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Comparing Five iPhone File Transfer Apps

by David Strom

I have been a latecomer to the iPhone party, but one of the things that I first noticed, aside from the glaring lack of cut-and-paste, is a more important omission: I want to be able to copy any file on my main Mac to my iPhone and be able to view the file on the iPhone when I am away from my desk. This would come in handy for reminders that I don't want to key in from the phone, or viewing instruction manuals such as the wonderful Take Control ebooks.

While iTunes makes it relatively easy to move photos, videos, and music from my desktop Mac to the iPhone, I want to have access to all the other data on my desktop too.

It's an odd omission: all traditional iPods have the capability to act as a hard drive on which you can store files (you must select Enable Disk Use in the Summary pane in iTunes when the iPod is connected to your computer). Luckily, there is a solution - actually, several solutions, all of which require you to download one of the apps claiming to offer this feature to your iPhone or iPod touch. Sadly, none of them allow the simple configuration of being able to plug your iPhone into your computer via USB and drag files over to it. But since the iPhone is chock full of connectivity, there are several ways to skin the file transfer cat. I tested a variety of apps that connect your computer and iPhone in some interesting, and sometimes confusingly clever, ways.

Sharing Methods -- There are essentially two ways of updating information to an iPhone: push and pull. Push means that you move a file from your Mac to your iPhone by doing something on your computer. Pull means the opposite - that you move the file to your iPhone by doing something on the iPhone itself. Which is the better method? It really depends on how you work and what you are going to do with the file on your iPhone other than view it. For example, if you are going to use your phone as a relay to move a file from your Mac at work to your Mac at home, then you will have to push it one way and pull it the other. I tend to like the pull method myself, but read on and you'll see what is involved.

Some caveats: if you are running the older iPhone 1.x software or a version of Mac OS X older than 10.4 Tiger, now is the time to upgrade because all of these apps require at least the iPhone 2.x software and Tiger. Also, make sure you have some extra storage space available on your iPhone; while the individual apps aren't storage intensive, by the time you collect a bunch of files you may not have room left for your songs, podcasts, and videos. Finally, any file that you move over to your iPhone is accessible only through the particular file transfer app that put it there, unlike on your Mac where you're able to use any application to access any file. This rigidness takes some getting used to.

The Competitors -- I compared five of the most popular iPhone file transfer apps, three of which are standalone apps that you must purchase. The remaining two apps are free, but require that you pay for an online account with a particular Web service if you are really going to use them. The five are Avatron's Air Sharing, Magnetism Studios' FileMagnet, Hey Mac Software's Briefcase, Evernote, and Sharpcast's SugarSync.

More Sharing Apps -- There is one other product, DigiDNA's free DiskAid [11], that enables you to transfer files via USB between an iPhone or iPod touch and either a Mac or Windows-based PC, just as I indicated would be useful at the start of this article. However, once you have a file on your iPhone, you can't view it or even know that it is present without using DiskAid to view the contents of the iPhone again. I don't like the fact that the file lurks hidden inside your iPhone, so I'd rather use one of the other solutions.

For other solutions, including plug-ins for the iPhone's Safari browser and open source apps, I recommend checking out Pure-Mac's iPhone File Transfer Apps [12] page.

Good luck transferring your files, and let me know if you have found other solutions that work well for you.

[David Strom has held editor-in-chief positions at Network Computing print, Tom's digital, and now freelances for the New York Times and numerous IT publications for Ziff Davis, IDG, CMP, and TechTarget. He is a professional speaker, podcaster, and consultant, and he blogs at [13].]