In the past we've highlighted various ways to share a group of files with across several computers on a network, including using shared folders in Windows or setting up a network-attached storage (NAS) device for more centralized and independent storage. This week, we'll take a look at a utility from Microsoft called FolderShare that takes file storage and sharing a step further.
FolderShare is one of Microsoft's Windows Live services (it was acquired when Microsoft bought FolderShare's developer, ByteTaxi, almost two years ago). Like many Web-based applications and services these days, FolderShare is currently in beta, but it does a good job, is easy to set up, and best of all, it's free.
Unlike when you access a shared folder from a Windows PC or a NAS device, FolderShare shares data by putting a copy of the folder on each computer running the utility.
This means that since your data is local on every computer, you still have access to it even when a system is not on the network (for example, when you go outside with your notebook). But what makes FolderShare especially useful is its capability to not just share folders across systems, but to synchronize their contents as well. Therefore, whenever you add or modify a file within a folder that FolderShare is monitoring, the change is replicated to every other computer sharing the folder much the same way that BeInSync works.
Another thing that's noteworthy about FolderShare is that it uses the Internet rather than your local network to synchronize folders, which provides several important benefits. First, it eliminates the need to configure software firewalls to support Windows File and Print Sharing between systems, which can often be a pain in the neck. Second, when a system is away from its home network (as in the notebook example earlier) it will still be able to send and receive FolderShare updates as long as it has an Internet connection.
The fact that the Internet is the conduit also means you can easily synchronize folders on computers that live on two different networks home and work systems, for example or share and sync with computers that belong to friends and family (more on that in a bit).
FolderShare is available for Windows 2000/XP or Mac OS X 10.3.8 or higher and you can download the software here. The system requirements page on the site looks like it hasn't been updated in a while and doesn't make reference to Windows Vista or newer Intel-based Macs only G3/G4/G5 models so it may or may not work with those systems (we used it with XP machines). You do need to set up a FolderShare account to use the software, which you'll be prompted to do the first time you install and configure it.
Start by downloading FolderShare to a system that contains the folder(s) you want to share. When you proceed through the installation wizard, indicate that you don't have an account and you'll be prompted to create one by specifying an account nickname and password along with your e-mail address. You'll also have to assign a name to the computer you're installing FolderShare on the wizard may automatically suggest the computer's existing network (NetBIOS) name, but you can change that to something more meaningful such as "kitchen laptop", for example.
Once the wizard is complete FolderShare will connected to the service, and when your account has been successfully activated you'll see the FolderShare icon (interlocking Fs) in the Windows tray begin to blink.
The next step is to install FolderShare on every additional computer you want to synchronize with the first one. For each of them, specify that you already have an account and be sure to use the same account e-mail address and password you created on the first system.
After you've got FolderShare installed on all your computers, right click the application's tray icon on any of them and select My FolderShare, which will take you to the configuration interface via a browser window. Next click the Sync My Folders button and then click the link labeled Specify folders to sync.
On the left you'll see a list of available devices. Select the system that contains the data you want to share and then click the Specify a folder link that appears. Browse to the folder you want, select it, and then click Next.
Within a few seconds, you'll be prompted to select another device to receive the folder, which you can do from the available devices list on the left. Once you've done so, you can choose whether you want the folder from the first system to sync to an identical folder on the second or to some other location.
On the next screen, click Complete Setup and Start Syncing. Depending on how much data is in the shared folder and how fast your Internet connection is, the initial synchronization may take some time, but once all the files have been transferred, keeping them updated should by a relatively speedy process.
You can repeat the process as needed for additional folders, and you can track the status of your synced folders (FolderShare refers to them as Libraries) from the My FolderShare screen. On that same screen, you'll also see buttons labeled Share With Friends and Access My Files.
As we mentioned earlier, the former can be useful if you'd like to share folders with people outside your home network (they'll need to also download the FolderShare software as well). Avoid using the latter option (which allows remote file access) because unlike when sync transfers, remote access transfers aren't encrypted.
Given FolderShare's beta status, there's always a chance that it may eventually cease to be free, become ad-supported, or be pulled from the market entirely. That's worth keeping in mind, but for now, FolderShare is a free an easy way to keep the same data up to date on multiple systems.
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