Keeping Two Macs in Sync

When it comes to the Mac power user, it’s not unusual to have two computers that are used in tandem.  In many cases these computers include a portable (iBook, PowerBook, MacBook, MacBook Pro) and a work horse tower.  The laptop is used when the user is on the road, and the tower for all of the internal office heavy lifting.  The challenge for a user like this is finding a way to keep data in sync.  This has been my situation for many years.  In order to keep a smooth workflow, I had to find a way to keep my files mirrored between the two machines.

On the surface, it seems that maintaining to Macs would be a simple task.  In theory, installing the same software on both computers insures that you have what you need when you need it.  One complication is the need to install all of the software twice.  Patches add another wrinkle to the workflow if you are driven to keep all of the software patched to the latest and greatest.  But with a little planning, even this isn’t a big problem.  But as you look deeper it turns out that the software is really the easy part.

Things really get complicated for users who need to keep their documents and data synchronized between two computers.  When it comes to applications, the situation is simple: you either have the app you need when you need it or you don’t.  When it comes to files, you need to make sure the document you are working with is the latest revision.  It becomes very easy to lose track of which computer holds the latest revision of any given file, especially for users that switch computers frequently.

How do we keep our files synchronized between two computers?  The first step is to adopt a central file location and learn discipline.  In my case, I created a folder in the home directory of each computer.  I labeled the folder on my tower “File Cabinet (Mac Pro)” and the one on my MacBook “File Cabinet (MacBook).”  Within those directories I simply keep all of my data that absolutely must be synchronized between multiple machines.

There’s nothing too complicated in that plan.  The hard part is the discipline.  It’s essential to keep any and all critical files stored within that folder.  Temporary files or folders that I want to keep separate on each system are simply stored in any other location.  I am notorious for riddling my desktop with temporary files and folders while I work throughout the day.  When I’m done, any files that need to be mirrored between the two systems must be placed in their permanent location with the File Cabinet directory.

Truth be told, there is a very good reason that I labeled my folder File Cabinet.  Inside that directory I have a series of additional folders.  See the screenshot below for an example.  I arrange all of my permanent files within those directories the same way I would arrange documents in a physical file cabinet.  Inside each of these directories I arrange files alphabetically by job, contact, or information source.  Again, managing the data as if my computer were a physical file cabinet.

Once all of the data is properly organized, the only task left is to sync the File Cabinet directories between the two computers.  While looking for a reliable program to do this, I tested over a dozen tools.  All left me either disappointed, or literally missing data.  It was a very frustrating experience.  Frustrating until I ran across FoldersSynchronizer.  Simply put, no other synchronization software did the job correctly accept FoldersSynchronizer.  And in my experience, FoldersSynchronizer has been flawless!

FoldersSynchronizer is currently at version 3.6 and is Universal Binary.  And the software is as fast as it is flexible.  The concept is simple: FoldersSynchronizer synchronizes two directories between two computers.  But is real power lies in its features.  For example, in order to sync two machines, they need to be connected via a wired or wireless network.  One computer must mount the drive of the other, then the host computer runs FoldersSynchronizer and lets it synchronize the file system. FoldersSynchronizer has the ability to auto-mount the remote computers file share as soon as the sync button is clicked.  FoldersSynchronizer makes the process painless by storing the file share’s login info in the OS’s keychain and auto-mounting the volume without user intervention.  When the sync is finished, FoldersSynchronizer even dismounts the volume.  Fast and efficient… simply painless.

By default, FoldersSynchronizer will simply mirror the contents of the two base directories.  This means that an exact duplicate is made between the two computers each time the application is run.  This means that any files that I create on my portable are then transferred to my tower as soon as I run the sync.  Unfortunately, it also means that any files I delete from my tower since the last sync are re-added to my tower from the portable upon the next sync.

This is not ideal for my needs.  Fortunately, buried in FoldersSynchronizer’s extensive preference list is an option to synchronize that data rather than just mirror it.  When the synchronization option is selected (it is by default, but you must check the box titled Exact Sync in order to fully enable the feature), a file deleted from my tower is then deleted from my portable upon the next sync.  Again, simply painless and very reliable.

FoldersSynchronizer has one more feature that is crucial to my willingness to recommend it.  It has the ability to show a preview of the sync it is about to perform before the actual data sync is run.  This makes it easy for the user to be 100% aware of what actions are about to preformed on the data.  The preview is displayed as a hierarchical list of newly altered files with icons denoting what type of action will be preformed during the sync.

TIP: Each arrow can be turned down manually in order to drill down into the files. Or, do simply option+click on the top level arrow to reveal the entire hierarchy in one shot.  This makes it amazingly easy to preview the entire sync in seconds.

On top of these powerful options, FoldersSynchronizer can do a great deal more.  Also included is the ability to schedule synchronizations.  Combine that with the auto mount feature, and FoldersSynchronizer becomes a highly reliable automated means of keeping two computers in sync.

Of course, even with FoldersSynchronizer, some mental discipline is required.  For example, FoldersSynchronizer cannot keep the user from being foolish enough to modify the same file on both systems between syncs.  In the end, the user must have the presence of mind to run a sync often enough to keep this from happening.

Earlier I mentioned that FoldersSynchronizer is fast.  This is important in my situation because I have kept my data organized in this fashion for years.  In that time, my File Cabinet folder has grown to 1.8GB in size.  The directory contains thousands of essential files that I need constant access to.  With FoldersSynchronizer, I can change several dozen files buried anywhere in that wealth of information and have my files re-synced within 30 seconds (depending on the speed of my network connection).

Any user who utilizes two computers interchangeably faces a list of challenging issues.  Using FoldersSynchronizer, I was able to easily resolve the single largest problem I faced.  Among other issues were password, bookmark, address book, and calendar synchronization hurdles.  We’ll take a look at those in an upcoming post.


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10 Responses to Keeping Two Macs in Sync
  1. Anonymous Reply

    I’ve been using FolderShare for two years. It keeps all my data synced nicely between many different Macs. Free and easy to set up.

  2. Marino Reply

    FolderShare can even keep synced data in more than 2 computers, and the best part, they can be Macs or PCs. It doesnt matter.

  3. Mike Reply

    While a more complicated/expensive setup, would remote home directories in OSX Server accomplish this as well?


  4. smanke Reply


    Good point. But I think a remote home directory would be too bandwidth intensive for remote users.

    Word is the OSX 10.5 will have the ability to store the users home directory on an iPod. That might be another way to go, if the rumor pans out.

  5. Anonymous Reply

    I just set my laptop to target disk mode, and have a symlink to my home directory in the users directory of the desktop. There are some off quirks, but by and large it works.

  6. smanke Reply

    Rumor has it that the soon to be released update to the Mac OS will offer a new feature that allows users to keep their entire home directory on a removable disk. This would mean that a computer system could be portable.

    With the entire home directory on a portable drive, the user would just need to plug it into any Mac and they would be able to have access to all of their files and Apps.

    Can’t wait to see if that feature make it into the final release.

  7. comfortzones Reply

    Absolutely loved Steve’s FolderSynchronizer post from a year ago, and have been patiently waiting for the “password, bookmark, address book, and calendar synchronization hurdles follow-up”. Is this something that can be posted as well? The first installment was wonderful.

  8. Anonymous Reply

    I tend to use the laptop for calender and address book and e-mail. i.e important non taxing stuff! leaving the tower free to mess around with :-) . Thanks for the blog, useful stuff!

  9. Norman Reply

    The same thing happened to me while using Windows Vista. I actidencal deleted the recycle bin on the desktop.What you need to do is 1 Right click on the desktop.2 In the menu that pops up, click on personalize’.3 On the top right hand corner of the personalization’s window you will see the change desk top icons’4 check the recycle bin box and your done.

  10. Sabina Reply

    Firefox Sync encrypts ernvythieg locally before uploading it. For that reason, I trust it with my passwords. You can also set up a Firefox Sync server (Mozilla calls it Weave Server ) on your own machine, although I haven’t tried that.Still, it’s good to know where this stuff is stored.

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