and e-mail your files on an Apple iPhone using the free SugarSync iPhone app. If you have a different smart phone, you can log into your SugarSync account using your phone's Web browser to access your files.

SugarSync could serve as your online backup solution, like Mozy and other services, in addition to providing file syncing and remote access. However, SugarSync is more expensive to use than Mozy, for example. Mozy's monthly rates begin at $5 for unlimited storage.

File Syncing Alternatives

SugarSync isn't your only option, of course.

Microsoft recently revamped its free FolderShare service, renaming it Windows Live Sync and now offering the ability to sync up to 20 folders with 20,000 files each. Windows Live Sync is also free. I've been a loyal FolderShare user for years, and so far, my experience with Windows Live Sync has been positive. Though not as full-featured as SugarSync, Windows Live Sync may offer all the file syncing you need.

Apple MobileMe ($99/yearly), after its notoriously rocky start, has settled down to be a decent file syncing service, though it's not as useful for Windows users as SugarSync or FolderShare. MobileMe's real strength is in syncing contacts and appointments between Outlook on a Windows PC, iCal on a Mac, and the calendar program on iPhones and iPod Touch players. It also works well for photo sharing. And it syncs bookmarks between Apple's Safari and Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browsers.

If you use Mozilla Firefox, download and install the free Foxmarks add-on. It does a superb job of automatically syncing your Firefox bookmarks between multiple computers.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

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