Keeping Your Life in Sync

sync or swimIn the last fifteen years, the number of computer-based devices that I use regularly has grown precipitously. Things were once pretty simple: I started grad school with a laptop (a PowerBook 160, if that doesn’t date me too much) and ended it with a desktop computer, and most data transfers were handled via floppy disk.

But when I got my first post-grad school job, and got my first college-provided computer to go with it, things began to get a little more complex: I had to decide what data I wanted on the home machine and what on the office machine. Things that resided in both places were (mostly) kept synchronized via Zip disk or the occasional email message.

And then the PDA joined the scene, and suddenly there was this other category of data that I found myself keeping in sync: contacts and calendars. The process was pretty simple—put the Palm in its cradle and press the sync button—but like copying files from those floppies and Zip disks, this sync process had one potentially fatal flaw: I had to remember to do it.

The same has been true of nearly all of my sync processes over the years, from the floppy disk to the flash drive. Even when I had software assistance in figuring out what needed to be synchronized (such as the wonderful ChronoSync, which I used for years), I still had to remember to run the sync, and preferably before I started any work on whichever machine I was in front of. Needless to say, mistakes were too often made.

I now find myself with a desktop computer in my office, a desktop computer at home, and a laptop for travel, not to mention an iPhone and an iPad, and yet with all of these proliferating devices, I have an easier time than ever keeping everything synchronized, thanks to the magic of cloud computing.

We’ve written a fair bit about ways of ensuring that your data stays synchronized, from Julie’s gentle introduction to version control to Heather’s post on Syncplicity to my own post on Evernote, and of course the range of Google technologies that Natalie recently rounded up for us. But here are a few of the other systems that I use to keep everything in sync.

(The usual caveats apply: I’m a Mac user, and so my systems are mostly confined to that platform. And there are lots of other great systems out there, which I’d love to hear about in the comments.)


We’ve written a lot about Dropbox here (see for instance Jason’s admonition to stop emailing files to yourself and Ryan’s advice on using Dropbox to back up your essential files), so I won’t belabor the point. I will note, however, that Dropbox’s automated synchronization is what saved me from the endless round of floppy disk/Zip disk/flash drive file copying, thus more or less eliminating the human element from the possible errors that could creep into the process. (And the human element produced about 99.9% of those possible errors.)

A 2GB account is free, but paying for a pro account with Dropbox is without question some of the best technology money I’ve ever spent. In fact, I now have a 100GB super-pro account, so that I can keep my iTunes library synchronized across multiple machines, in addition to all of my work files.

Even better, some of my favorite iPhone and iPad apps are being built to interact directly with your Dropbox account, including the iAnnotate PDF reader, Office2HD, and, perhaps most brilliantly, 1Password, which now uses Dropbox to keep your passwords synchronized across multiple devices.


I’ve been a user of Apple’s cloud-based system, MobileMe, since its inception, and was a long-time (and somewhat long-suffering) user of its .Mac predecessor as well. MobileMe provides some cloud-based file storage through iDisk, but I find access to be slow and its synchronizing features less nimble than Dropbox, so I don’t use it much except for backups.

Where MobileMe really gets its utility, however, is in keeping my Address Book, iCal, Safari bookmarks, and so forth automatically synchronized both across my various computers and with my mobile devices. Every so often there’s a little glitch, but on the whole it works pretty seamlessly.


However, I don’t find myself using Safari as my primary browser when I’m on one of my computers; I’ve found Chrome to be much more lightweight and zippy. How, then, to get those bookmarks synchronized across machines, and onto my mobile devices where they can be used with Safari?

Enter Xmarks (formerly Foxmarks), a free application that will, among other things, synchronize your bookmarks between multiple browsers on any one machine as well as across multiple machines.


And just to complicate matters, I’m also not solely a user of Apple’s iCal/MobileMe Calendar/iPhone and iPad Calendar; I also use Google Calendar. To make sure that my calendars stay synchronized across those two platforms, I run BusySync on one computer. BusySync allows me both to publish my iCal calendars to Google and to subscribe to my Google calendar in iCal. Events created in any calendar, on either platform, are then kept synchronized in both directions (and, through MobileMe, with my other computers).

(One caveat here: MobileMe has recently released the beta version of a new Calendar system, which is fully cloud-based; instead of using Apple’s SyncServices to move data from the cloud to your machine, the new system will use CalDAV, which is far more stable. However, BusySync and its related full-service calendaring system, BusyCal, aren’t yet compatible with the new MobileMe beta, though an update is promised soon.)

What Else?

These four systems (five if you add in Evernote) are the primary ways I keep my data synchronized. All have the benefit of working more or less invisibly behind the scenes and handling the movement of data for me.

Do you have other favorite data synchronizing systems? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Greg Neate.]


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