Four ways to access files from afar

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Many of us now find ourselves working from multiple locations. We sometimes trot around with a laptop, sometimes use different computers in each location and, increasingly often, try to access our files from computers we don’t own. Fortunately, you can access files you need at multiple locations, either via synchronizing selective files constantly, or by using remote access tools. Here are four ways you can access your files remotely:

1. Sync your iDisk

Synchronize with iDisk
You can set up your Internet-based iDisk to synchronize all files—automatically or on demand—to any computer logged into the MobileMe account via the MobileMe preference pane.

MobileMe’s iDisk feature isn’t just for Internet-hosted storage, Web galleries, and public file sharing. It’s also a file synchronization tool. With iDisk sync enabled, all files on your iDisk are mirrored to a copy on your computer, and can be accessed, modified, and added to when offline. Next time you connect to the Internet, updated files are synced up.

Open System Preferences, select MobileMe, and then click on the iDisk tab. At the bottom, in the iDisk Sync area, you can choose whether or not to sync files stored in your iDisk to and from the Mac on which you’re working. Click Start to initiate the process, and choose Manually from the Update menu if you want to choose when the sync happens.

Each computer that is synced to your iDisk will keep a local copy of these files. You can also access the files through Apple’s free iDisk iPhone app, and via the Web site. (Click on the iDisk icon at the top of the navigation bar.)

The key limitation of iDisk syncing is that when it copies changes you make it copies the entire file. For large files in which you make small changes, that wastes a lot of bandwidth. Also, when you change files on your iDisk, it can take up to 15 minutes before copying begins to each synced computer.

To use iDisk you must have a MobileMe account, which starts at $99 per year for an individual account. Some stores, such as, sell discounted subscriptions as a shrink-wrapped item.

2. Sync folders using Internet-hosted storage

Dropbox stores files on its servers, and automatically copies and updates any files you add or change across all the computers to which a Dropbox account is connected. This includes sub-folders in the main Dropbox folder shared with other people. Dropbox can be accessed via the desktop, iPhone or iPod touch, or a Web browser (as shown here).

Need to sync files across multiple computers as well as retrieve them from your iPhone or a Windows computer? Two popular Internet-hosted file-syncing tools, Dropbox and SugarSync, can do just that and more. The idea is simple: pick a folder (one folder with Dropbox or multiple ones with SugarSync), and any changes you make to files in that folder immediately sync with a central storage host, as well as any other computers or devices with access to the folder.

Apple’s iDisk acts like a local copy of a remote drive. Dropbox and SugarSync folders look like regular folders residing on your local drive. These tools only send changed parts of files back and forth—a technique that reduces bandwidth requirements tremendously. They upload and download changes instantly while you’re online.

Dropbox and SugarSync both offer 2GB of storage at no cost. Dropbox subscriptions cost $10 per month for 50GB, and $20 per month for 100GB. SugarSync charges $10 per month for 60GB, $15 for 100GB, and $25 for 250GB.

3. Use Back to My Mac for remote access

If you just want remote access to files on demand without copying them all over the place, Back to My Mac might be the solution. The Back to My Mac feature, part of OS X since Leopard, extends file sharing beyond the local network using a MobileMe account without copying files: it’s just like local network sharing from wherever you’re accessing the remote system. Each computer that’s registered to the same MobileMe account, has Back to My Mac active, and has the appropriate router and ISP configuration can access any shared services, including file sharing, from any other computer in the group. (See “Troubleshooting Back to My Mac” for all the details about how to get Back to My Mac to work.)

First use the MobileMe system preference pane to sign into MobileMe. Then click on the Back to My Mac tab and click Start. You’ll also need to go to the Sharing preference pane on the computer from which you want to access files and enable File Sharing to make that computer’s files remotely reachable. Back to My Mac also lets you access any services your Mac offers that can accessed via Bonjour on a local network. (See “File Sharing in Leopard” for help figuring out what to share.)

Recently, Apple also added Back to My Mac access to the internal drive of a Time Capsule as well as external drives connected to a Time Capsule or AirPort Extreme Base Station. The 7.5 firmware update for both devices (so far only available with new base stations) lets you enter multiple MobileMe accounts via AirPort Utility via the Advanced view’s MobileMe tab for remote access.

If you’re away from home, you can log into MobileMe on someone else’s Leopard or Snow Leopard system, using a Guest account for the greatest security. Apple doesn’t yet allow remote access via an iPhone app or the Web site.

Back to My Mac requires a MobileMe account, either an individual account, or one of the five available with a family pack. E-mail-only accounts and iChat-only accounts do not work with Back to My Mac. The Mac you want to access must be turned on. However, if you’re using Snow Leopard you can tap into the new Wake on Demand mode (see “Wake on Demand lets Snow Leopard sleep with one eye open.”)

4. FarFinder

You can avoid a MobileMe subscription fee and still gain access to files and much more stored remotely on a Mac using Farfinder. Install FarFinder on the computer you want to access, and then retrieve or browse files using a Web browser (Safari, Firefox, Camino, and Internet Explorer) or a free iPhone application.

FarFinder costs $35 for a single user, but may be installed on multiple computers under your control. A $65 family license allows up to five people in a household to install the software on multiple computers under each person’s control.

Glenn Fleishman is the author of Take Control of Screen Sharing in Leopard and Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network.

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