Dear Lifehacker, I have a big music collection on my desktop, and I want it on my laptop too. In fact, I wouldn't mind if I could have it on my media centre as well. I've heard of a few syncing options, but I'm not really sure which ones will work best. What do you suggest? Sincerely, Seeking Sync
There are a lot of ways to get your music collection on other computers, but none of them are perfect. Some will work better than others, but that will depend on how you store your songs. If you just keep a collection in folders, you have much more flexibility. If you use a jukebox app like iTunes and it creates library files to keep track of everything, you'll cause yourself some trouble. You also have alternatives that aren't quite synced but at least give you access to your music. Let's go over your best options and you can decide what suits you.
Dropbox (And Other Syncing Services)
The amazing Dropbox can sync just about everything, so why not your music? Well, if you use an iTunes-like app, it will cause conflicts with your library files. Basically, you can't have a copy of iTunes running on your laptop when you open it up on your desktop. Fortunately, we've devised a way around this and have an entire guide explaining the process. It's not perfect and requires light scripting to help you avoid those conflicts, but it will work. If you don't use iTunes or another library file-creating music player, you can just dump everything in Dropbox without much concern. It can handle files and folders better than anything else.
The major downside to using Dropbox is the cost. If you can maintain a music collection under 100GB, you'll pay $US100 year or $US10 per month. While that's not a huge cost commitment, it's a lot to just sync your music. If you have a gigantic collection, it will cost you more. If you just want to sync music, you may prefer Google Drive. At half the cost, you can store a lot more for less. That said, Dropbox has a lot of awesome features in addition to sync, and if you use it for that you might not want to switch. Either way, you can make it happen at a cost.
iTunes Match (And Other Cloud Music Services)
iTunes users can turn to Apple and use iTunes Match to sync all their music for $35 per year. While syncing doesn't precisely describe the service, in that you have to manually designate songs on each machine (and mobile device) if you want a copy, the effect is the same. Your entire collection shows up everywhere and copies are stored in the cloud. If you want a song locally, choose to download it or just play it. iTunes Match offers a simple solution to keeping your music everywhere at a great price. The only downside? You have to use iTunes.
Unfortunately, other streaming services don't do the job as well. Google Music simply syncs your music to the cloud. You can access that music on virtually any computer or mobile device, but through streaming or tedious downloads (often of a limited number). If you don't mind relying on streaming when you want to play your music on another computer, this might be the option for you. Google offers its service for free and has a handy mobile app that does allow saving of local files.
Use An App
Sometimes, you need a specialised app to get the job done. For those trying to manage an iTunes library, SuperSync ($US23, Windows and Mac) and iTunes Sync (Free, Windows) can get the job done, but SuperSync is the only cross-platform option, and it costs money. For those with folders, any syncing app will get the job done. Crashplan offers free backup and sync software for local stuff. It's certainly not the only thing you can use, but it's one we really like.
Use Watch Folders
If you wanted to sync all your music manually, you could just copy it from one computer to another every time you got a new song. Of course, the point here is to avoid that kind of tedium and find an easier way. If you want to avoid any special software or services, however, you can use watch folders to automatically add music to your libraries with little effort.
Almost every music player has this feature, but it can work in a couple of ways. The best way is if you can specify a location where the player watches for new music to add. This way you can set that location and every source can draw from it (over the network or locally) presuming the original file is copied rather than moved.
The other way watch folders can work is if a specific folder is designated by the music player. Any music added to that specific folder will import. (This is how iTunes does it.) That makes creating a syncing solution a bit harder because you can't just download songs and expect them to be added automatically. You can, however, use an app like Belvedere or Hazel to copy newly downloaded music files to multiple watch folders for you to create a sync-like experience.
Stick It On A Network Drive
While not ideal, you can house your music library in a single location (such as a media server) and mount that server whenever you need to open your music library. This doesn't really involve syncing anything, but it does allow you to share your music with multiple machines pretty easily. Unfortunately, you still can't have two copies of library file-creating software (you know, like iTunes, the usual culprit) open and you'll have some trouble getting to your music on the go (unless you have a fast upstream connection for your server). Nevertheless, if you just want easy local access and can sync your tunes to your mobile device for listening on the go, a networked option may suit you just fine.
Stick It On A Local Drive
Let's not forget our old flash drive friends. You can store a lot of data on them nowadays, and some are so fast they're basically USB 3.0-connected SSDs. If you don't want to go through the hassle of syncing, you can just keep all your music on a hard drive or flash drive, them move it around from computer to computer. Sure, this may not be the ideal option, but it prevents any syncing problems because technically the files only reside in one location. Depending on the size of your music library, you may be able to get away with a pretty small drive that doesn't stick out of your computer much at all. If that's the case, storing your library on an externally can provide a very easy way to move things around and listen on any computer.
Whatever you choose, it all comes down to finding the sacrifices you're willing to make. Syncing music is no simple task, and nobody has really found a masterful solution to the problem. Nevertheless, you can make it happen if you're willing to do some work and understand you can't have everything you want.
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