Five Web services that keep your data files in sync

The days of the solo employee toiling away on a single computer are long gone.

Whether telecommuting from a home system, collaborating via a company laptop, or conferencing over a cell phone, people today use an array of devices in a variety of places to access and share the data they need, whenever they need it.

But ensuring that you have the most current versions of your files at hand when you need them hasn’t always been easy; typically it involves making manual uploads to a shared server or sending multiple e-mail attachments.

Fortunately, more-elegant alternatives are becoming available, as a new crop of services allow users to transfer files to other PCs and share them with friends or colleagues via the Internet–all the while keeping the data in sync no matter where it might reside.

Some also offer remote-access features, so you can operate one PC from the desktop of another.

I put five services – Dropbox, Microsoft’s Live Mesh, Phoenix Technologies’ BeInSync Professional, Sharpcast’s SugarSync, and Syncplicity – through their paces.

All of them allow you to keep your document files in sync with versions on other computers, and to store copies online. Most make it easy to share the files with other people; and two, Dropbox and Syncplicity, permit you to store multiple file versions so you can recover earlier drafts.

Any of these offerings provide a real service for users who have to wrangle files on several computers, but Syncplicity’s feature set and ease of use made it my top pick. (Note that I was not able to test all newcomers in this rapidly growing category: Memeo, for example, provides similar services in a more piecemeal manner.)

Though all have similar functionality, they differ in their implementation of certain features. For example, all inform you–even if only via a taskbar tool tip–when files are up-to-date or uploads are complete. But BeInSync and Live Mesh make you search for the extensive information they provide in a window or on a Web page; I prefer the way Dropbox and Syncplicity simply put overlays (such as a green check mark) on the icons of all up-to-date files in your sync folders.

Most of these programs have a browser-based file manager so you can work with the online copies of your files from any computer. Unfortunately such efforts are generally disappointing, with minimal file tools and clumsy check-box selections.

In my tests, performance varied. SugarSync and Live Mesh proved to be speed demons in my upload test, with Syncplicity and Dropbox bringing up the rear. However, the speed (or the lack thereof) is really noticeable only the first time you sync or upload a large amount of data. After that, updates are all reasonably swift, so I did not weigh performance heavily in my ratings.

All of these products have some way of dealing with file conflicts–for example, when two people edit the same file remotely, producing different versions. Most of them store both copies in all synced locations but rename them, sometimes with information about the version (such as the author account or date of creation).

Dropbox and Live Mesh were in beta testing at the time of this writing, so prices were not available; consequently, I did not assign them ratings. The others charge monthly or annual fees that vary depending on how much storage capacity you need.

Syncing for Cell Phones

Sometimes, being able to synchronize data across desktops and laptops isn’t enough: More and more people want to access their files, photos, music, and other content from their cell phone or other mobile device.

The creators of Dropbox and Live Mesh are working on adding support for mobile devices, but SugarSync and Syncplicity already have mobile versions of their site. These mobile editions give you full access to the same online file manager and photo gallery you’d use in a desktop browser.

Depending on your mobile device (SugarSync supports the BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows Mobile, while Syncplicity supports the iPhone and iPod Touch only), you may not be able to download or edit the files, but you can send them to other people via e-mail.

If you require more-robust viewing, editing, and file-management abilities, however, you might soon have them in the form of Quickaccess from Quickoffice. As its name suggests, Quickaccess gives access to synced files from a remote PC on mobile devices.

Files on phones: With Quickaccess, you download different versions of your files for viewing and editing in Quickoffice.

With Quickaccess, you can download photos and music files for viewing or listening, and you can download document formats such as Adobe PDF, or Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. Quickaccess converts the files to the SVG format to produce good display resolution without consuming much memory.

If you need to edit the Office files, Quickaccess works in conjunction with Quickoffice to let you open them, change them, and upload them to the server again for syncing back to your main computer. Quickaccess also offers options for managing files (copying, renaming, deleting) and for sharing them with or sending them to colleagues.

If your main system is powered on, you can even search it from your mobile device. As with other syncing products, you’ll need to install the desktop component on all the computers (Windows and/or Mac) you intend to sync.

Quickaccess debuted this year for the Symbian S60 platform; Quickoffice plans to roll out a Windows Mobile edition by the end of the year, with support for other mobile platforms to follow. Quickaccess costs a very modest $20 per year for 10GB storage.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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