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Geek Throwdown: How to sync two or more Macs?

Enter the Octagon

Here’s an experimental new feature: The Throwdown. Take a problem that lots of people face and tell us your personal favorite way to deal with it — in as much detail and with as much persuasion as you can muster.

Today, a lot of us are living on two or more Macs -- which is great, except for the challenge of keeping the contents and settings of multiple machines effortlessly in sync.

Now before you pop in, holler "dot mac," and jump back on your Segway®, consider that many folks (including your author) are looking for a lot more than simple document syncing and perfunctory preference sharing. How about if your needs are more nuanced:

  • Can it intelligently sync "~/Library" stuff like "Preferences" and "Application Support" for your apps (so that Quicksilver, for example, is with you and tweaked to perfection wherever you go)? Is it smart enough to know which items not to sync?
  • Can it do smarter comparisons than "which one is newer?" -- consider that someone on 4 or 5 Macs may run into complex versioning problems that currently make .Mac very confused. For text, can it do diff3-style merging?
  • Will it update often enough (and automatically enough) that I can trust when I sit down at a new machine, I'll know everything's up to date without checking (or manual re-updating)?
  • Can backups be easily automated? And is it easy to restore across all machines?
  • Does it work for people on airplanes? If your solution requires a live internet connection for active usage (e.g. traditional WebDAV), what happens when that access is no longer available?

You get the idea. You have a system; now tell us about it. Bow to your sensei, then spare no detail.

How do you sync your Macs?

rsync? ChronoSync? Synchronize? Unison? Something you made yourself?

What are using to sync your Macs, and how are you using it?

Keith's picture

Using Portable Home Folder since OS X 10.1

You don't have to run Leopard to have a portable Home folder. I've been using a portable Home folder since 2002 (i.e., since OS X 10.1).

All you have to do is use NetInfo Manager to change the location of your home folder from /Users/[username] to /Volumes/[diskname], where [diskname] is the name of your removable disk. Then repeat all these same steps exactly on the other Mac. (I think it might also be best to use the same UID numbers for the user accounts on both machines, although I'm not sure whether it makes a difference.) The entire removable disk then becomes your Home folder.

For years I have carried my little disk back and forth from the office Powerbook to the home iMac. At home, I plug in the hard drive and I am immediately working with the originals of all my office files -- no syncing, no updating, and everything is exactly as I left it at the office. All the windows are in the same places, all my web browser bookmarks are there, my e-mail address book is completely up to date, even mundane things like highlight color and toolbar position are preserved. No synchronization, no waiting, no comparing older and newer versions of files. Just plug it in, and boom, there's your workplace desktop, just as you left it. Try doing that in Windows!

For some reason, this idea of using an external drive seems to freak some people out. (Note the comment here entitled "Single Point of Failure" which notes that "If that iPod goes down, you are toast.") However, my approach actually makes your backup strategy even more robust because you are now backing up in two geographically separate locations. I use 2.5-inch disks (160GB each) and the outstanding bus-powered MacAlly PHR-250CC enclosures. I have five of them -- the main one which is my Home folder, and four clones updated several times a day with SuperDuper and/or rotated out every month or so. I also do incremental backups to big fat 3.5-inch drives. These clones and backups are located both at home and at work, so even an earthquake probably wouldn't wipe me out. (I work in Tokyo and live in Saitama prefecture, many miles away, so even a big quake like the one in 1923 probably wouldn't destroy both work and home.)

Also, when I killed my work Powerbook in July, by spilling Coke all over it, the Home folder wasn't affected. I just took out an old Titanium Powerbook, plugged in my Home folder, and kept on working. Total downtime was about ten minutes. Then a few days later I bought a new Mac Pro and did the same thing. Indeed, I now have four computers that are all configured to use the same Home folder, without any syncing between them.




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