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MacBook in the cloud: Work with the same files on multiple Macs

For most people, one computer is probably sufficient. It might be a desktop, or a laptop, or you might just make do with iPads or iPhones. But somewhere down the line, you might adopt more. You get a work computer. You decide you want a traveling laptop. You might replace your old Mac, but it still runs fine for basic Web browsing and writing emails.

macbook air

When you buy multiple iOS devices—an iPad to go along with your iPhone, for example—you don’t have to worry about transferring your software or syncing your passwords. By default, they’re tied to your Apple ID, and that data downloads over to your new device when you set it up. Macs, however, are not quite so lucky. Apple’s iCloud service offers limited sync capabilities for your passwords and user account data, but doesn’t widely support app data; and worse, new computers require you to either clone your old drive to your new computer or copy over any non-Mac App Store applications. And, of course, the big whopper: Your average Mac laptop has a whole lot less storage than its desktop cousins, especially if you value the speed of a solid-state drive (SSD).

Now, I love my three-year-old 11-inch MacBook Air. It’s light, ultra-portable, and the perfect writing machine. But it’s not the fastest horse in the race, nor does it have excess storage space—my SSD has just 120GB hardwired into the machine, and my applications alone take up a third of that capacity. As I work at home, I often travel back and forth between the Air and my iMac, and nothing is more annoying than having to manually email or transfer files from one computer to another. (Your writing groove is a lot harder to maintain when you have to close, save, and transfer your document every time you change machines.)

It turns out, however, that you can make your laptop into the perfect satellite computer with just a few tweaks—and save its precious hard drive space, to boot. Here are a few tips for syncing your computers with the cloud.

Selective syncing your Dropbox folder

Its recent political kerfuffle aside, Dropbox is still one of the best ways to store and access information across multiple computers: Your Dropbox folder lets you store files inside it on one computer and have them instantly appear in the folder on the second; you can also access them on the Web. And if you shell out for a paid account, you can sync up to 500GB of stuff within that folder.

I pay for a 100GB plan, but I don’t necessarily want the entirety of my Dropbox present on my laptop—for one thing, I don’t even have enough space. That’s where the service’s Selective Sync option comes in handy. It lets you select specific sub-folders to sync from Dropbox on a particular computer; for my MacBook Air, I chose only my Macworld article and file archive, with sub-selections for Application Support sync (more about that later) and a few miscellaneous folders.

macbook cloud selective sync

Selective Sync lets you pick and choose which folders in Dropbox you want on your computer.

You can turn on Selective Sync by going to Dropbox’s menu bar icon on your Mac, clicking the Settings gear icon, and choosing Preferences; from there, select the Account tab and click on Change Settings under Selective Sync. Folder choice is granular: You can sync entire top-level Dropbox folders (of which my Macworld work is one), but you can also choose subfolders (say, “Observatory Project” inside “Art Projects”) within Dropbox without having to download the entire containing folder. To do the latter, switch to Advanced View.

Selective Sync is especially important for me because of my MacBook’s capacity limitations. I don’t even think my 88GB Dropbox folder would fit on my MacBook Air! Instead, I let my iMac take care of my master file collection there, and sync only what I need to work on at any given time. If I want to access something that’s not readily available on my MacBook Air, all I have to do is go into Selective Sync preferences and add it, or visit Dropbox.com on the Web.

Keep your applications in tune

The biggest hurdle in keeping your data square across your Macs may be the data itself, but I had one more problem to tackle: What about the data in my programs? To give you an example: I started working on this article on my MacBook Air, but while doing so, I also opened up a few unsaved documents in BBEdit to jot down a quick outline, along with some links. The article I easily saved to my Dropbox folder and reopened on my iMac, but what about those unsaved notes?

Well, Dropbox isn’t just good for saving static files—some apps, like BBEdit, let you sync application support files within the folder, too. The key is in your computer’s Application Support folder, hidden within ~/Library: Your programs use information from that folder to save your preferences, load any unsaved data, and the like. If you want to sync your program states, just drag your BBEdit support folder from ~/Library/Application Support to a new Application Support folder within Dropbox.

Now, whenever I open up BBEdit on my iMac after using it on my MacBook Air, all my unsaved documents are present and ready to be worked with or discarded.

macbook cloud dropbox sync

Apps like AgileBits's 1Password offer Dropbox sync within the preference pane.

Other apps offer Dropbox sync support, too: AgileBits’s 1Password offers a Dropbox sync button directly within the application, while programs like launch manager Alfred can store a single preference file on the service.

And I haven’t even mentioned the programs that have their own sync solutions, or applications that use Apple’s iCloud service. As we start to move away from a static, singular file system, your programs are becoming more dependent on cloud services—making sure that your app looks like your app, no matter what Mac you open it on.

iCloud isn’t perfect, but it’s worth using

Having used it since its early iTools incarnation, it’s not surprising that I’ve had my beefs with iCloud over the years. But despite Apple’s occasional incompetence with cloud services, I find myself relying on iCloud, too, for my sync solutions.

For instance, a few of my apps use iCloud sync over Dropbox. There are my personal email, contacts, calendars, and reminders, which I need to keep in check across my Macs and my iOS devices. And Safari’s bookmarks sync and iCloud Tabs are some of the few iCloud features I absolutely rely on for my daily work—if I switch to my MacBook Air from my iMac, I can still quickly access a list of my currently open tabs on my desktop computer, and my work bookmarks are all there and accounted for.

macbook cloud icloud

iCloud still has room to improve, but it's worth enabling if you’re using multiple Macs.

iCloud Keychain sync may not be perfect as-is—probably why I augment it with 1Password, now—but it’s getting there. And while I don’t often rely on Photo Stream, it’s nice to know that I have another backup of my images.

MacBook Air, phone home

macbook cloud phone home

My Dropbox tricks and iCloud account all work fairly well to keep my MacBook Air in sync, but sometimes I need to return to the source. That’s where Back to My Mac comes in—it lets me access my iMac from my MacBook Air, no matter if I’m three feet or three thousand miles away. When you open a new window on your desktop, any awake and online computers connected to your iCloud account should show up under the Shared pane.

Now, Back to My Mac doesn’t always work—sometimes, the feature just gives up the ghost, even when your computers are both online and ready to connect—but that’s why I have backup options. Edovia’s Screens software for Mac and iOS has become my go-to program when Back to My Mac fails, and it’s an excellent client. I originally bought the mobile version for my iPhone and iPad, as Apple doesn’t support accessing Back to My Mac from your iOS devices, but I’ve started using the program more often on my desktop, as well.

Whatever your screen-sharing program of choice, it’s an excellent last-ditch option for tasks you can’t quite accomplish on your laptop. Personally, I’ll sometimes screen share into my iMac for more processor-intensive tasks (like rendering a video, for instance), or if I’m working on something in a program that doesn’t support sync (say, tweaking a Photoshop image for an article header).

Forge your own cloud journey

These are the tips and tricks that work well for my Macs, but you might find completely different paths to help you keep your computers in sync. And that’s awesome: Everyone’s workflows are a teensy bit different, and what works for me and my tiny laptop may not be perfect for you and yours. Use these tips, combine them with your own, but most importantly: Find a way to avoid worrying about where your files and applications are when hopping from computer to computer.

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