Transmit 5 review: File transfer utility expands support for cloud services

With a facelift and back-end improvements, Transmit is now nearly up to date.

transmit 5 mac icon
Panic
At a Glance

File-transfer programs seem like a vestige of the internet that once was. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is one of the oldest of the internet’s standards, and it’s still in broad use. But our need to shift files around among servers we control or those run by others hasn’t decreased a bit. So many companies offer cloud-based storage and sync that you may be drowning in a multiplicity of options. For that, Panic’s updated Transmit 5 can help clear the fog away.

Transmit lets you connect your Mac via several internet file-exchange protocols and to most cloud-storage services. You can copy files either to and from your Mac or between servers or services you bring up in side-by-side windows. It also offers a modestly featured synchronization option, and an option to mount certain kinds of servers and services as Finder volumes. The interface has a refreshing new look that adopts and extends the style of the Transmit iOS app. (That app was released first in 2014 and Panic has regularly updated it since.)

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Transmit offers a crisp way to connect to servers or load local files.

Moving files around

In the simplest use of Transmit, you connect to a remote server (more on that in a bit) in either or both the lefthand and righthand side of a transfer window. You drag files in or out of that pane, delete them, or rename them. With cloud-based servers that offer a variety of access and storage policies, Transmit 5 exposes different and useful controls that otherwise require using a control panel at the cloud-service site, if it’s even available. (Some cloud services only expose certain features via an API, requiring third-party software to manage.)

For example, Amazon S3 offers different tiers of storage, from frequently used files that are modestly priced to store but cheap to transfer, to seldom-used items that are cheap to store and relatively expensive to transfer. Transmit lets you select any file and change the storage class, but you can’t select multiple files and change that property all at once. You can also set server-side encryption options for S3 within Transmit, which wasn’t available in version 4.

The Files tab in Transmit’s preferences lets you set a global preference for what happens when you double-click a file: it transfers to your computer’s default download location, edits in Transmit (for supported file types), or uses an external editor. You use that tab to enter an extension and pair it with an app you pick, like linking text files and BBEdit. (With some server/protocol types, you can also use a Transmit Disk, which I will explain later.)

Because Transmit is aimed fairly reasonably at people who wind up working directly with files a lot—why else use a file-transfer program with this kind of control?—Transmit handles the behind-the-scenes details for downloading the file to a temporary location, passes it to the editor, and uploading changes as you save or modify the file in the editor.

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Transmit offers side-by-side local and remote file listings for transfers and examination.

Transmit has a wealth of other preferences, such as inserting custom file header to cloud uploads to cloud services. This seems wonky, but it’s a way of making sure a given type of file has proper identification on the server side. For example, at one point, Amazon S3 required JavaScript files also added a Content-type: text/javascript header during uploads, or it would only identify the file as text to browsers, which caused websites to load incorrectly.

You can also use the Rules preferences to avoid downloading file listings (skip), not show them (hide), or force their appearance (show) in overriding over rules. That’s the same preference tab where you can preset upload permissions for FTP/SFTP, webDAV, and S3.

Transmit 5 retains a very unfortunate user interface choice from version 4 regarding deleting an item in a list within preferences. There’s no prompt, warning, or reversal when deleting something, which means you can get rid of well-honed rules with no way to revert to return them unless you made notes. Most similar apps have Revert/Apply buttons or a way to undo changes, and it’s a surprise that such a concept isn’t in Transmit in an overhauled release.

Head in the cloud

Panic has developed Transmit for over 18 years, but the last release of its macOS version was in 2010. Dotcom empires have risen over seven years, and Transmit 5 mostly catches up. The new version brings 11 new cloud-service types.

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The revised Transmit adds a heap of cloud server types.

Transmit 4 included just Amazon S3 as a cloud-based offering. Version 5 now adds the sync and storage offerings Amazon Drive, Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive (separately for consumer and business flavors). It also includes connections for cloud-storage and serving options similar to S3: Backblaze B2, DreamObjects, Microsoft Azure, and Rackspace Cloud Files. In an odd omission, Google Cloud Storage isn’t available although two similar products I’ll mention under synchronization have that Google integration.

You might ask: Why do I need Box, Dropbox, and other sync services when I’m using a computer that has a folder on my desktop that’s already syncing? Some number of people use a form of selective synchronization, known by different names with different products, that allows keeping just a subset of all files in your centralized repository up to date on a given computer to reduce unnecessary file storage. It’s also handy to have a side-by-side view when copying files. And you may simply prefer a file-transfer style interface over the Finder view.

This refresh also includes previously available standard internet protocols: the original unencrypted FTP, but also FTP with implicit SSL, FTP with TLS/SSL, and SFTP, all of which use different methods of encrypting connections. It also supports webDAV, used for web-server based file exchange, in both unencrypted and HTTPS versions.

Setting up connections just requires entering all the necessary credentials: user name and password, secret key, OAuth or similar pop-up login dialog, and the like. If you use SSH keys for connections, you can implicitly use keys stored in a user directory’s normal location or add them manually to Transmit. Connections can created with a variety of detail or, through Quick Connect, the minimum necessary.

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Setting up a web URL, remote path, and local path enables additional options for copying full paths and workflows.

When using the detailed method of adding a server, you can optionally specify a web URL, a remote path on the server, and a local path related to files in that directory. With the URL filled in, selecting and file and then choosing Edit > Copy URL provides the correct full path for pasting in elsewhere or sending in email. This helps tremendously with both web development and sharing files from cloud services, like Amazon S3, which optionally offer web endpoints for access. Transmit still lacks a clever Amazon S3 feature, which lets you create a temporary expiring link to a file. The funky-but-functional CyberDuck can make such URLs, but Transmit can’t.

The remote path in a server configuration lets you differentiate between multiple different instances of the same server that point to distinct web servers, file containers, or folders. That becomes handy if you save a server as a droplet, which lets you drag and drop files in the Finder and have them copied directly to that defined remote directory.

The local directory gets used in two different ways. If you enable Go > Linked Folder Navigation, which you must ever time you connect, Transmit tries to keep navigation in sync when the corresponding local directory is shown in one pane and the server in another. (Linked Folder Navigation should be a persistent setting for a server, not a global one.)

Transmit also supports DropSend, which is a little tricky to understand, but nifty in practice. With DropSend enabled for a server, dragging a file from the referenced local directory onto Transmit’s icon in the Finder or Dock automatically copies that file to the corresponding server entry. You don’t have to open the server in Transmit or take any other steps.

Adding a server through a full Servers > Add New Server option or clicking the Quick Connect tab to start, retains the entry in the Servers view, which also allows folders for organization. You can also see servers in that view advertised over Bonjour, including other Macs.

Panic Sync, which is free and optional, syncs your settings and server entries among copies of Transmit for macOS and iOS and its web-development product, Coda. Panic uses a zero-knowledge approach in which it has no access to the keys created by your copies of its software to encrypt the synced data, thus it exposes no information to hackers or government interception.

Transmit 4 allowed you to create Finder-mountable virtual volumes of any of its connection types. These volumes act just as if they were any other volume, letting files be opened and saved directly without using the Transmit interface as a passthrough. In version 5, you can still mount Amazon S3 (in most Amazon regions), and all the internet protocols (FTP, SFTP, and webDAV). The newer cloud and drive options can’t be mapped, and Panic includes a note in its help documentation that there’s no current plan to add them. It also has other provisos, which you should read carefully.

I don’t see Finder-mountable Transmit conduits as a key feature. I imagine they kept it intact to avoid breaking people’s previous workflows when they upgraded. But it’s a bit of neither fish nor fowl to only half support it.

Improved sync, but not a flagship option

Transmit lacks automation features. It’s not designed to keep things up to date by schedule or in the background. Rather, it’s a tool for real-time interaction with and between local and remote files. Version 5 improves on its sync feature, allowing unidirectional copying with a fair number of settings to tune behavior between two file panes. It also includes a Simulate option, terrific for testing out your choices before they’re irrevocable.

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Transmit’s Sync works well enough, but it’s no replacement for more sophisticated alternatives.

But people who need robust, scheduled syncing won’t find Transmit a substitute. I’ve worked extensively in recent months with Econ Technologies’ ChronoSync and the Arq backup tool. Both apps work with a wide variety of personal and business sync and cloud services and internet protocols, just like Transmit 5. But both focus enormously more attention on automating behavior, including rules, exclusion, and much more.

Despite all this seeming overlap, I wouldn’t recommend Transmit, Arq, or ChronoSync to anyone as a solution for all three tasks. ChronoSync has a bewildering level of detail and requires study, but it’s the sync champion. Arq is much simpler, but the perfect tool for local, network, and cloud backups, including with user-selected encryption. Transmit is the best way to manage remote files and file transfer manually. (One colleague, like me, relies on all three programs.)

Bottom line

Transmit 5 is a welcome update to software that I and many others use routinely and rely on. The interface refresh works better in the modern macOS and tasks and organization is clearer than the previous release. New cloud support brings Transmit’s compatibility into 2017 (mostly). Transmit 5 has a more sophisticated and better interface than Cyberduck, a roughly comparable multi-platform donationware program, and more robust workflows, too.

But there remain rough areas, which is disappointing after such a long release cycle. For example, because Panic supported Amazon S3 in Transmit 4, you can see many vestiges throughout 5 where S3 plus all internet protocols support a given feature, but none of the other cloud services are included. I describe some above.

Omitting Google Cloud Storage, arguably the second-most popular usage-based cloud offering after Amazon S3, is inexplicable given its support in Arq, ChronoSync, and CyberDuck. Those who need access to Google Cloud have to turn to other software.

However, there’s a lot of room once 5.0 is released to have a 5.1 or 5.2 release that incorporates missing services and elements, as well as fixing up some faulty interface design choices that need help.

It’s still easily the number-one pick for manual and assisted internet protocol and cloud-based file transfer. Let’s hope it continues to grow.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating
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    on Panic

    Pros

    • Supports nearly all personal, business, and usage-based cloud services
    • Improved sync allows sophisticated on-demand transfers
    • Multiple workflows for uploading files effortlessly

    Cons

    • Lacks Google Cloud Storage support
    • Can’t generate temporary Amazon S3 URLs
    • Some UI quirks and bad choices remain from previous release
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