Cross-Platform Computing

June 3, 2007 at 8:12 am (Computers)

When I bought my Macbook, I knew that integrating it with my PC at home was going to take a little bit of work. After all, all of my techie friends cringed when I asked them if they had any suggestions about syncing up the machines, and one of them even made the sign of the cross and yelled, “Back, back!” But a quick search on Google turned up a number of open-source software solutions, all of which were touted as “extremely easy” and “it just works,” so I figured, how hard can it really be?

Here’s a hint, dear readers: Whenever you have to ask that question, it’s going to be really freakin’ hard.

So, I’ve decided to chronicle my misadventures here so that, if some other poor soul finds themselves in the same boat and does a google search for this topic, my experiences will hopefully help them solve their problem more quickly than I did.

I guess I could have just kept copying my entire hard drive or documents folder from the Mac over to the Windows PC, and from there to the two external hard drives connected to said PC. But that would mean that the laptop would have to be my primary computer in order to avoid conflicts, and I’m not willing to do that. My PC at home has a bigger keyboard and monitor, and I haven’t yet set up a wireless network, so working at the PC is more comfortable. I could set up some folder, “Not backed up,” on the PC desktop, into which I drop files that I’ve created or edited so they can be transferred over to the Mac, and then copy them back in the proper folder structure, but that’s a lot of work every time I want to edit a file. No, I needed to find a piece of software that would compare the files in the two machines and replace old versions on either computer with the latest version from the other computer, and ideally would do this incrementally, so that I wouldn’t need to copy everything every time I wanted to sync, just the files that had changed.

Okay, so your first hit on Google if you ask about incremental backups is rsync. Rsync is the open-source standard for backups and syncing, and by all accounts (including my brother’s), it’s pretty much awesome and easy to use. Except that (a) it is written for Linux and (b) you pretty much need a BS in command-line Linux in order to have any idea what any of the instructions, etc. are talking about. Neither (a) nor (b) apply to me, incidentally. Well, there’s a lovely Mac port, with a simpler GUI, called RsyncX; problem solved, right? Wrong. I kept running into glitches trying to get RsyncX to update the files on the PC hard drive from my Mac’s hard drive; apparently, it requires that the same software be installed on both the “server” machine (the machine from which you are initiating the transfer) and the “client” machine (the machine that is being accessed by your server). RsyncX is a Mac program, so I couldn’t install that on the PC, and apparently having Rsync itself in various guises isn’t good enough. So, RsyncX was out the window.

I also tried installing various ostensibly GUI versions of rsync on the PC, with equally non-existent success. Nasbackup, whatever it claims, is not painless and simple. I didn’t want to have to deal with IP addresses, servers, clients, or any of that crap. I won’t say that it’s meaningless to me, since I understand (at least in principle) what all of those are. However, no one bothers to explain to you what to do if you aren’t connecting to all of your backup locations over a network, that is, what if some of them are external hard drives connected via USB to your computer? None of this software was designed with the casual user in mind. Unison gave me similar problems. I could install any one of fifty compiled versions on either machine, but nowhere in the manual did it explain to me how to get my Mac and PC to talk to each other, or which should be the server and which the client, and then I found a comment someone made somewhere about both machines needing to have the same version of Unison installed, and… I think you get my point. I don’t want to have to deal with all of that just to sync up my computers.

Salvation came in the form of a throw-away comment on someone’s blog in answer to a related question. Someone mentioned, without a hyperlink or anything, trying Chronosync. It’s a $30 commercial product, not shareware or open-source, but I was desperate, and they offered a free trial download. And, after the trackless wilderness that had been the open-source community, it was the well-manicured garden of paradise. (I realize, of course, that that’s one of the benefits of commercial software; nonetheless, I don’t completely understand why none of the other options I found could have been this simple.)

Chronosync is a Mac program, which you’d think would limit its usefulness when three of my four hard drives are on a Windows machine. But what Chronosync lets you do is set up backups and syncs for any hard drives connected to your Mac, with your Mac acting as the “server.” This means that, in addition to syncing between your Mac and your PC over the network, you can also sync two PC drives, as long as they are both mounted on your machine. The SMB network protocol (is that even the right term?) that OSX uses to connect to the Windows machine does all of the necessary translations for you, and Chronosync does the rest.

Further, it really is easy. You install it and, via it’s very easy to understand GUI, you’re syncing within two minutes. If you don’t believe me, try the free download for yourself (incidentally, I promise I’m not getting paid by Econ Technologies to push their product; I’m doing this entirely as a public service to anyone else like me). Although it isn’t quite incremental in its backups, it does only copy the files that have changed, and once I had established a baseline copy of my Documents folder on the PC as well as the Mac, syncing between the two took less than a minute. You don’t have to worry about IP addresses, servers, or anything else; you can even create bootable backups, if that’s what you want. You can also schedule backups, which will even apparently occur if your computer is asleep. I’m sure it does more, and their website tells you all about it, but this is the info that was relevant to me.

So, in conclusion: if you’re not a Linux programmer, and you do want to sync between Macs and Windows PCs, then Chronosync may be the solution for you, too.


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