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Ask LH: How Can I Sync My Files Without Storing Them Online?

Dear Lifehacker, I love Dropbox, but there are some files I’m just not comfortable keeping in “the cloud”, like my tax returns and bank statements. I also have huge media files that I’d like to sync between my computers but can’t use Dropbox for because it would put me over my account limit.

I saw your Dropbox alternatives article, but it looked like all of those services also store the files online. Is there a way to keep my files in sync without having to store them on someone else’s servers? Signed, Syncing Without Servers

Dear SWS,

You point out a lot of good reasons why people look for alternatives to Dropbox and similar online syncing and storage services, including added security risks and costs when you’ve got a huge amount of data to sync up. Some workplaces and campuses don’t even allow Dropbox or other external servers to be used at all, for intellectual property reasons or, again, security.

So what can you do? Thankfully, there are several tools you can use to sync your computers directly, bypassing the need for you to use an online server as a middleman. Here’s an overview so you can choose the best one for your needs:

If You Need To Sync Windows PCs and Macs: Windows Live Mesh or GoodSync

Windows Live Mesh is a unique tool in that it offers both direct PC-to-PC syncing and online storage space on Microsoft’s SkyDrive. You can select, on a folder basis, local syncing and/or store up to 5GB of files on SkyDrive. Live Mesh even has a feature to let you remotely control your Live Sync-connected Windows computer.

The program has a very simple setup and interface: select your computers’ folders, network drives, Microsoft Office settings or Internet Explorer program settings to keep in sync across all your computers and the app runs seamlessly in the background. You might not even know it’s running. However, if you want more granularity (logs, file versioning, scheduling, etc) or control, Live Mesh isn’t your app.

Here’s the bad news: Microsoft’s SkyDrive team has stated in a Windows 8 blog post that direct PC-to-PC syncing won’t be an option when SkyDrive is integrated with Windows 8 (major bummer!). You can install Live Mesh and use it for now for local syncing, but there’s a good chance local syncing won’t work when Windows 8-plus-SkyDrive rolls out officially later this year, so it’s probably best to look for alternatives.

GoodSync from SiberSystems (the makers of password manager Roboform) keeps Windows PCs and/or Macs in sync and can also sync your files with FTP sites, Google Docs, SkyDrive, Amazon S3 servers, WebDAV servers and removable drives. There are lots of configuration options to set how and when you want your files to be synced. The latest GoodSync 9 update added remote file access and faster syncing with block level synchronisation (i.e. syncing only your file changes).

Here’s the catch: The free version of GoodSync only allows for syncing 100 files and three sync jobs, while the Pro version allows unlimited syncing. Think of a sync job as, basically, the folder and subfolders that you want to keep in sync from one location to another). The Pro version is $US29.95 for Windows or $US39.95 for Mac. You only need one licence to sync two or more computers, though.

If You Only Need To Sync Windows PCs: SyncBack or SyncToy

For syncing Windows computers only, take a look at SyncBack, another feature-rich syncing tool that can schedule backup jobs too. Besides keeping Windows PCs in sync, SyncBack can sync your files with an FTP server, external drive or network drive.

This oldie but goodie (voted one of the most popular offline backup tools) comes in several versions — SyncBack Freeware, SyncBackSE for $US34.95, and SyncBackPro for $US54.95. Even the freeware version has options like filters for what to include or exclude in your sync jobs, email or HTML log files, and settings for programs to run before or after your sync jobs (many more options for the paid programs, of course). It may take time to learn all the settings (same as with GoodSync) and could use and updated and more intuitive interface, but it gets the job done.

Also worth consideration, however, is Microsoft’s free SyncToy, previously mentioned as one of Lifehacker readers’ favourite syncing tools. The small utility basically pairs two folders (whether they’re on a hard drive, network or USB device) for mirroring folders. It doesn’t have scheduling built in, but you can use Windows Task Scheduler to run it on a schedule. If other syncing programs seem too convoluted for you, SyncToy might be a relief. However, it hasn’t been updated since 2009.

Perhaps Your Next Syncing App: AeroFS or SparkleShare

AeroFS promises to be a great private and optional online backup storage service, but it’s currently in private beta so we can’t say for sure yet. Features promised, however, include optional online storage and special subfolders (“backup libraries”) encrypted with AES-256 encryption. It’s a distributed, peer-to-peer system, so there’s no middleman server, yet you get unlimited storage. AeroFS says they’ll be issuing invites again next month, so stay tuned.

Finally, SparkleShare is another tool we’ve been keeping our eyes on. The free, open source project lets you roll your own Dropbox-like service, using the open source version control system git as the backbone. The program works by basically creating a “SparkleShare” folder on your computer (there are now builds for Linux, Mac, and Windows), and any new files you put in that folder will be pushed to the remote git repository. Other SparkleShare users connecting to that folder will see that file appear in their SparkleShare folders and get a notification. It’s very similar to Dropbox, but you can share your folders locally or to others without dealing with the cloud. We’re getting ready to test SparkleShare ourselves but you can try the project out yourself to see if it works for you.

As you can see, there are a few options for syncing your files and getting around the cloud requirement. Which should you choose? That depends on your operating system and whether you want a lot of features and settings (e.g., SyncBack or GoodSync) or something simpler (e.g. SyncToy or possibly AeroFS when it launches).

Cheers
Lifehacker

PS Have a favourite syncing tool that we missed or other suggestions? Let us know in the comments.

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