I use at least 2 computers on my daily basis: a MacBookPro laptop and a MacPro desktop computer (plus two iOS devices: an iPhone and an iPad). For quite a while, I always struggled with those times when I was at one of the computers and needed some file or data that was actually stored on the other.
There are at least some sort of info and data that I really want to be automatically synced in all my devices, so I ‘ll try to list below the different solutions I’ve found for each case (suggestions for others options are most welcome). As a disclaimer, most of my devices are from Apple (computers, mobile devices, etc), so I mainly live on an OSX/iOS world – nevertheless, I think some of this tips are also valid for any other platform.
- Email: I have a bunch of email accounts (work accounts, gmails accounts, iCloud email accounts, etc). For all of them I use IMAP as a way to sync all my email messages (received, deleted, moved, read, flagged, etc) in all my computers (I use Apple Mail as my preferred email Client on all my computers). Works quite nice, and I always have my email “status” synced over all my devices (including the web, for things like GMail or iCloud mail). The only drawback IMAP may be dependent on the size of your email account (in GBytes) – IMAP works by keeping all your email in the server, so you need to make sure your email provider has enough space for your mail history (otherwise, you’ll need a “backup” strategy, which I find quite annoying…). For my work email (where mail inbox quota is quite small) I redirect all the emails to a specially created GMail account, where I have sufficient server space for all my email since 2005).
- Contacts/Address Book: because I’m on OSX/iOS, I use iCloud to sync all my contacts (or address book) between all my devices. iCloud also allows to access your contacts form any web browser in any computer, which is nice in case you are nowhere near any of your gadgets and need to fetch a phone number, address or email contact). I know you can also try to sync your Contacts using Google/Gmail, but because I get iCloud for free on the Mac, I just use that.
- Calendar: similar to the contacts above. iCloud syncs all my appointments and contacts over the cloud, also allowing me to access my calendar using a web browser. Once again, Google also provides similar funcionatilities.
- Notes, clipping, papers,etc: for notes, web clippings, etc I just use Evernote, which has a “cloud” repository of all your data, that it then syncronizes using the OSX and iOS client in each device. For Research papers I use Mendeley, which also stores a cloud repository, that you can then use to sync in all your devices using the native app.
- Documents, files and folders: for syncing a selection of my files between my computers (usually, all the ones on my OSX account “Documents” folder – I don’t feel the need to sync Apps or any other stuff), I use DropBox. I have more than 15 Gbytes on my Documents folder (and growing), which I wanted to be automatically sync’ed between my laptop and my desktop Macs , without the need to have them both powered on and somehowto access files that I would have spread over both of them, or to manually sync them using some script using rsync or similar terminal stuff. So having them both automatically sync’ed in realtime to the cloud (using a somewhat expensive DropBox Pro 50 account, though) fixes this issue (and at the same time backing up files to the cloud). Now, Dropbox only syncs one special folder in your machine (as soon as you install it in your system, that is – the “dropbox” folder in your home directory in OSX), and I wanted to keep my documents on my OSX native “Documents” folder. There is a solution (which is the one I use and works quite well after the somewhat involved initial setup) that allows you to somewhat circumvent this limitation using UNIX symlinks (or a nice utility known as MacDropAny), and you can check how to do it here and here. Though, lately there is number of interesting (and cheaper?) alternatives to DropBox, such as SugarSync, that already allow you to choose any folder in your system to sync to the cloud (you can check a quite comprehensive comparison between the most well known cloud services available today here).
- Application settings/data: Some apps (e.g. Omnifocus, 1Password, etc.) offer you the ability to sync their data among different machines using the cloud, and DropBox (given its well documented and widely accepted API) is one of the most well supported cloud services. I try use this feature whenever possible (and try to choose apps that support DropBox or some proprietary cloud syncing) so that when I open an app in my laptop I get the exactly the same data as when I opened it (and eventually added/deleted data into/form it) last time on my desktop computer (and vice versa). Annoyingly, one of the most frustrating situations where I still haven’t managed to have this “app sync” working is with Apple iPhoto (where I store all my photos) and, why not, Apple iTunes (there is that “home sharing” feature on both apps, but that requires both machines to be on and on the same network, which, as I’ve explained above, is not what I’m looking for).
- Backups: not related to syncing, but probably even more important, is to have an actual backup strategy. Since I’m in a Apple ecosystem, I use Apple’s TimeMachine for all my computers to backup them into two HDs connected to a MacMini I have powered on at my place 24/7 (which also serves as my Media Center, being connected to my TV, and a Drobo “RAID” system where all my movies, tv shows and music live). It works quite well nowadays (long are gone the initial glitches and hiccups from OSX 10.5, when TimeMachine was first introduced). My laptop detects when I connect it to my home wireless network and automatically starts the TimeMachine backup without any intervention from my part (and so avoids me having to remember to backup frequently… which I wouldn’t). Because I’m a bit on the paranoid side in what regards backing up (I’ve lost my entire HD from a MacBookPro I used to have a week before my PhD defense – luckily I already had a TimeMachine backup at that time, which I could use to restore all my system back into an external drive in about 2 hours, and then use it to boot my brother’s MacBookPro – which didn’t even have the same specs as mine! – and do the presentation for my defense! ;-)), I also use CrashPlan for scheduled machine-to-machine backups (mostly between my MediaCenter MacMini and my MacPro desktop – I’m not using their cloud backups for now).