Walt Mossberg

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Personal Technology

New Services Give You Reliable Ways to Keep All Your Files Updated

It used to be that most consumers had only a single computer to manage. Today, many people use two or more PCs. That change has introduced a big headache: How to keep up-to-date versions of all your key files on all the computers where you work on them.

Some people place files on a portable device, and then manually copy the files to all their PCs. Others email selected files to themselves. But these methods are time-consuming and imperfect.

Now, new services can automatically keep certain folders and files synchronized among your multiple PCs, without any work on your part.

These file-synchronization services aren’t free, and they do take a little effort to set up. But once they are up and running, the effect is like magic. Within minutes, or even seconds, after you have added or deleted or altered a file on one of your computers, the change is perfectly replicated on all your other machines.

There are three main contenders in this budding field. One, called Groove, available at groove.net, is owned by Microsoft. It’s mainly designed for collaboration work in big corporations. Two others, BeInSync and FolderShare, are aimed directly at consumers and small businesses. BeInSync is from an Israeli company called BeInSync Ltd., and is available at beinsync.com. FolderShare is from an Austin, Texas, company called ByteTaxi Inc., and is available at www.foldershare.com.

The best choices for consumers are the two consumer-focused offerings, BeInSync and FolderShare. Either will work well in most cases. But for this review, I concentrated on FolderShare because it’s faster and more flexible. In particular, it’s the only one that works on both Windows and Apple Macintosh computers.

Here’s how FolderShare works. Starting with one computer, you select the folders you want to keep synchronized. You link these folders to companion folders you select, or create, on the other computers, and install the service’s software on each machine. The software, which runs quietly in the background, transfers files, as needed, among the machines so the contents of those folders remain up-to-date and identical on every computer. The transfers, done over the Internet, are fast, invisible and encrypted for security.

Over the past few months, I’ve been using FolderShare on six of my computers — three Windows PCs and three Macs. Two of these computers are in my office; three are in my home; and one, a laptop, is often with me on the road.

I set up FolderShare to keep five different folders, containing over 36,000 files, synchronized, and it did so without breaking a sweat. For instance, I linked folders called “columns” on every machine, and linked the “My Music” folders on my three Windows machines to the “Music” folders on my three Macs.

Now, all the latest versions of my columns and notes — including those in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, and Adobe PDF files — are on all my Windows PCs and Macs. So are all my music files, my photos and my videos. After I wrote this column on my laptop in California, it was instantly replicated on all my other machines on the East Coast. (The use of broadband is highly recommended for speed.)

FolderShare did all this without slowing the performance of my computers, except for the first few hours, when it was moving thousands of files around in a short period.

FolderShare can handle older versions of Windows back to Windows 98. BeInSync works only on PCs running Windows XP or Windows 2000.

There are three versions of FolderShare; each can be used with an unlimited number of computers. The free “basic” version allows you to synchronize two folders, with up to 500 files in each. The personal version, at $50 a year, expands this to 100 folders with up to 20,000 files in each folder. The professional version, $100 a year, allows 250 folders with up to 50,000 files in each. It’s also speedier than the others.

FolderShare also allows you to invite groups of other users to share some or all of your synchronized folders. I tested this and it worked well. In addition, in the top two versions, you can tap into your computers from any Web browser on any computer to retrieve any file. This feature also worked fine in my tests, but you can disable it if you are worried about outsiders gaining access to your files.

If you have desktop search software on your computers, FolderShare can do a unified, combined search for files across all these machines.

FolderShare doesn’t keep copies of your files on its servers, but it does keep records of your computers, and the folder and file names being synchronized. It can provide a form of backup; your key files are on other machines if one fails or is stolen. But take care to guard your password, as anyone who learns it could access your files by logging into your account.

BeInSync has one major feature FolderShare lacks. In addition to synchronizing files, it can synchronize some of your email in Microsoft Outlook, and your contacts in Outlook and Microsoft’s Outlook Express. BeInSync also costs less. Its top version is $60 a year, or $100 for two years.

FolderShare is so useful and works so well that I recommend it or BeInSync for anyone who needs key files kept up-to-date.