Keeping files synchronized across multiple computers

Using multiple computers on a regular basis (and on different platforms), I started looking for a way to keep the files I need most synchronized across all of them, e.g. to give me access to the documents I regularly access on whatever computer I am. Until now, I’ve been using MobileMe’s iDisk from Apple and a USB stick, and after some intensive use, really need to find something better. I had a look at multiple solutions, including DropBox, Windows Live Sync, Live Mesh, BeInSync, Syncplicity and SugarSync. Yes, there is a lot of choice out there, and it took me a while to sort out through all of it.

So far, I’ve been keeping the files I want to be able to access on a regular basis from anywhere on Apple’s online storage space called iDisk (part of the MobileMe service that I blogged about previously). While it has been working well for the last few months, I have noticed a few synchronizing problems from time to time, and I find the service rather slow. In addition, the offline sync option is only possible on a Mac (you can access your files from a Windows computer through the web interface or through WebDav). The space available is also getting a little small for me (20Gb at the time of writing). And to increase the security risk, I’ve also kept some of the files I am working on on a USB stick that I carry with me… yes I know, not good, and I need to change that.

I therefore started looking at various alternatives for online services that enable to sync files across multiple computers, give access to your files through a web interface and is relatively secure (assuming you trust the provider of the online service). I’ve excluded Live Mesh as it is still in early beta, Windows Live Sync because it is based on a peer-to-peer network and requires at least one of the machine to be online to sync the others, and BeInSync because it is targeting the business users (pricing starts at $10 per month for 5 or more users) Here is a quick summary table of the various solutions I looked at and what they offer:

MobileMe DropBox Syncplicity SugarSync
Summary Apple’s online service that includes file sharing, email, calendaring, contacts and MacOS / iPhone specific features (push, preferences sync) Very easy and straight-foreward file syncing service, and nothing else. The web UI is very clean and easy to navigate, and the desktop app stays out of the way. Online service to sync, backup and share files online, with links to various online services such as Google Docs, Zoho, Facebook, Picnick, … Combination of online file syncing, backup, remote access and file sharing service
Automatic Sync of a specific location on the computer Yes, stored as a disk image and mounted at start-up Yes, folder is called DropBox No Yes, folder is called “Magic Briefcase”
Sync any folder on the computer with other machines No No Yes, by default it recommends to sync the various standard Windows user folders (docs, desktop, photos, …) Yes (as per danlist’s comment to this blog post)
Online backup, e.g. files are not synced on other machines No (I do not consider the Backup app as a solution in this case) No No Yes, and you can access the files through the web interface / desktop app if needed)
Remote access to files on computer (not remote terminal) if the machine is running Yes, through a feature called “Back to my Mac” (not always reliable depending on firewalls / routers) No No Only those that are backed-up online
File sharing option with others (for photos, docs, …) Yes Yes. You can share photos, folders and files Yes Yes, for folders, photos and documents
Version control support No (TimeMachine on the Mac does not count) Yes, access of older versions through the web interface Yes Yes
OS Support for desktop app / sync MacOS X 10.4+

 

Windows computers can access through web interface or WebDav

Windows XP+
MacOS X 10.4+
Linux
Windows XP+
MacOS X version announced but not available yet
Windows XP+
MacOS X 10.4+
Mobile phone access (except through mobile web browser) Not from Apple, but there are iPhone apps to connect to your iDisk online No No iPhone / iPod Touch
Windows Mobile
Security level Unknown… Apple doesn’t make this information easy to find SSL connection and AES-256 encryption SSL connection and AES-256 encryption SSL connection and AES-128 encryption
Free option n.a. 2Gb of data storage 2Gb of data storage and 2 computers. You get an extra 1Gb per friend you invite (max 3Gb) 10Gb for 45 days
Paid option(s) $100/year for 20Gb online storage (and 200Gb of data transfer per month)
$50/year for an extra 20Gb of online storage. Online storage shared between all the MobileMe services (iDisk, email, photo galleries, …)
$100/year for 50Gb of data storage $100/year for 50Gb of online storage. You get an extra 2Gb per friend you invite (max 6Gb)
$100/year for an extra 50Gb of data storage
$25/year for 10Gb data storage
$50/year for 30Gb data storage
$100/year for 60Gb data storage
$150/year for 100Gb data storage
$250/year for 250Gb data storage

Regarding the pricing, you can compare this to the cost of storing files on the Amazon S3 service which cost $0.15 per Gb per month, excluding extra costs for transfer and access. This means that storing files on an S3 server would cost you $1.8 per Gb per year, or $36/year for 20Gb, $90/year for 50Gb, $180/year for 100Gb… OK, you might not need all the storage, but as you can see, some of the pricing above is very interesting.

Looking at the different options, I will give SugarSync a try for a while and see how it works out in the long term. I really like the ability to be able to start with a smaller plan, and then later add more space.

Update 1 – Feb 21, 2009: Thank you danlist for your comment and for correcting my mistake. I didn’t know that you could sync any folder and I have now changed the table above accordingly.

Update 2 – March 2, 2009: I have experienced some files & folders disappearing in the synchronized folder from SugarSync. I have contacted the technical support team to investigate and provide a solution. I will post an update in my blog when the issue is resolved. In the mean-time, remember that online sync should not be the only backup you rely on, only one of them.

Update 3 – March 13, 2009: All the problems with the files & folders disappearing are now resolved… from what I can tell, I did push the system a little to hard during my tests. Everything looks good now.

5 thoughts on “Keeping files synchronized across multiple computers”

  1. I am not sure to understand why you put a No for DropBox in the Online backup line. You can also access your files through the web interface and use it as a way to backup some files, can’t you?

    Alex

  2. With SugarSync, you can sync any folder with other machines. In SugarSync Manager on the first machine, press ‘Add/Edit Sync Folders’ and add the folder you want to sync. Then on the second (or nth) machine, press ‘Add/Edit Sync Folders’, click on the folder, and then click on ‘Replicate this folder on this computer’. Disclosure: I work for Sharpcast, the company that makes SugarSync.

  3. Gérard, I see what you mean. To deal with this, you just create multiple Dropbox accounts. I have this same use case as I have directories for specific projects which I’d like to be replicated to some machines (say the server on which the project is deployed), but I don’t want those machines to have a copy of all my other files. So I create a new user avernet_project1, install DropBox on that server as avernet_project1, and share the Project1 folder with the user avernet_project1. Doe this make sense?

    Alex

  4. Alex, it doesn’t really make sense to me… how to you then get multiple dropbox accounts to synchronize with your main machine. With your scenario, you can either do back or sync, not a selection of both. I don’t think you can have multiple instances of the dropbox app running on the same computer at the same time, can you?

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