Ask LH: How Can I Make My Cross-Platform Devices Play Well Together?

Dear Lifehacker, I have computers and mobile devices that weren't designed to work with one another. My Windows PC won't read my Mac's files, most of my iOS apps aren't available on Android and so on. How can I make everything play well together? Sincerely,Fragmented Technologist

Dear Fragmented,

I think most of us have run into a Windows app that doesn't have a great Mac version and vice versa. The same goes for mobile. Many iOS apps are still waiting for an Android version, and then there's the trouble of getting your mobile devices to work well with your computers. You can play the waiting game, or you can put together a system that's flexible enough to adapt to several environments. This doesn't come without its compromises, but you won't have to worry about your data in the end becuase it'll just work. Let's look at the common cross-platform compatibility issues one by one, and what you can do about them.

Solve Your File System Problem

You need to start formatting your drives so that they can be read by Windows, Mac and Linux. You do this with the ExFAT file system (although you may need to install drivers in Linux). All three operating systems can read it just fine. If you need detailed instructions, we have you covered.

Adopting ExFAT is a great solution if you have a bunch of empty drives, but if you're dealing with a terabyte of data and nowhere to temporarily store it while you reformat, ExFAT isn't going to be of much use. If you have a Mac-formatted drive you want to use on Windows, you can get full support with an app called MacDrive. It's not cheap at $US50, but you can do the free trial and use that until you can reformat. If you want to use a Windows-formatted drive on a Mac, you have a similar situation with NTFS for Mac. Linux users can just download FUSE to read most unsupported file systems.

When you're desperate and in a hurry, another option is to share a drive over the network. Windows File Sharing (SMB/CIFS) is supported on both Mac and Linux, so just set up any drive as an SMB network share on the source machine and connect to it on the other machine.

Use Dropbox For Notes Sync

We love the notes syncing service Simplenote, but it's not perfect if you want to run it on multiple platforms. It has a great webapp and iOS app, and a wonderful third-party Mac app called Notational Velocity, but its Windows, Android and Linux options aren't as good. Dropbox, however, works on pretty much every desktop and mobile platform. The 2GB you get for free when you sign up is more than enough to sync a bunch of text files.

But Dropbox just makes sure you have text files on all your computers. The good news is that you have the option of many more apps if you've got a database of text that is synced across devices. You may lose some of the nice features of Simplenote, but you gain greater app support. On the Mac, you can still use Notational Velocity. You just have to change Notational Velocity's preferences to 1) save its database in a Dropbox-syncing folder, and 2) save its database as individual files rather than just one. (You can see these settings pictured to the right.) Making these changes will still allow you to sync with Simplenote, so you can continue to use the service on any supported device. It will also open up several new iOS apps you couldn't use before. More importantly, you'll be able to use options like Epistle on Android, Cintanotes and Keepnote on Windows, and Tomboy Notes on Linux. You can also access any of these notes with a standard text editor of your choice and easily share them through Dropbox.

Another alternative is to just use Google Docs. It has a robust text-editing web app with great collaboration features, but you can sync your files to any platform. While Google Drive may only officially support Windows and Mac, there's an unofficial Linux port called Grive. Additionally, Insync syncs with Google Drive, provides additional features and works on all desktop operating systems. For mobile apps, you're covered with Google Drive for both Android and iOS.

Sync Your Contacts And Calendars With Google

Getting your contacts and calendars on all of your computers and mobile devices is a fairly easy problem to solve. No matter what operating system you're using, there's generally some way to connect it to Google. Android obviously supports this natively, but the iPhone and several other mobile devices are also supported by Google Sync.

On the desktop, you can access any of your data through Google's web apps, but there are also sync options for desktop apps. Because Google uses CalDAV, it's possible to sync data with virtually any desktop software. When it comes to contacts, Mac's Contacts (previously called "Address Book") can just sync with Google. Windows users can get the same support by using the now somewhat-defunct Thunderbird or with Google Apps Sync for Windows and Outlook.

Simplify Your Media Structure

When it comes to your music and photos, allowing an app to organise them generally means they'll be held in a proprietary database that won't work across platforms. The easiest solution is to just store everything in organised folders and use media apps that can read that folder structure, especially when it comes to photos. Music isn't always that simple. Let's take a look at your options for both.

Your Photo Library

I'd argue photos are best kept in folders, labelled as albums and synchronised with multiple services. Personally, I store all of my photos in Dropbox so I know there's a copy on a local computer and online. I also sync them to Flickr for an extra backup and easy sharing. If you don't want to pay for Dropbox to sync gigabytes of photos, you can always back them up to an external drive and keep an online copy on Flickr or Picasa.

It's easy enough to open up your photos in an image-viewing application on your operating system of choice. Preview on Mac (or even QuickLook) is very capable -- even for slideshows. Windows Photo Viewer is equally up to the task (though Irfanview offers more features and is worth considering too). If that's insufficient, Picasa's desktop app is free to use and doesn't even have to sync your photos online -- it can just read from a folder. If you're willing to pay, Lyn is a fantastic option for Mac that offers plenty of additional features. (You can read more about it here.)

As for your mobile devices, if you're syncing photos online with any service, you're practically guaranteed an app that can view them. If you're syncing with Dropbox, the Dropbox app is an easy option as well.

Your Music Library

Making your music library work cross-platform is a bit more difficult and there's no perfect solution. Personally, I've been syncing iTunes with Dropbox for over a year now. It gives me access to my music through iTunes on Windows and Mac, as well as on mobile devices with the Dropbox app or a Dropbox-enabled music player like BoxyTunes. This is a really great option that solves most problems, but it isn't free. There also isn't a version of iTunes for Linux (although Banshee can import your library). Fortunately, there are some other options that work pretty well, too.

When it comes to your desktop computers, you're pretty much always connected to the internet. While you want to have a physical copy of your music available somewhere, you can easily store that copy on one machine and use a streaming service to handle the others. If you're willing to pay for premium service (which is pretty cheap), Spotify has great support for most desktop and mobile platforms. You can stream music you don't own and sync music you do.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to get your operating systems to play nice with one another, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Compatibility issues are something everyone has to deal with at some point, so while solutions may be imperfect, you're almost always going to find something that works.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    Great article!
    Still, I hope someone's going to "force" Microsoft/Apple to support open source file systems..

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