Sweet new service backs up while it syncs

Sharpcast's SugarSync software and service automatically syncs across PCs, Macs and phones

A company called Sharpcast last week rolled out a new service that syncs your data across PCs, Macs and phones. That sounds simple enough, but the service, called SugarSync, and it's believed to be the first of its kind.

Like online backup services, SugarSync lets you designate some files for synchronization, such as all your documents, pictures, videos and other content-related files, and exclude others, such as files associated with applications or the operating systems.

But unlike backup services, SugarSync takes those online backups and "pushes" them back down to your other devices, including Windows PCs, Macs, and even some mobile phones.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column called, "Making the phone-PC connection," in which I called on those PC makers that also make, or plan to make, mobile phone handsets to use their dual manufacturing role to better integrate PCs with their phones. They could, I argued, set up the wireless auto-downloading of files and even PC configuration information to phones, which could serve as the conduit for moving data from desktop PC to laptop to random PCs of opportunity found while traveling.

SugarSync renders the most important aspect of all this redundant. Rather than automatically copying files down to the phone, then back up to any PC you use, SugarSync copies files up to the Internet, then back down to PCs. Either way, the synchronization is automatic and seamless, which is exactly what mobile users are clamoring for.

SugarSync also provides access to those same files when you're on somebody else's computer. You can use a personal Web site provided as part of your SugarSync account to access all your current files.

It works with phones, too

Optional mobile phone software gives you mobile access to all your files, which you can view, edit or send. It also auto-syncs your camera phone pictures with your personal SugarSync Web site, so you can share them without any effort on your part. After you install the mobile application, just snap pictures and they'll show up online.

SugarSync doesn't work with all phones, but does support the Apple iPhone, Microsoft Windows Mobile phones (version 5.0 and higher) and the RIM BlackBerry Pearl, Curve and 8800 series phones. The company is working on support for Brew and Java phones.

SugarSync also provides what Sharpcast calls a "universal contact list" for sharing files and media with other people, and that works on supported phones, too.

What's good about SugarSync

SugarSync is mind-blowingly easy to set up and use. It's straightforward and works as you might expect it to. The software and Web site are pleasantly designed -- consumer friendly, even.

SugarSync has three kinds of synchronization: "Full Sync," which enables you to choose which files each of your computers syncs with; "Magic Briefcase," which is an easy way to synchronize files across all computers without picking and choosing different files for each computer; and "Lite Sync," which lets you temporarily bring down files on a computer, which will update the server version before self-destructing when you shut down.

For the most basic use, just open the SugarSync Manager application and drag-and-drop entire folders into the "Magic Briefcase" window. Those folders, and everything in them, will be synchronized across all computers you set up, plus your SugarSync Web site.

Another nice trick that you probably can't do with your online backup solution is to send files, either from any PC or from a phone, that are backed up. You just navigate to the file online, then chose to "Send" the file.

Page Break

SugarSync also has a Web Archive feature. That means you can back up files, then delete them from your computers, but will be able to retrieve them later online if you choose to.

What's wrong with SugarSync

The most obvious area for improvement is communication with the user. For example, while signing up, my credit card address didn't match the address on file (I've recently moved). Rather than informing me of this, the site said, "I'm sorry, we are having problems processing your billing information. Please try again later." Not very helpful.

In my initial tests, I put more files than I really wanted into the Magic Briefcase. When I acted to remove some of those files, the application popped up an error message that said, "Are you sure you want to delete folder "test" and all of its contents? Deleting a folder from SugarSync will also delete it from your computer." That sounds like SugarSync will delete the original, when in fact it was referencing a desktop copy of the files in my Magic Briefcase.

In both cases, I had to learn the meaning of cryptic messages via tech support, when a clear dialog box would have sufficed.

What you need to know

SugarSync has a 45-day free trial. It's also available in any of five plans based on the amount of data, starting at US$4.99 per month, or US$49.99 per year, for 10GB all the way up to US$49.99 per month or US$499.99 per year for 250GB. Those prices are roughly halved if you sign up by April 15.

The company claims that later this year they plan to offer synchronization of iTunes files and other multimedia files, so when you add a song to your desktop, it simply shows up in your laptop's installation of iTunes.

If you're already paying for and using online backup, why not switch to SugarSync and put your backups to work? Your data still gets backed up, but your other PCs, laptops and even mobile phones get synced, too, as part of the deal.

SugarSync is an easy-to-use, reliable and fast alternative to both online backup and dedicated file synchronization software. It takes all the work and worry away from managing and protecting files across multiple systems, making sure you have the data you need when out on the road.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.