Utility software

FTP client software

Web browsers are good at downloading individual files, and e-mail programs are good at sending relatively small files to another person. But for heavier-duty file-transfer tasks, such as uploading batches of files for a Web site, only an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program will do. In recent years, the number of such programs for OS X has increased, as have the capabilities we’ve come to expect from them. The latest crop of updates--including Panic’s Transmit 3.2, Xnet’s Captain FTP 4.2, and Fetch Softworks’ Fetch 5.0.1--adds new features and Tiger-specific interface enhancements.

All three programs support FTP and its secure counterpart, SFTP (which uses SSH, or Secure Shell). They let you preview text or graphics files stored on remote servers, edit remote text files using several text editors, and can mirror the contents of any local folder to a server folder or vice-versa. While all three did some things well, Transmit’s feature set and interface set it apart.

Transmit 3.2

Transmit, which has a well-deserved reputation for innovative interface design, uses a simple two-pane browser window, while optional Safari-like tabs can encompass both local and remote panes. Either pane can appear in Column view. Better yet, Transmit 3.2 can now link navigation of local and remote folders so that moving to a higher or lower-level folder in one switches to the corresponding folder in the other. Transmit also offers spring-loaded folders. All these navigational features are wonderful, but they left us wishing for one more: a hierarchical list view like the Finder’s.

In addition to FTP, SFTP, and FTP over SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), Transmit now supports WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning, with optional HTTPS, or secure HTTP), making it especially useful for Web designers. Besides enabling users to edit text files with an external application, Transmit now includes a built-in text editor for quick, on-the-fly changes.

Transmit offers a Tiger Dashboard widget for drag-and-drop uploading to a remote folder, and takes this concept even further with a feature called DockSend. When you configure a bookmark with a local folder path and enable DockSend, whatever you drag from that local folder onto Transmit’s Dock icon is copied to the bookmarked location on the remote server. The result is that a single Dock icon can take the place of numerous drop-box icons.

Transmit shows remarkable attention to detail, from its zoomable Preview window to its thorough AppleScript dictionary. In my testing, it was stable, quick, and reliable. It fell short of perfection only because of a few minor missing features found in other FTP clients—the capability of editing non-text files stored on a server (coming in a future version, according to Panic), scheduled file transfers, two-way mirroring, and a hierarchical list view.

Fetch 5.0.1

Fetch, which was the very first graphical FTP client for the Mac, received a much-needed user interface update with version 5.0, putting frequently used commands on a toolbar along with a Back button and a pop-up menu showing recent folders. It still uses a single-pane window that shows only the contents of the remote server. This results in a simple, uncluttered interface, but makes it slightly harder to see local and remote folders side-by-side, since you must use a Finder window to show the local files. You upload or download files using drag-and-drop or the Put (upload) and Get (download) buttons. Navigational niceties such as spring-loaded folders or column view are still missing in this version, however.

In addition to FTP and SFTP, Fetch supports secure connections using the Kerberos authentication protocol; it also works with a much wider range of proxy servers than the other programs we reviewed. It does not, however, offer SSL-encrypted connections at this time. That feature is slated for a future release.

Unlike Transmit and Captain FTP, Fetch currently has no facility for creating drop-box icons to upload files to frequently used locations. On the other hand, it offers AppleScript recordability, so creating your own drop-box application would not be difficult.

Fetch is the only program in this group to offer automatic file compression on upload (in your choice of Gzip, StuffIt X, Gzipped Tar, and Zip formats), a very useful feature. It also toggles passive mode automatically rather than forcing you to figure out the setting by trial and error; all FTP clients should do this. In addition to seamlessly opening remote text files with an external editor, Fetch now lets you edit graphics directly on the server (using GraphicConverter). This release added a number of nice touches, too, such as thorough and well-written online documentation and plain English error messages that offer problem-solving advice. Fetch Softworks also offers toll-free technical support.

Fetch is positioned as a simple program for people who don’t wear propeller beanies and just want a reliable and flexible FTP tool. It meets that need well, although Fetch’s simplicity puts it at a small disadvantage compared to the richer feature set of comparably priced programs.

Captain FTP 4.2

Captain FTP 4.2 is as competent as any FTP client at transferring files, and this new version adds a few useful new features. But the program remains hampered by an odd interface with nonstandard icons, controls, and procedures. For example, the two-pane window seems logical enough—one pane each for local and remote volumes. But because either pane can represent the remote server and it’s not always obvious which one that will be, it’s all too easy to mistakenly transfer files in the wrong direction.

The program supports FTP, SFTP, and FTP over SSL. A new Segmented Download option (for FTP only) attempts to make transfers faster by downloading a file in multiple segments simultaneously. Our tests showed mixed results, however. In most cases, segmented downloads took slightly longer than conventional downloads because of the time required to reassemble the pieces. A built-in server enables other Captain FTP users to connect to your machine for secure, private, file sharing. (You can also share your Captain FTP Address Book with other users.) This is intended to facilitate collaboration among group members in multiple locations, but offers only minor advantages over using OS X’s built-in SFTP server (activated using the Remote Login option in the Services section of the Sharing system preference pane).

Synchronization options are flexible, and include two-way mirroring (making the contents of local and remote folders identical, even though both may have had changed files). Unfortunately, the synchronization feature is somewhat confusing, and does not warn you if a file has changed in both local and remote folders.

More frustrating was Captain FTP’s bookmark feature. To bookmark a folder, you must drag it to the unlabeled heart-shaped Favorites icon. But this works only if you’ve already listed the server in the program’s Address Book manually—and if you’ve assigned it a name without any periods.

If you can get past Captain FTP’s unusual interface, you’ll find that it gets the job done. Its file transfers are generally fast and reliable (even without segmented downloads). Although it makes only a few commands available via AppleScript, it does offer a drop-box feature called Virtual Folders. It also includes a scheduling feature called Automation Manager, which enables you to transfer files automatically at a fixed time or a repeating interval. But overall it’s still less capable, and harder to use, than Fetch, which costs the same.

Features and interface

Beyond basic functionality, Fetch and Transmit stand out as having a greater number of truly useful features, plus intuitive interfaces—unlike Captain FTP. Fetch is simpler, while Transmit is cooler and more cutting-edge. Although Captain FTP, like Transmit, supports spring-loaded folders, Transmit’s column view and linked folder navigation are outstandingly helpful. (Fetch could benefit from a few more navigational aids.)

As for automation, Captain FTP has very limited AppleScript support, an area where the other two excel--Transmit also includes Automator actions for uploading, downloading, and synchronizing files. Fetch offers AppleScript recordability (in which a sequence of actions can be recorded and automatically saved as a script), a rare commodity even among applications with otherwise good AppleScript support.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

All three applications can get your files from point A to point B successfully, but they differed greatly in convenience features and ease of use. Despite having some unique capabilities, Captain FTP 4.2 was the most cumbersome of the three; Transmit 3.2 and Fetch 5.0.1 offered smoother, more natural operation. Fetch is no slouch, but Transmit gets the nod for a greater breadth of features and a beautiful design that makes it a pleasure to use.

[ Joe Kissell is author of several ebooks about Mac OS X. His secret identity is Curator of Interesting Things for InterestingThingOfTheDay.com.]

To bookmark a folder in Captain FTP, drag it to the heart icon—but be sure you’ve added the server to your address book first.Fetch’s single-pane window puts commonly used commands, such as View (to preview a file) on the toolbar.Transmit can show the contents of local or remote folders in column view just like the Finder, making navigation easier.

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