The Internet has been around for decades now, and even though we all use it every day, the simple act of sending an electronic file to a friend isn’t always so simple. We’ve grown accustomed to e-mail and instant messengers, which work well for sending small handfuls of small files to small groups of people. As soon as you start trying to send anything en masse there are a lot of roadblocks. So what exactly is the best way to send a large file, or a lot of files, or—dare we say—a lot of large files?
Image courtesy xkcd.com
The number one most convenient thing you can do, in just about any case, is to compress your files. This has the huge benefit of leaving you with just a single file to worry about sending, no matter how many files you start with. Plus, by compressing your files, they will (typically) be smaller, meaning less time uploading as well as downloading.
It isn’t foolproof, though. Both compressing and decompressing a file takes time, and depending on the level of compression and size of the file, it can easily take longer to compress a file than it would to upload it at its full size. It’s important to find a balance between compression and speed, and some files lend themselves to compression better than others.
When you have files that are already in a highly compressed format, such as most photos and videos, you typically won’t save much space by compressing them further. Other files, such as data files, BMPs, and text files can compress very well. Some compression software will actually detect the best compression levels automatically on a per file basis, but be careful. This type of compression isn’t always lossless, meaning audio and image files may have their quality permanently lowered in order to save space. Always check in your compression software settings to ensure this doesn’t happen without your OK.
The ZIP format is natively supported in both Windows and Mac, but its performance is relatively poor, often dwarfed in both speed and compression quality by more comprehensive compression programs. This brings us to the next big question: which compression programs are the best? Well, here’s a quick look at three of our favorites.
Balance is key, and that’s what WinRAR does extremely well. Its RAR format may only take second place for its level of compression – not too shabby, though – but it is consistently the fastest when it comes to both packing and unpacking files. While RAR files are not native to Windows or Mac, many other compression programs are still capable of unpacking it, so the odds are in your favor that the recipient will be able to open the file you send him. Even if he can’t, WinRAR is available on Windows, OSX, and Linux, despite the name.
The biggest downside to WinRAR is the fact that it isn’t free. A single user license will set you back nearly $30; however, the 40-day free trial doesn’t care too terribly much if you go over the 40 days. It simply greets you with a message window each time you open a RAR archive and asks you to buy the full version.
As the most popular archiving software, WinZip does a surprisingly poor job at compression. Its proprietary ZIPX format is not only among the slowest to process files, but it won’t shrink things down much more than your standard ZIP can. Using the ZIPX format can also be problematic because the recipient will need WinZip (or one of only a handful of other uncommon zip tools that supports it) to unpack it. Even if your recipient has WinZip, it may not be the proper version to open the file.
Where WinZip shines is its user interface. It’s extremely straightforward (especially for those used to Windows), and its Wizard Mode makes even advanced compression tasks simple. This makes it perfect for working with standard ZIP files.
Compared to WinRAR and WinZip, 7zip is unique in the simple fact that it’s actually free. It is only officially available on Windows, but because it is entirely open source, unofficial OSX and Linux versions are readily available. When file size is critical, 7zip is the way to go. The 7z format regularly offers the best file compression and is only slightly slower than WinRAR. Also, just like WinRAR, most major archiving tools support the 7z file type for unpacking.
You’d think all of this would make 7zip an easy choice; however, it’s not exactly the most user friendly application. Its user interface is definitely geared toward advanced users (though advanced users would likely cherish this fact).
Cloud storage has become increasingly popular over the past few years, and it’s the best way to share most digital files. Photo sharing is something we’re all accustomed to, using tools like Picasa or Photobucket work well for doling out our freeze-frame memories – heck, even Facebook makes for a decent enough photo sharing experience. But what about video files or your newly compressed ZIP files filled with all sorts of random junk? Well, there’s room on the cloud for those, too.
When it comes to free, Dropbox is the way to go. Free accounts are allowed a full 2GB of cloud storage space. Sweetening the deal is the fact that there’s no file size limit to speak of. If it fits in your allotted storage, you can upload it – well, from the desktop app, anyway. This essentially makes Dropbox a completely free tool to share files up to 2GB in size. In addition to the web storage space, Dropbox also has a handful of useful tools that make it simple to use, and convenient. Both iOS and Android devices have apps available to share and manage files directly from your phone or tablet.
The only problem you’ll run into is when you want to share more than 2GB of data. Dropbox sells 50GB and 100GB accounts for $10 and $20 per month, respectively. These prices aren’t bad, but there’s a more affordable way to go about it, especially if you don’t expect to fill up that full 50GB of space.
Google Docs isn’t just for documents anymore. Google laughs in the face of 2GB files. In fact, Google’s file limit is a whopping 10GB. Unfortunately, your free Google Docs account is limited to 1GB of total storage. Bummer, right? Not to worry though, just $5 per year nets you an additional 20GB across your entire Google account, making it one of the cheapest ways to share pretty freaking big files.
It’s pretty difficult to beat Google’s pricing anywhere else, but you do miss out on some of the useful tools services like Dropbox provide. Sharing a file is still pretty simple; all you have to do is upload it and invite people to share it with (which will require them to log in to their Google account) or create a public link anyone can use (not sign-in required). And while you can’t currently upload arbitrary file types in Google Docs’ mobile apps, you can still manage and share files.
DIY Cloud Storage
If you’re reasonably tech savvy and trust that your internet connection is reliable enough, you can host your own cloud server rather cheaply and effectively. All you need is a storage-ready router (the Netgear WNDR3700 is one of our favorites), an external hard drive, and just a bit of networking knowhow. This hard drive/router pairing not only gives you a cheap NAS solution, but also a very simple FTP or even HTTP file server.
Because this method is dependent on your own upload speed, it’s best suited for sharing a file with a single person (and ideally NOT while you’re trying to pwn in any online games).
So you want to share a 10GB+ sized file with someone? Honestly, unless your internet is considerably faster than average in terms of upload speed, you’re probably better off mailing it on a collection of DVD-Rs or a USB drive. With the average American’s internet connection, a 10GB file will take upwards of 13 hours to upload, and that’s assuming the connection is stable enough to get through the task successfully on the first try.
Of course for those with fast connections and those willing to wait it out, the DIY cloud storage solution above is able to tackle a file uploads of megalithic proportions, especially when it’s configured as an FTP server with file resuming enabled. There are also a few other options.
FTP and Web Servers
There are a handful of hosting solutions available these days, and even some of the cheapest of them offer unlimited storage space and unlimited bandwidth. Of these, iPage, FatCow, and JustHost are the cheapest (as low as $42 per year) and best rated. These all offer both an FTP interface (for use with programs like FileZilla) and a web interface. When dealing with extremely large files, the FTP option is far superior, simply because it allows you to resume failed transfers. On top of the storage space, you can even create your own website. They don’t exactly smile on people using their servers for file storage, but as long as you’re not hosting terabytes of data, they generally don’t mind. And, of course, they’ll cut you off immediately if you’re sharing copyright protected files—but you wouldn’t be sharing those anyway…would you?
P2P file sharing at its finest and the MPAA/RIAA’s biggest headache, torrents are an excellent way to share files with large masses of people simultaneously or when time is not a limiting factor. If you’re familiar with torrents, odds are you already have the tools necessary to create your own torrent files. Both µTorrent and Vuze are popular torrent clients that include a torrent creation wizard. Creating your own torrent is simple, but be sure to add at least one working tracker, such as those available at http://publicbt.com/.
Once created, all you have to do is distribute the tiny torrent file to your friends so that they can initiate the download using their own torrent clients. Similar to the DIY cloud server, torrents are dependent on your own internet speed, but unlike most router-based cloud setups, you can limit the upload speed so that it won’t cripple your internet while the file is downloaded. Plus, when sharing with multiple parties, everyone will be able to share everyone else’s bandwidth. Just be sure to keep your torrent client running until at least one of your friends has downloaded the entire file, and keep in mind that the files you share through torrents aren’t necessarily private.
If you want to share files but are too lazy to read this entire article, here’s the gist of it:
Grab yourself 7zip (or WinRar or any other compression software you prefer) and zip your files when necessary in order to save space and turn many files into one file. The ZIP file format is preferred. It’s not the best for compression (for that you’ll want the 7z format), but it’s the most universal.
Email works for smaller files, as most mail servers will limit attachments to 10MB. For anything larger than 10MB, Dropbox is your best bet, so long as you don’t have more than 2GB to share. When it comes to sharing more than 2gigs, your only free options are torrents or a makeshift cloud drive, built from a USB storage-ready router, but both of these options are best reserved for those with killer fast internet connections.
If you’re willing to spend a bit of money, Google Docs gives you the best value. With a 10GB file size limit and up to 400GB of space for less than $10, it’ll work for just about anyone’s file sharing needs.
If your files are bigger than 10GB, it might be time to invest in an FTP server. Unlimited web hosting services are available for under $50 per year, but they don’t play nice if you abuse the “unlimited” portion of that deal. Tiered web space solutions aren’t nearly as cheap.