What's The Best Way To Share Files Across Multiple Computers?

Dear Lifehacker,

We're a large family with several computers in our home. What's the best way to share files across our home network other than putting them on thumb drives and running from PC to PC?

With much love, Out of Touch with My Family

Photo by Marshall Astor.

Hi Out of Touch,

The number of homes with multiple computers is rising, so you've got a pretty common problem. Fortunately, we've got plenty of good solutions. While it's possible to set up an in-home network to allow file access and sharing among computer users, we'd suggest some alternatives that are generally much quicker and easier to set up.

One of our absolute favourite ways to swap files is with Dropbox. For the low cost of free, you can install a folder on any Window, Mac OS X or Linux-based computer, then just drag and drop files right into it that you want to share with others. Once you stick a file into the folder, it instantly syncs to Dropbox's server and is available to the rest of your family on their own computers in just a couple of clicks.

Set up a single Dropbox account and password with private folder access your whole family can share, or grab a personal account for each user and designate a shared folder that all family members have access to. Each account comes with 2GB of storage space, but there's an option to buy more if you need it. By the way, with Dropbox, you don't have to worry about your shared files getting stuck in the ether if you lose your internet connection — synced files remain on your computer's hard drive for easy access. Also, Dropbox's LAN sync feature means that rather than making the roundtrip to the Dropbox servers and back to all the other machines in your network, the files quickly propagate to all the computers on your local network directly — so even big files should make their way to everyone's computers very quickly.

Another excellent option comes in the form of Windows Home Server, one of the few Microsoft products that everyone who uses it seems to universally love. Jason detailed how to set up WHS to automate your backups and corral your media, but it's basically one always-accessible repository that your family can use to easily and seamlessly share files. If you don't want to shell out for the WHS operating system, you could also put together your own network-attached storage (NAS); FreeNAS is an extremely popular free and open-source NAS worth checking out.

Finally, note-taking application Evernote is another option for sharing files with friends and families. The free version lets users upload up to 40MB of files each month, but you're limited to audio, images, or PDFs (you'll need a premium account to upload Microsoft docs, videos, and so on). Evernote is a great choice if you want to make separate folders — or, in this case, notebooks — for each family member to help keep files organised and orderly.

Happy sharing!

Love, Lifehacker

P.S. Got your own preferred methods that you use to share files at home? Let's hear them in the comments. Thanks, Matthew!


    +1 For Windows Home Server. It is the best piece of software I've ever purchased. It does everything - backs up your computers automatically, makes sharing easy, and you can install it on any box you like, so you can tailor the hardware to suit your needs. I even set it up to work with my new iMac.

    WHS can't run Windows Media Centre to be a back end tv recorder though.

    I tried running windows 7 in a virtual machine but my hardware is too slow.

    I'm now in the process of setting up a Windows 7 Media Centre to run as a server. But it's not an easy task! Security is a bugger when sharing files with Windows 7!

    I have 3 computers at home, Windows XP, Ubuntu and Snow Leopard. I'm pretty happy with NAS solution. My next plan is to connect NAS to LCD TV using a media streamer.

    If you have a fair amount that you want to store, you can get a NAS (Network Attached Storage) System. I just got one for our network, so we can store all our files on it for ready access from all our PC's (Windows, Linux, Mac). You buy the NAS box, and then whatever size HDD's you want to put in there. You can also set up a RAID array for data protection in case a drive may fail.

    Many of them commonly act also as media servers, so consoles can readily see them to play movies and music, and they can also run as an iTunes server, so you can keep all your iTunes libraries in the one place. I'm presonally looking forward to that, as we currently have two indepenedent copies of the exact same library!

    +1 for Windows Home Server
    +1 for FreeNas
    +1 for Dropbox

    Why not use all 3! :)

    I find that using MS groove on my three Windows 7 machines works wonders :)

    Windows Live Sync, free, does exactly the same thing when you are on your home network - you can sync gigabytes directly across the LAN. Live Mesh also free, 5 gigs free, seamless and with remote access to any computer on the mesh.

    I use one of these, hooked up to my main desktop computer as a shared drive.

    Drobo... http://www.drobo.com/products/drobo.php

    * Redundant storage...
    * Easily cheaply and organically expandable to 16TB.
    * Uses any SATA HDD's you have, and brands,. any size, mix and match sizes.

    Not the cheapest to buy up front, but over the 5-6 year life span, much cheaper, safer, and more convenient than USB external drives, the cloud, or traditional NAS devices.

    Read more here...

    just setup ynhub on a windows comp, then install ApexDC on normal PCs, StrongDC on slow PCs, and shakesphere on Mac. Hash the folders you want to share, and its all done.

    Drobo seems nice, but $600??

    What works for me is simple and fairly stone-age:
    a USB portable drive (no power supply needed), plugged in to the laptop which is connected to the TV. Watch media directly on the TV, plus share the portable drive on the wireless LAN so other computers can play media from it or save files to it. If I need to copy a lot of data to the drive, I can just unplug it from the TV's laptop and connect it wherever it's needed (much quicker than copying over the LAN).

    320GB portable drives can be found on special for ~$90. Cheap! No redundancy, of course...

    Buy a D-link DNS-323 with a couple of gigabyte hard drives.
    works a treat!
    great for storing downloaded media

    I use Dropbox, but it can create an image on the installed computers which is quite large if you fill it up... not so good if you don't regularly use the files, but an excellent application. Can allow you to provide read only links to anyone else you like which has been a real help.

    The Drobo or Netgear NAS Pro are both good NAS solutions... if you have the money. I find my NAS Pro a brilliant file server/streamer for the household network and TV's. Great speed and you can set up access restictions.

    Another solution is whether the antivirus software you run (such as McAfee Suite) has it's own file shareing application (McAfee Easy Share) - I find this a great way to send one or more file(s) securely to another computer - good if you don't want the file accessible/seen by other parties, but does require both the sending and recieving computers to be on.

    Also, an updated router with in-built print server and USB port. Simply plug a cheap HDD into this and can be accessed by any computer on the network. Slow, but effective and cost effective.

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