Having it all: Accessing files from the road

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Reader Aiden Andrews is planning to venture out but would like some of his most important files available to him. He writes:

I’m planning to be away from my home office for a couple of weeks but will take my MacBook Pro and iPad with me so I can work while traveling. What’s the best way for me to best arrange things so I have access to my files and can share them between my computer and iPad?

With the prevalence of cloud storage and mobile devices lots of people are interested in the most efficient ways to share their work. There is no one right answer but I can sketch out some of your options.

The digital hub: If you’ve used a Mac for awhile you may recall Apple’s “digital hub” strategy. The idea is that the Mac operated in an octopudinal way, where you’d tether your various devices to it and manage all your stuff with your computer—no cloud necessary as everything you needed was on your computer.

There’s no crime in continuing to manage your stuff this way. Just copy all the files you could possibly need to your Mac. Should you wish to put some of those files on your iPad, attach the iPad to your laptop with its syncing cable, launch iTunes, select the iPad in iTunes’ Source list, click the App tab in iTunes main window, move down to the File Sharing area, select the app you want to share files with (Pages, for example), and drag the compatible files you want to sync into the sharing area. They’ll be copied to the iPad and available from within the app you chose.

One of the attractions of iOS devices in this regard is that—unlike with other kinds of media—iTunes won’t throw a fit if you’ve jacked in an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch that a particular Mac isn’t synced with. Apple wisely allows “unknown” iOS devices to be plugged into any Mac for the purposes of file sharing.

Add files to your iPad within iTunes' File Sharing area

The shortcoming of the digital hub is that you’re stuck with whatever you’ve brought along with you. If you’ve forgotten a file or traipsed off on an outing with just your iPad in hand without syncing an important file to that device, you’re largely out of luck.

iCloud: If you’re running Mac OS X Mountain Lion on your Mac and iOS 6 on your iPad, you likely have an iCloud account. With iCloud’s document sharing it’s difficult to not share certain kinds of files to Apple’s cloud service as applications such as Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and TextEdit choose iCloud as their default location for saving files. As long as you have an Internet connection, any files you’ve created in these applications and saved to iCLoud will be available to your laptop and iPad provided that you have copies of the host applications on these devices.

The problem with iCloud storage is that it’s limited to a few Apple applications. If you have files of other types, iCloud is no help to you.

Online storage: For the greatest cloud flexibility you’ll look to services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or SugarSync. With a Dropbox account you get 2GB of free storage plus 500MB of additional storage for everyone you refer to the service. Google Drive and SugarSync each offer 5GB of free storage. All three services allow you to purchase additional storage. They also all offer iOS apps for accessing your stored files.

Use Dropbox to access files stored in the cloud

While you can use those apps to get to your files stored in the ether, I’m a fan of the $5 GoodReader app. GoodReader can download and open many files stored on these services. And when it can’t, its handy Open In command lets you open files in an app that can deal with them—for example, you can open EPUB files in iBooks or move many kinds of image files to the Photos app. GoodReader is a must-have on all my iOS devices.

Back to your Mac: Fat lot of good an online storage service does you if you’ve neglected to upload the files you need to that service before you’ve taken off for the gentle slopes of Lower Slobenia. For this very reason I make sure that I can remotely reach my Mac.

Apple offers its Back To My Mac service that lets you view and control a remote Mac. In such a scenario you could then add the files you want to Dropbox, Google Drive, or SugarSync, or play it old-school and simply email the files you need to yourself. When Back To My Mac works it can be wonderful—particularly since it can use the Wake on Demand feature supported by latish-model AirPort Base Stations and Time Capsules running firmware 7.4.2 or later. Without going into great detail about Wake on Demand, this means that even if your Mac is asleep (but, on a laptop, with the lid open) you can wake it remotely and access your files. (Read the linked document to see how your Mac supports this feature.)

One difficulty is that Back To My Mac works best with one of these Apple routers and if you don’t have one (or find that Back To My Mac simply doesn’t work even with Apple’s hardware) you could be in the soup. In addition, you can’t use Back To My Mac from an iOS device.

Fortunately there are other ways to access your Mac. Because I’m a cheapskate and it works, I favor the free version of LogMeIn. You can use it to access a remote Mac from an iOS device as well as a computer. It works this way:

Register an account with LogMeIn and download the Mac server client to your home or office Mac. When you’re planning to be away, fire up that server and leave your Mac running. (You won’t be able to access it if the Mac is asleep.)

When you want to access your remote Mac from your laptop, point your web browser at the LogMeIn web site, log in, and, using the LogMeIn plug-in, log into your Mac.

Log into your rermote Mac from an iPad with LogMeIn

If you’re using an iOS device, download the free LogMeIn app. Launch the app, enter the email address and password associated with your LogMeIn account, and in a short time you should see your Mac’s screen. Use the recommended gestures to navigate around your Mac, locate your files, and place them somewhere you can retrieve them.

As you can see, there are many ways to attack this problem. I’d suggest using a combination of these techniques. Do so and you should never be without the files you need.

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