Looking for a great last-minute gift? This Christmas, set up your less tech-inclined acquaintances with the gift of synchronised and backed-up data — including their most important files, bookmarks and passwords (which we'll also help them improve).
Image via mmlolek.
The gift of synchronicity is free, low-hassle, and it's a gift to yourself in fewer tech support questions. It may not sound like not much of a gift — just installing some stuff, right? But what might seem like second nature to you is going to be astounding to those who are used to clicking "Yes" about four dozen times while setting up their computer, only to find all those "protection" and "safeguard" packages don't do much at all. When you give this gift, the recipient doesn't need to head home at lunch time to retrieve a file, doesn't forget the password to an online store they shopped at years ago, and can always find that spreadsheet with their holiday card addresses.
What You'll Need
Access to the giftee's computer Not necessarily in-person, though. You can use an app like TeamViewer to install a few apps on that person's system and configure what's needed. You might be able to have the person pre-install the apps themselves, leaving you to step in and do the configuration.
Software They Can Install
Here's what we're recommending for our sync and backup tools:
• Dropbox: It's 2GB of free space, it keeps previous versions of files, and it's just quietly, constantly working in the background. By default, it works as a kind of "magic folder", into which you can consciously drop files for syncing between systems. But with a little configuration, it can also sync other folders, including the Desktop where so many users stash important stuff that's easily lost, or substitute as the My Documents folder.
• Mozy: Dropbox is great for the immediate stuff — the things people are working on at the moment. For backing up deeper files outside of the "magic folder", Mozy offers another 2GB of free space that can selectively back up files across an entire computer — Microsoft Office documents, image files, whatever is needed. If 2GB isn't enough, the unlimited Home plans are fairly cheap for the peace of mind they provide. What's more, Mozy can also work (for free) with an external USB drive to back up their entire hard drive.
• TeamViewer: A VNC client that makes it pretty easy for any computer user to let another person control their system — just share the access code.
• LastPass: This is the any-browser password manager that we're huge fans of at Lifehacker. If you're not quite sure which browser someone uses on their system, you could download the Universal Windows Installer, which installs extensions for Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer. There's a Safari extension for single-platform Mac users, and individual extensions for every browser — be sure to grab the "binary" version whenever possible, as this makes it easier to import passwords.
• Xmarks: This is the any-browser bookmark syncing tool. Versions of Xmarks are available for Internet Explorer on Windows, Safari on Mac, and Firefox and Chrome on both Windows and Mac.
• Optional — Mobile Apps for Dropbox, LastPass, Xmarks: LastPass and Xmarks each require a Premium subscription to use their Android or iOS apps for more than a trial period; you can bundle them together for $US20. Dropbox has a free mobile app for iOS, Android and BlackBerry.
Note: To get the full benefit, you may be setting these apps up on both your gift recipient's laptop and desktop; after all, that's what' synchronicity is all about.
Install Dropbox as you normally would — let it create a My Dropbox folder in the Documents/My Documents folder. The tricky part comes in lowering the barrier in getting your user's documents into Dropbox on the regular. A few ways to do that, in ascending order of hack-iness:
- Sync Your iTunes Library: With a little help, Dropbox is extremely skilled at syncing your iTunes library across computers. Chances are your loved one will need a paid Dropbox account to enjoy this luxury.
- Add a Start Menu Link: Explained at The How-To Geek's emporium — basically, it's adding the "Recorded TV" to your Start Menu options, then renaming and re-targeting the link.
Use Dropbox as the My Documents folder: In Windows Vista or 7, right-click on the Documents folder (in a file window or the Start menu), select Properties, then select the Location tab. In that tab, you can add in the location of the Dropbox folder, then click the Move button. It's a similar process in XP.
- Taskbar Link: In Windows 7, you can't actually pin the Dropbox folder to the taskbar — try, and you just end up pinning the general file explorer there, with Dropbox listed in the right-click "jumplist." Use this trick for pinning individual folders, which, in short, involves creating an empty Dropbox.exe file using Notepad, then changing that fake executable file to point to something like C:Users[username] DocumentsMy Dropbox.
- Automatic Desktop Syncing: It's not quite what we had in mind when we detailed syncing folders outside My Dropbox, but it's what I used with one relative's MacBook. It's a different command for Windows (and might require downloading a separate app, as explained here), but to sync up a MacBook's desktop with Dropbox, I created a folder in the Dropbox folder named, say, Desktop Backup, then ran this command:
ln -s ~/Desktop ~/Dropbox/Desktop BackupThat creates a "hard link" between the Deskop and a Dropbox folder, so that everything on the Desktop is instantaneously backed up to Dropbox. Add the Dropbox site to their bookmarks, and add their password to LastPass, and now they've got backup copies, un-delete, and multiple versions of everything they do on the most common file dump. Note: If there's a huge folder or two on the desktop that your giftee just can't seem to get rid of, you can prevent that folder from hogging all the Dropbox space with the new selective sync.
Mozy will walk you through its initial setup, and its tabbed interface is fairly easy to get a handle on, but our guide to setting up a foolproof and fireproof automatic backup plan with Mozy can help you with the full setup. If you're using a free 2 GB account, the tricky part is trying to figure out exactly which files you want backed up. You'll need to do some Q&A with your recipient, or someone who knows them, to figure out which file types are the most important to always have backed up to the cloud. Once that's settled (or you convince them that $US40/year is worth it), you can set up Mozy to keep tabs on the hard drive at all times, checking in and uploading matching files whenever it has a chance. The tax shouldn't be too much on most computers, as Mozy has made a lot of strides in reducing bandwidth and resource usage.
LastPass Make sure you've got the "binary" version of LastPass installed on your browsers, if offered. While setting up LastPass for a new user, the software should ask you to import passwords from that browser's standard password pile. You'll want to install and import passwords from any and all browsers the user may have them stashed inside. If there's another password system in place, LastPass can likely grab from it—press the extension button, choose Tools, then select "Import from ..." You'll arrive at a secure web page with a big list of services to import from, along with detailed instructions.
One thing you'll want to do is make LastPass less noisy. By default, it notifies the user about everything it does — filling forms, saving passwords, detecting password changes or new passwords being entered, etc. Head to the extension's preferences, choose the Notifications category, and set up notifications akin to what I've entered in the screenshot above: check only "Show notifications", "Show Save Site Notifications", "Show certain notifications only after click", and "Show Change Password Notification Bar". This keeps LastPass from popping up on every page where an empty box exists, and only spins its icon when a new password can be saved. You could keep the "Save Site Notification Bar" in place if you'd like, to make LastPass more apparent to a new user.
Xmarks This one's fairly straightforward. Once Xmarks is installed and the browser is restarted, you should see a pop-out window asking you to set it up. Do so, and import the bookmarks from each browser that your giftee regularly uses. Don't bother asking Xmarks to sync passwords — that's what we've got LastPass for.
During setup, you can run TeamViewer as just a one-time app for this setup, which is fairly convenient, but you can also set it up so the recipients' computer is accessible from anywhere, with the proper password. You'll have to decide whether you want to keep regular remote support as an option. If you're creating a permanent option to connect, you'll also have to create a TeamViewer account and confirm it in an email.
Generally, though, you can have your recipient simply launch TeamViewer and share their user ID and password with you—over phone, email, IM, SMS, what have you. It's then easy to connect and configure, fix, and update.
Add Helpful Bookmarks All this setup is very handy, but only if the person being helped knows how to get at the files, bookmarks, and passwords when they're at their computer or anywhere else in the world. They all tie in together, luckily.
Set up these links on a browser's main bookmarks bar, or in a folder named something like "Handy Backup Links." Because you're syncing bookmarks with Xmarks, you only have to set up on one browser.
- My Bookmarks on Xmarks
- My Passwords on LastPass
- My Dropbox (you can also link directly to their Desktop/My Documents backup, if you've set that up)
That's how at least one Lifehacker editor has set up his friends, family, and others with vigilant, no-worry backups. There are, of course, alternatives to all these apps, but these are Lifehacker favourites that also happen to have versions available for the widest array of operating systems and browsers. Tell us what you think of this holiday tech support package in the comments.