Dear Lifehacker, Let's say I want to share a few files with someone sitting right beside me, and using a file-sharing service like, say, Dropbox, seems slow and unnecessary. What's the best way to share files with a friend sitting next to me? Signed, Searching for Simplicity
Dear Searching, You're right; when you're trying to share files with someone in the same physical space as you, it hardly seems necessary to go through the slow process of uploading files to and downloading files from the internet, especially if they're rather large files. There's always the tried-and-true method of dumping your file(s) on a USB thumb drive, but if you don't have one handy (or you don't have a big enough drive), you've still got options.
There are numerous ways to share files using the various file-sharing capabilities built into your OS; all you need is few minutes of prep before you can get sharing. (Though after setting it up once, it'll be a snap to get sharing again in the future.)
First, we'll detail how to enable filing sharing on Windows and Mac (we're going to stick with each operating system's default public shared folders). If you already know how to that works, you can skip down to your preferred use case:
Common File-Sharing Use Cases:
- We're on the same secure local network
- We're at a coffee shop or other insecure network — i.e. the ad-hoc method
- We've got two computers, a wire and big files we want to transfer really fast.
Setting Up Sharing
Before we go through the file sharing options, you need to make sure sharing is properly set up on your computer.
Enabling File Sharing in Windows 7
To enable simple file sharing in Windows, head into the Control Panel and go to Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center. Hit Change Advanced Sharing Settings and make sure network discovery, file and printer sharing, and public folder sharing (the first three options) are all turned on. Then, head down the list and Turn off password protected sharing, and check "Use user accounts and passwords to connect to other computers". This is the easiest way to connect computers, and the most similar to the Mac method above. If you're worried about prying eyes, see connecting with an ad-hoc network below, and just be sure to turn off file sharing when you're done. If you're sharing with a Mac, you'll need to make sure the Guest account is turned on under Control Panel > User Accounts > Add or Remove User Accounts > Guest Account.
To share files in Windows, open up Windows Explorer; you should see all available computers (regardless of operating system) under Network in the Explorer sidebar. If you click on one, you can access its Public folders, in which you have both read and write access (so you can copy files to your machine, as well as copy files from your machine to theirs). If for some reason you don't see the desired machine in the sidebar, you may need to manually enter its name in the Windows Explorer address bar, in the form of file://computername.
Enabling File Sharing in OS X
To set up file sharing on a Mac, go to System Preferences and navigate to the Sharing preference pane. Check the box marked "File Sharing" and ensure that your public folder is listed under the shared folders. If you expect you'll need to share with any Windows computers, hit the Options button and mark the "Share Files and Folders Using SMB" box, as well as the box below it that corresponds to your username.
When another computer is available for sharing, it will show up in the sidebar of the Finder. You can either place a file in your Public folder for them to view and copy, or they can place a file in your Drop Box (located inside your Public folder and not to be confused with Dropbox the app) for you to then retrieve. If it doesn't show up automatically, just open up the Finder, then navigate to Go > Connect to Server in the menu bar. After typing in smb://computername, it should connect you to the computer and you can carry on. You'll need to choose to log in as a Guest at the prompt, after which mount the Users folder so you can access the Public folder from there.
Ways to Connect to Other Computers
If you're at your friend's house and trying to share files, it's likely you have a common network available. If your friend has a wired or Wi-Fi network (you'll need an extra Ethernet cable if it's a wired connection), you can both connect to the network and start sharing files as described above.
Over an Ad-Hoc Wireless Network Say you're in a coffee shop and you don't want everyone in the area peering in on your Public folder (or say you just prefer to stay away from open Wi-Fi networks). You can easily create a wireless "ad-hoc" network, which only connects your two computers.
In Windows, just go to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Manage Wireless Networks and hit Add. Click the Create an Ad-Hoc Network button and follow the steps to create your password-protected network.
On a Mac, the process is very similar — just hit the AirPort icon in the menu bar and click Create Network. Type in a name and check "Require Password" to be safe. Type in a password and give it to your friend, who can then connect to the network just like any other Wi-Fi network. After your friend connects, you should be able to follow the above steps to share files.
By far the fastest way to transfer data is over a wired connection, if you happen to have a cable available. FireWire is the fastest option, although it's only available to Macs (unless you have an older version of Windows). Ethernet is still a pretty speedy alternative for either platform, although you'll need a special Ethernet cable called a crossover cable. Alternatively, you can get a crossover adapter that you can use with a spare Ethernet cable to create the network. All you need to do is connect the computers with the cable, and follow the above instructions to share the files.
P.S. Got your own favourite ways to share files between computers? Let us know in the comments.