Thanks to services like Dropbox, many of us take it for granted that we can keep our files in sync across many machines, and that backup copies of those files will be saved up there in the cloud. But what if you want to use online file-storage with a group--to share files among your co-workers, say? Most of these same services provide straightforward file sharing in addition to storage and synchronization. Some go beyond those basics to offer the kinds of tools--such as file permission controls--that you might find on a file server.
Sharing files among multiple users can be complicated. A group might be temporary, existing only for the duration of a project, or long-term. Its members might all be in the same office or spread across the globe. Whatever the configuration of the group, online file-storage/syncing/sharing services must be able to make sure that everyone has the same version of the file, and that the changes one person makes don't overwrite those made by someone else.
To find out which online storage services might be best for group use, we chose to focus on a few services that we felt represented the wider field. Our criteria: We looked for services that synchronize files on multiple users' machines to the cloud. They had to have Mac- and Windows-compatible client software that automatically uploads and downloads changed files (or pieces of files) to all associated computers. They had to provide some kind of controls over which folders and/files were shared with which users. They needed to keep backups of older versions of documents and be able to restore deleted files.
We found dozens of services that qualified under most, if not all, of those criteria. We chose to focus on five that represent the gamut of what's available, that met the criteria most closely, and that have been in operation long enough to have a reliable track record: Box.net; Dropbox ( Macworld rated 5 out of 5 mice ) itself; the Mac version of Microsoft's Live Mesh 2011 ( Macworld rated 3 out of 5 mice ); Sugarsync ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ); Syncplicity ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ). For the sake of comparison, we looked at Google Docs as well, even though it isn't directly comparable to the others.
In our tests, all five performed as they should: They synchronized, updated, tracked, and retrieved files just as one would hope. Even more remarkably, I was able to run all five services at the same time, without any noticeable glitches. (Don't try this at the office, though: If you aren't careful about which folders you're syncing with which services, you can wind up in a recursive house of mirrors.) The differences came down to things like version archiving and the special features they offer in their business accounts. Pricing varies, but not enough to make that a paramount concern when you're evaluating.
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