Solutions for synchronizing folders

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Reader (and student) Ross Wehner, would like his homework to be in two places at once. He writes:

I am curious if it is possible to make a folder that is like a shortcut to a folder, except that rather than being a shortcut, this new folder actually has copies of the files in it. I have my school home folder mapped as a network drive to my computer. I would like to have a folder on my network drive that automatically creates copies with my homework files in it. Is this possible?

What you’re after is not some kind of shortcut but rather synchronized folders. The idea being that when you drop something in one folder, the other folder is automatically updated with the contents of the first. There are a number of ways to do this. All of them depend on you having control of the Macs you’re working with and being able to establish some kind of connection between the two Macs. If the source folder is on a school Mac that’s firewalled to within an inch of its life, talk to the school’s IT department about your options.

Assuming you have control of those Macs, let’s start with a free way.

Create the two folders and make sure your Mac can access both of them. Go to the source folder—the one where you’ll first place a file—Control-click on it, and choose Automator from the More command in the menu that appears. When Automator launches create a workflow that looks like the one in the figure below.

The first action, Get Specified Finder Items, should have the source folder listed (the one you Control-clicked). Drag the destination folder (the folder you want items copied to) to the last action—Copy Finder Items. At this point you can test the workflow by dropping something into the source folder and clicking the Run button in the workflow. The item should be copied to the destination folder.

Now choose File > Save as Plug-in and in the sheet that appears name your plug-in (“Sync Folders” seems appropriate to me), choose Folder Actions from the Plug-in For pop-up menu, attach the plug-in to the source folder, and then click Save. Now, when you put anything into the Source folder, it will automatically be copied to the destination folder.

This is a reasonable way to do things if you’re not worried about version control—having newer files overwrite older files that you’d like to keep. If you want greater control over how things are copied, you might look at one of a couple of synchronization tools. I’ve used a number of these things, including Econ Technologies’ $40 ChronoSync and Qdea’s $30 Synchronize! X Plus. Each is good, though I eventually settled on ChronoSync as it offers more options than Synchronize! X Plus and doesn't require a license renewal every two years as does the Qdea utility. Each has the power to run under a schedule and will make network connections automatically so you don’t have to.

And then there’s Dropbox. This is an online storage service that provides you with 2GB of storage for free. When you install Dropbox on your computers, each is outfitted with a Dropbox folder. When you move a file to your Dropbox folder on one computer, that file is synced to all the Dropbox folders you have on your other computers as well as with your storage area on the Dropbox website.

If 2GB of storage isn’t enough, you can purchase 50GB of storage for $10 a month ($99 a year) or 100GB of storage for $20 a month ($199 a year). Or, you can try to persuade your friends to sign up with referral links such as this one. Every time one of those referral links results in a new account, you earn 250MB of bonus storage space (up to 3GB).

(Full disclosure: That referral link is to my Dropbox account and for illustrative purposes only. You can get a Dropbox account very easily without using a referral link.)

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