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File Backups and Synchronization Just Got Easier

Thursday, 27 Mar 2008 | 10:00 AM ET

If you’ve ever lost important computer files, then you already know about the five stages of grieving: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Moving to the Amish Country.

Even so, only a tiny fraction of today’s computer owners have automatic backup systems in place. The obstacles are known as Cost, Technical Setup and Being Kinda Busy.

The mental and technical obstacles get especially hairy if you have more than one computer, like a laptop, a home machine and a PC at the office. And it’s almost hopeless if these machines are of different types — a Mac here, a PC there — because you may not be able to use the same backup software or service for all of them.

SugarSync.com

Last week, a company called Sharpcast introduced SugarSync, a new automated Internet backup and synchronization service. It claims to solve these problems and many more.

Now, the truth is, I wasn’t particularly interested at first. For one thing, Internet backup services are a dime a dozen — and this one is $500 a year. That’s for the maximum storage, 250 gigabytes. Less expensive plans are available for smaller amounts of data, like $10 a month for 30 gigabytes — still costly, although all plans are half price for the first year if you sign up before April 15.

Furthermore, the name SugarSync is a bit unappetizing. Doesn’t “sugar” connote rotting teeth, hyperactive preschoolers and the obesity epidemic? What’s next — TransFatSync?

But never mind all that. As it turns out, SugarSync really is an impressive piece of work.

It starts out like any other Internet backup service: you install a backup program on each computer (called SugarSync Manager) and choose the folders that you want backed up. Clearly, the idea here is not to back up your entire hard drive — SugarSync doesn’t offer enough storage for that — but instead, only your documents, music, photos and so on.

Once you click O.K., the program quietly and automatically begins to upload the contents of your chosen folders to the Web. The operative word here is “begins”; the initial upload can literally take days to complete. (Hint: don’t wait to start until the day before your hard drive dies.)

When it’s finally over, your folders and files appear on a personal, secure Web page that’s dedicated to your stuff.

This is no simple online storage vault, however; your files are “live” on the Web. If you ever find yourself at a different computer — another one of your own machines, or even a borrowed one — you still have access to your files; you can download and upload them from that Web repository.

If the computer you’re using has a copy of the SugarSync Manager software on it, then a special treat awaits. Whenever you edit the file you’ve opened, the changes are immediately sent back home to the original document on the originating computer.

In other words, the Web acts as a great big reflector between the original Mac or PC and any others you use. Or, as the company, Sharpcast, puts it: “Start editing a file on your office PC and complete your work on your home Mac. No need to e-mail files, connect to VPN or use key drives.”

But wait, there’s more.

The Manager software creates a special folder, called Magic Briefcase, on each computer you use. Its contents are automatically kept in sync among all of the computers and the Web. In other words, this folder’s contents are always identical on every computer you own. Any change to any document on any one computer is reflected, within seconds, in the Magic Briefcase on all the other computers. (If a computer is turned off, the changes are made the next time it turns on.)

That’s a huge help if you travel — within the building, the city or the country — because you can keep your important stuff there. You always have access to it, from any of your computers or even borrowed computers, thanks to the mirrored copy on the Web.

Actually, you can, if you wish, set up any folder to be a “magic” folder. At this point, of course, you’re getting into Complication Land, and leaving the immediately understandable concept of the one Magic Folder. But this any-folder synching concept presents some intriguing possibilities.

For example, it means that your home and office computers, or upstairs and downstairs ones, or portable and stationary machines, or all of the above, can contain the same photos in Pictures, the same music in Music, the same documents in Documents, and so on. That’s a pretty slick trick.

So if you’re on the road and you download some of your digital camera’s photos to your laptop hard drive, you’ll find them safely backed up when you get home to your main computer.

SugarSync’s final trick, the one that leaves most rival services in the dust, has to do with another machine that you probably work with every day: your cellphone.

If you have an Internet-capable phone, you can visit and view precisely the same list of Web folders that you would see if you were using a computer. The list looks especially nice on an iPhone, for which Sharpcast has designed a special layout.

On most phones, you can’t actually do much with what you see. You can’t open an Excel spreadsheet and start editing it, for example. (The company says that it’s working on that sort of feature.) Photos are the only thing you can open on the phone, although that’s nothing to sneeze at.

What you can do is select any document and forward it, unopened, to yourself or to anyone else, by e-mail. You can probably remember a few times in your life when that option might have come in handy.

If you have certain BlackBerry models (Curve, Pearl or the 8800 series) or a Windows Mobile smartphone, you can install a tiny version of the Manager program right on the phone, turning it into another one of your auto-synched computers. Documents you create or edit on the phone are mirrored on your SugarSync Web site and your other computers.

As it turns out, those files can include photos. Any photos you take with the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile cameraphone are backed up automatically and wirelessly.

Now, it’s fairly clear that SugarSync has just hobbled out of the gate with 1.0 status; the company has its work cut out for it.

For example, you can back up only folders that sit on your main internal hard drive — no secondary, external or networked drives are eligible. The Mac version is still in beta testing and has some bugs, and the service works only if you leave the Manager program running at all times.

Even on the BlackBerry and Windows smartphones, your calendar and address book aren’t backed up, let alone synched, which seems like a weird omission. (For the record, Sharpcast says that it plans to address many of these concerns in the coming months.)

Bigger problems: Understanding what’s happening in this network of mirrored copies can be confusing. And, as noted above, the price of all this convenience is fairly steep, while the amount of storage is fairly small, considering that it’s supposed to accommodate multiple computers.

Even so, there’s nothing else quite like this automated backup/folder-synching/cross-platform file-sharing/cellphone backup/remote access service. The software is elegantly and simply designed, which is good. And when you change a file and then close it, watching the modification ripple, in seconds, from one computer to another across the Web is good, clean, freaky fun.

When you try it, you may go through five different emotional stages: Bafflement, Experimentation, Sudden Comprehension, Delight — and Showing Off to Your Buddies.

If you’ve ever lost important computer files, then you already know about the five stages of grieving: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Moving to the Amish Country.

Even so, only a tiny fraction of today’s computer owners have automatic backup systems in place. The obstacles are known as Cost, Technical Setup and Being Kinda Busy.

The mental and technical obstacles get especially hairy if you have more than one computer, like a laptop, a home machine and a PC at the office. And it’s almost hopeless if these machines are of different types — a Mac here, a PC there — because you may not be able to use the same backup software or service for all of them.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.