The life of a technology and gadget aficionado is filled with challenges. With so many amazing computing options available to us these days, we tend to go a bit overboard with the number of devices we own. In addition to the desktop, we live digital lives on our laptops, netbooks, smartphones, and even the work PC at the office. While each machine has specific functions and advantages, problems arise when we sit down in front of just one device and wonder if it has the latest version of our documents, contacts, and bookmarks.
Keeping your mobile life in sync is becoming an increasingly difficult task these days, and with each device you add to your lineup, the challenge multiplies exponentially. It becomes even more complicated when you start mixing and matching platforms that have conflicting file systems and format support. On the bright side, there has never been a better time to automate the process, allowing you to keep every aspect of your digital life in sync. This guide will educate you on the best ways to sync files, bookmarks, passwords, emails, and even your contacts / calendars, to any platform or device you may have. We deep dive into the major sync technologies being offered today; showing you step by step how they work, so you can decide for yourself what solution will work best for you.
Syncs: Files (Online & Offline)
Pros: Excellent solution for Documents, or other small files you update often. Mesh works great if you want to sync information with computers that are constantly going offline and even allows for internet based remote desktop.
Cons: Its usefulness is somewhat limited compared to Live Sync if you’re working with more than 5GB of data.
PC: Yes Mac: Yes Linux: Read Only Mobile: Windows Mobile
Most of you have probably heard about Live Mesh before, but how many of you truly understand what it does? Live Mesh, to be honest, still represents a lot of unused potential. But even in its present form, it is easily one of the most innovative and ambitious sync concepts on the market. Mesh enables users on Windows, Macs, and even Windows Mobile phones to keep updated versions of folders both online, and locally across as many devices as they choose. Microsoft’s servers take care of distributing updated copies of your files to all machines as they come online, or if you’re using a device with limited storage such as a netbook or a phone, you can choose to access it solely from the cloud. Using Live Mesh with your documents folder for example, ensures that you always have updated copies of your work, which can then be automatically distributed to all your devices the next time they connect.
The primary innovation behind Mesh is the “Virtual Desktop”. This allows you to access a copy of any file contained within your synced folders without any extra software. This is useful if you’re constantly moving around to different machines and need to access the content from anywhere.
Now that we’ve got you all excited, here’s the downside. Live Mesh only works as designed with less than 5GB of total data, and dragging and dropping files into the online storage only works in Internet Explorer using ActiveX. As a result, Linux users will be able to view and download files on the virtual desktop, but cannot upload changes. Macs are able to participate fully with the assistance of the desktop client software.
The 5GB limit doesn’t give you much room to play, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are ways to get around this. The only problem with doing so, however, is that Mesh loses its advantage over another competing sync technology that we look at later on, Live Sync. If the 5GB limit isn’t a problem, and you’re working with devices that are constantly going offline, read on to learn how to create your own Mesh. Otherwise skip ahead to Live Sync to see if it’s better suited to your needs.
1. Add Your Devices & Install the Client Software
To get started, head on over to Mesh HQ, and click the big orange Sign In button on the greeting page. Once you have done this, you will need to login using your Windows Live I.D. (an Xbox LIVE or Hotmail account will also work). Once you’re past the login screen you will be greeted with a diagram of your mesh. You will need to add devices to the list to make it look like the one pictured above.
Click on the large orange + button, select your operating system, then download and install the client on each machine you wish to include. Once the installer is finished, it will automatically launch and prompt you to enter your Windows Live I.D again. After clicking next you will need to pick the name you will use to identify your computer within the Mesh. Be specific so that you don’t confuse your devices later on, but if you make a mistake, you can change it later. Here you can also decide if you will allow remote desktop connections to this machine.
2. Add Folders to Sync with your Virtual Desktop, or Just Other Machines
Adding a directory to live Mesh is as simple as right clicking the folder, and selecting Add Folder to Live Mesh. After doing so, you will see the configuration screen shown below which will allow you to decide if these files should be stored within your 5GB online storage queue, or only shared between certain devices.
If this was a massive folder full of photos and video for example, you might want to select Never with This Device as your Live Desktop option. For other computers you may wish to select When files are added or modified if you want each device to keep a local copy. Use your Live Desktop space wisely, 5GB goes by pretty fast, and unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t yet offer the ability to purchase additional space.
Files and folders will automatically begin to sync on the devices you specified, and using the tray icon or the live desktop browser interface, you can get an overview of the changes being made by reviewing the news section shown in the above screenshot. You can now interact with the files on any device within your Mesh, and any modification you make will sync instantly across your devices. Machines that are offline will pickup updated versions from the Live Desktop as they come online.
Pros: Excellent solution for always on machines, and for those who don’t want to store their information in the cloud, but still want to access it anywhere. Live Sync works perfectly with both small and large folders, allows you to download any file remotely from your browser with zero router configuration, and is perfect for sharing files with family or friends.
Cons: 20,000 file per library limit can make syncing some Music and Picture folders will high file counts awkward to configure. As opposed to Live Mesh, all devices must be online to receive updated files.
PC: Yes Mac: Yes Linux: Read Only Mobile: Read Only
Microsoft Live Sync is a less complex solution to implement than Mesh, and what it does, it does silently and efficiently. Live Sync is a better solution for larger folders where changes are less urgent, and can wait for both machines to be online. This generally means it isn’t as good for documents that change unless your devices are always online, but other than that, the two platforms are very similar. In fact, with the exception of live desktop, Sync and Mesh are practically twins. With this in mind you might wonder, why would Microsoft offer two similar, but competing solutions?
The answer to this lies in the uncertain future of both technologies. Given the obvious overlap, it’s very unlikely that both services will survive, and according to inside information gathered by Windows blogger Paul Thurrott, Live Sync is the future. This makes sense when you consider that Microsoft views Live Mesh as an experimental platform for people to build applications on. Live Sync on the other hand, is a fully supported Service. Mesh will probably never disappear, but its functions and features might end up changing rapidly over time.
So long story short, if you’re working with large folders, or if you want to be able to access your hard drive from any browser worldwide, read on to learn how Live Sync works.
The first step will be to download the desktop client for Windows or Mac, and once you have it installed, simply use your Windows Live I.D. to login. The Sync desktop client is pretty minimalistic, and for the most part, the entire service is designed to be managed through the website. Clicking on the tray icon for example will show you a list of any folders you are sharing, and also a link to the sync homepage. Using the web interface you are able to configure what folders you would like to sync / share, or even browse through your entire hard drive. This is a fantastic way to download any file off your machine remotely, even when you don’t have access to your own machines. Simply login to the sync homepage, point your browser to where you left the file and the download begins immediately.
1. Create a Personal Folder
Personal Folders allow you to select a directory on one machine, that you would like sync with any other authorized computer on your account. An authorized computer is any Mac or PC that has the Live Sync client installed, and is registered to your Live I.D. account. The diagram shown above will walk you through the steps we took to share the My Documents folder on our Macbook, with the My Documents folder on our desktop Windows 7 machine. These images were cut from the browser window to show you the flow of options from start to finish. In the final step, after identifying all of the machines participating in the folder sync, you will then be asked if you like Automatic Synchronization or On-Demand Synchronization. Automatic, as the name would suggest, tries to keep each location in sync whenever possible. On-Demand requires you to manually initiate the sync.
2. Create a Shared Folder
Shared Folders is a fantastic tool for sending and sharing large files with family and friends, but unfortunately, it has an artificial limitation that seriously limits the usefulness of the feature. Creating a shared folder is a simple matter on your end, but the email invite that gets sent out forces others to install the sync client before their Live I.D. is given access to the website. We suppose Microsoft is hoping this will help hook them into the service, and in reality, if you are collaborating on a project, this is a great way to keep versions consistent. If on the other hand, all you wanted was to let a family member download a zip file full photos, they will still be forced to download and install software they will never use, and simply don’t need.
3. Set up Your Machine to Securely Offer up your Files through Any Browser
The only thing better than turning any old PC or Mac into a file server, is doing it with next to no hassle, and with decent security to boot. There have been so many times we’ve rushed out the door only to leave a presentation or vital document sitting on the desktop of our home machine. These painful lessons have lead many to plunk down hundreds on expensive NAS file servers, or perhaps even experimenting with a home FTP. But everyone who has tried this has a common problem, the router. Every router, regardless of what you paid for it is primarily designed to do one thing, drop incoming packets. This helps to shield your machine from all nasty viruses and malware floating freely around the internet, but it also makes it really difficult to connect to your PC remotely. Live Sync takes the guess work out of the configuration, and amazingly, just works. As for the security, have no fear. All connections both through the website and through the sync service operate over a secure SSL connection.
To enable this feature, simply right click on the Live Sync tray icon, select More, and then click one last time on Settings. This will bring you to the screen shown above, which looks the same both on a Mac or Windows PC. Simply check off the box next to Allow Remote Access to This Computer to turn on the remote access feature. Once done, login to the Sync Website, Click on the machine you just enabled access to, then look for the link that says Browse. A sample of what the file tree looks like is below, and as you can see, it’s very easy to navigate.
Price: $99 Annual Fee
Syncs: Contacts-Calendar-Email (Web & Outlook), File Support Up to 20 GB Included (Upgradable), Passwords
Pros: Works very well with Apple hardware, this includes Mac and iEverything. Mobile Me also does a really good job of keeping contacts, calendar, and emails in sync.
Cons: Very expensive. File sync options are very limited and aren’t any better than Dropbox. Mobile Me is difficult to recommend if you don’t have a Mac or an iPhone.
PC: Yes (Limited) Mac: Yes Linux: Read Only Mobile: iPhone
Okay this is Maximum PC right? Why on earth would we look at an Apple centric solution? Well, we looked at the Microsoft’s offerings, so aren’t you even a little bit curious what the competition has? To be fair, Mobile Me is also more than just an Apple exclusive offering, and they actually went to a great deal of trouble to make it work on PC’s. So the bigger question is, why would you want this, and what is it?
Mobile Me at its core, is a personal information management tool, and allows you to sync your contacts, calendar, and email both online, and through Outlook. This alone isn’t anything amazing, and it also isn’t anything Gmail doesn’t do for free. But where Mobile Me really breaks away is in its iPhone integration. Over the air sync of all Mobile Me services (except iDisk), gives Exchange like functionality to the average consumer.
So now that you know what it is, would PC users without an iPhone get any value out of Mobile Me? Probably not. A free Gmail account gives you the ability to sync Email and Calendar entries in Outlook as well, and iDisk is no better than DropBox. Mobile Me for the PC is also riddled with inconsistencies. For example, the two bookmark sync options available to PC users are Internet Explorer, or Safari. This is great if one of these is your primary browser, but if you try to visit www.me.com in Internet Explorer you’re greeted with the following.
The excuse that IE 7 and 8 have issues with web standards is cute, but everyone else seems to have figured it out, why not Apple? It’s clear they want us using their browser, and that makes sense but why not just say so? On the flip side, it’s great to see Apple taking the PC seriously as a platform by offering up more services for Windows. But when they don’t even support its native web browser, you have to wonder just how deep this commitment goes.
See the chart below for a quick comparison of the automatic sync features of Mobile Me, and what is offered on the Mac vs. PC. Things get even worse on the Windows side when you look at UI differences. Mobile Me for example integrates very elegantly with the iLife suite of applications such as iPhoto. Now I’m not saying all of this information doesn’t make sense, or that it’s even unfair, but you should clearly understand that Apple wants $99 even if you only have a Windows PC, and nothing else. The value proposition is even worse if you don’t have Outlook. In this scenario, you’re clearly better off with Google for your syncing your personal info and Live Mesh / Sync for files.
|Sync Options|| Mac
|Bookmarks (Safari)||YES||YES + IE|
|Preferences (Control Panel)||YES||NO|
The Mobile Me interface on the Mac is very clean, and everything just works. Compatible sync items show up on the configuration screen (which is built into OSX automatically). You can choose all the options, or just the ones that suit your needs. Certain sync items such as the dock, dashboard widgets, etc, get backed up transparently, but your contacts, calendar, email, and iDisk are accessible from the web interface. On the Mac iDisk is automatically configured for you allowing drag and drop functionality from within the finder, and the built in sync menu allows you to quickly enable everything else. Mobile Me is a great companion for your Mac or Hakintosh, and if you have an iPhone, this is pretty much a one stop shop.
If you’ve read this far, you should now be fully aware of the limitations Mobile Me has on the Windows side. Above is a sample screenshot of the sync control panel for Windows. As you can see, the only option available to us is contacts, calendar, and bookmark syncing. Unfortunately in our scenario, Mobile Me bumped into another limitation as well. Apparently Outlook Sync is not supported when you are configured for Exchange. Our hopes were starting to raise a bit when we learned that the Windows version supports Contact syncing with Google Contacts, but that little morsel of joy was quickly dashed away when we noticed that Calendar sync was not.
Price: Free (2GB)
Syncs: Files , Passwords
Pros: Works on all Platforms. Dropbox also offers very reasonable upgrade pricing if you need more than 2GB of storage.
Cons: The free version only offers 2 GB of storage, no automated sync tool.
PC: Yes Mac: Yes Linux: Yes Mobile: Yes
Dropbox maps to the My Computer menu on your PC, or the finder if you’re on a Mac. And because your drop box works just like any other local drive, syncing files is a simple matter of cutting and pasting. A shared dropbox will appear across all your devices, giving ever device access to your data. You can copy favorites, documents, or in the example we show below, partnered up with KeePass to offer a mobile password locker.
Everyone knows that good password security requires that you use passwords that are A) long, B) complicated, and C) different for every website and service you use. Of course, these three requirements also make it a total pain to memorize all the passwords you need, meaning that most people don’t follow the rules, either using one password across many services (a security risk) or writing their passwords down near the computer (also a security risk).
That’s where KeePass comes in. KeePass is a free, open source password safe. It allows you to generate a unique, totally random password for every site or service you use, while only requiring you to remember a single master passphrase. Whenever you attempt to log into a service, KeePass asks for your master passphrase, then automatically enters the appropriate password from your safe.
That’s all well and good, but what do you do if you frequently use two different computers (say, a desktop and a laptop)? You could use a USB drive to keep your KeePass password archive with you at all times, but that’s one more little bit of hardware you have to keep track of. Instead, use DropBox to keep an up-to-date copy of your password file on both computers, at all times. Just tell KeePass to save your password archive somewhere in your DropBox synced folder.
Worried about security? No need! KeePass saves your password in an archive encrypted with nigh-unbreakable AES 256-hit encryption. That means that as long as you pick a strong, long password, getting a hold of your KeePass file won’t do a hacker a bit of good.
Syncs: Bookmarks , Passwords
Pros: Works on all Platforms and most major browsers.
Cons: No Chrome, or Safari for Windows support.
PC: Yes Mac: Yes Linux: Yes Mobile: Read Only
Your first step will be to download the Xmarks plug-in for your browser of choice. Currently only Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari for the Mac are supported. If you're torn on which version to grab, it’s worth noting that only the Firefox version supports encrypted password sync. iPhone users should also keep in mind that only the Safari for Mac plug-in will allow for two way syncing.
Once you have installed the Firefox Plug-in, and restarted your browser, the Xmarks setup wizard will automatically launch allowing you to make an account, or login. If you’re creating a new account, or if you haven’t enabled password sync in the past, Xmarks will supply a dialogue box like the one shown above allowing you to opt in, or out of the service. For those of you who are worried about security, let me put your mind at ease. Like KeePass, the passwords are stored on the Xmarks servers using very strong AES encryption. All of your passwords will be encrypted before transmission to the Xmark server, and can only be decrypted using the pin number you selected as a master password. You can rest easy knowing that not even Xmarks will be able to decrypt your passwords (assuming you picked a strong pin code).
Configuring Xmarks to sync your bookmarks is pretty easy, mainly because that’s exactly what it was designed to do. After installing the plug-in for your browser of your choice, the setup wizard will ask you to pick a user account and password, and that’s pretty much it. If you’re installing Xmarks on a second machine you’ll be presented with the dialogue box (shown above) asking how you would like to deal with the bookmarks already stored on your machine vs. what is on the server. You can merge the two databases, or throw away either.
Once you’ve synchronized, you can also access your list of bookmarks from any browser, no plug-in required. Simply navigate over to the website and login. You can also access a stripped down interface intended for mobile phones at http://mobile.xmarks.com.
Price: Free (Isn’t it always?)
Syncs: Email, Contacts, Calendar, Documents
Pros: Works on all Platforms and browsers, as well as mobile phones.
Cons: Living in the cloud is a lifestyle choice, and not one you should enter into lightly.
PC: Yes Mac: Yes Linux: Yes Mobile: Windows Moble, Blackberry, iPhone, Nokia
Email is all the same, isn’t it? You probably hear us talk about Gmail here at Max PC a bit more often than competition for one simple reason, it really is better than the rest. Gmail has a lot going for it these days. The web interface is lightening fast, Google Labs allows you to enable tons of great plug-ins, and one feature in particular makes it stand out from the crowd, IMAP. (Internet Message Access Protocol) is a vastly superior solution to the traditional POP based email supplied to you by your ISP. It will allow you to access your mail from any email client, the web, or both at the same time, all while keeping your sessions in sync. You can read, delete, edit, save drafts, all while knowing that changes will ripple across your desktop clients. It’s so good in fact, many, including myself, have abandoned dedicated email clients almost entirely.
Gmail is one of the few free IMAP options available right now, but it’s important to know, IMAP is not enabled by default. To get started, simply surf over to the Gmail Homepage, signup for a Google account, and head into your new (or existing) mailbox. One in, scan along the top right for a link called Settings, followed by Forwarding and POP/IMAP. Once here, you can enable the IMAP service (shown below), and access the Configuration Instructions if you’re planning on still using a desktop mail client. Once you’re up and running with your mail client, you might even feel like dragging and dropping messages stored on your machine, over to Gmail. This will allow you to search, view, or access any message across all of your machines. You can also use a mail client to drag mail from Hotmail or other services over to your new email account.
In addition to keeping your email sessions in sync, Gmail offers an innovative service called Mail Fetcher. If you head back over to the Settings link along the top right, you can then click Accounts followed by Add a Mail Account You Own. Simply enter your email address, and setup the rules regarding incoming messages. You can tell Google to leave a copy on the pop server for safe keeping, or to automatically redirect incoming messages to a dedicated folder, making your email easy to sort.
Using any webmail based service is the ultimate way to keep all your email, contacts, and calendars in sync. However, for a certain percentage of the population Outlook is a safety blanket they simply refuse to live without. If you fall into this category, it’s okay, you still have options. Google Calendar Sync allows you to manage your calendar both through Gmail’s web interface and using Outlook. Calendar Sync is currently compatible with Windows XP, Vista, and 7, and is designed for use with Outlook 2003 or 2007. We also recommend that you don’t try to install this if your outlook is configured for exchange. Trying to do so will be far more hassle than it’s worth.
Your First step will be to download Google Calendar Sync Client, and run the installer. Once this complete, you will see the above configuration screen which will allow you to input your Gmail Account details, and if you want 1-way or 2-way sync. When making your decision, we would recommend that you pick the option that most realistically matches your usage scenario. Calendar sync works well, but you can further remove the odds of conflicts or corruptions if you select 1 way sync. You can also configure the time between sync sessions, and the minimum selectable is 10 minutes.
Google offers a dizzying array of mobile optimized services for pretty much every popular smartphone on the market. The even better part about Google’s mobile service, is that all of the information is tied back to your primary Google account. This means that Gmail, Contacts, Calendar, Docs, Reader, pretty much everything you love about Google is available in a portable format. To get started all you need to do is point your phone’s internet browser to http://m.google.com .Through this interface you can access your Calendar & Contacts, but what if want them to sync with your phone’s build in applications instead? Meet Google Mobile Sync:
Setting up Google Sync isn’t difficult, but it is important to keep in mind that your existing contacts and calendar on your phone will probably be overwritten, so make sure you are up to date, or backed up before proceeding. All Smartphone’s, with the exception of the iPhone, can install the sync application within the mobile browser and have you up and running in no time flat. However, if you’re on the iPhone you’ll need to dive into iTunes a bit to make this work. Click the following links for step by step instructions on the PC or Mac.