Between home and work desktop PCs, laptops, netbooks, tablets, and smartphones, you have several digital workspaces in your life. Here's how to keep them all effortlessly organized, so you can spend less time fiddling and more time getting things done.
Most of us deal with multiple computers nowadays; we work from home, from the office, and even at the local coffee shop. You may have any combination of a desktop computer at home, a desktop at work, a laptop at home, a laptop at work, a netbook for couch surfing, and other number of machines you have to deal with regularly.
Unfortunately, you can end up spending a lot of time trying to keep your digital workspaces synchronized—apps, layouts, organization methods, or whatever other computer customizations help save you time—defeating the purpose of setting them all up in the first place. Here are some of the best ways to keep your workspaces as closely synced as possible, so when you move from one to the other you can pick up right where you left off.
Note: If some of this feels familiar it's probably because we've covered most of these methods separately before; this goal of this guide is to bring them together in one place to help you set up a synced system.
The Tools to Keep it All Together
First, you need a way to sync your data across machines. For most of these examples, I'm going to use the popular file-syncing utility Dropbox, mostly because it's simple, free, and it's what I use. If you have, say, an Amazon S3 or Windows Live SkyDrive account already, you could use something like previously mentioned Gladinet to mount that storage as a virtual drive and go from there. With this space set aside, you can store important documents, files, and portable applications (if you're a Windows only user), so even if you find yourself working from a computer that isn't one of your usual machines, you'll still have your pre-organized digital workspace wherever you go.
Also, while it may seem archaic, you can always make do with a regular old flash drive—they're cross-platform, inexpensive, don't require syncing, and your computer will immediately have access to your data every time you plug them in (although Windows users may need to assign it a permanent drive letter or mount it to an assigned folder). With that out of the way, let's get started syncing.
Keep Bookmarks, Open Tabs, and Passwords Synced with Browser Extensions
While browsers like Firefox and Chrome have started incorporating their own synchronization tools, I always find myself coming back to third-party tools like Xmarks (for bookmark sync) and Lastpass (for password sync). The biggest advantage to using these third-party tools is that they work with pretty much any browser on the market—so even if you prefer to use Firefox on one computer and Chrome on another, or you decide to switch browser loyalties down the road, you can still keep everything synced. Furthermore, tools like Xmarks and Lastpass always seem to be ahead of the game when it comes to syncing—for example, Xmarks can sync open tabs between computers—a feature unavailable in most browsers—and Lastpass has the ability to automatically log you in to every site you visit—which you wouldn't get if you just synced your passwords with Chrome or Firefox's built-in tools.
While Xmarks' bookmark syncing and Lastpass' password syncing are pretty self-explanatory, one of the best features for managing multiple workspaces is Xmarks' ability to sync open tabs. Thus, if I'm working in my home office and need to get out of the house for awhile, I can just quit my browser, move to a coffee shop, open up my laptop and hit the "Open Remote Tabs" button in Xmarks' menu to pick up right where I left off—even if I'm in a different browser than I was before.
Sync Your Application Preferences Between Machines
If you happen to use different browsers on your different computers, there's no easy way to sync your extensions and preferences, since they're just plain not compatible with other browsers. That said, it's really easy to sync your extensions, preferences, and pretty much everything else (and this method will often work with more than just your browser). Chrome already syncs bookmarks, form data, preferences, extensions, and more, but with a bit of work, you can also sync your application preferences for apps like Firefox, Thunderbird, and Pidgin.
We've featured multiple ways to do this in the past, but the best method for syncing application data across computers is to sync your app's actual profile folder (the second method mentioned in the video above). You can, for example, sync Firefox bookmarks, profiles, and extensions using Dropbox as previously described. This method will not only sync your extensions, but your history, bookmarks, saved passwords, and pretty much everything else related to your browser preferences. If you use Firefox on all your machines, this method mostly negates the need for things like Xmarks and Lastpass, though I like to keep them around in case I end up on another computer. They shouldn't interfere with the synced profile folder.
The same basic method will work for a number of different applications. While most of the work we do nowadays is in a browser, many people still use email clients such as Thunderbird or IM clients like Pidgin, and manually keeping everything in sync can be a pain. Thunderbird and Pidgin have profile folders that can cross platforms just like Firefox, so you can use Dropbox to sync their profiles across all your computers as well.
Keep Your Music Library Available Wherever You Go
For some, music helps boost your productivity, and lots of you have told us that you prefer to listen to music while you work. The online music streaming route is always a quick and easy choice, but if you have more obscure music or you find it easier to browse your own library, you've got ways of doing that, too.
Above we detailed how to sync application data for your favorite programs, but it's a little bit harder to sync your entire music library wherever you go. If you have enough space in your Dropbox account or your preferred storage service, it's pretty easy (with a few caveats) to just sync your iTunes library with Dropbox (we'll go into more details on syncing iTunes with Dropbox in another post). If you don't have that kind of space, though, there's another way to go about it.
Since my Dropbox account only covers a few gigs, I just bring my music with me on a portable device. If you're an iPod and iTunes user, you can always just plug your iPod into your computer and listen to it from there by expanding the iPod's entry in the sidebar and clicking on "Music". While it isn't perfect, I've found that this more than covers my music needs when I'm not at my main workstation.
If that's not your cup of tea, you can store a subset of your library on a flash drive, or on your smartphone's SD card (though you'll need a bluetooth headset for when people call you you don't want to disconnect it from your computer in the middle of your work). Most music apps (even the excruciatingly slow-on-change iTunes) have a "watch folder" feature, from which the app will auto-update your library. It may work differently in different applications (iTunes, for example, automatically moves any music you add to its watch folder); I've found Songbird's works exactly how I want it to. I just set the watch folder to wherever I'm storing my music, and then whenever any songs are added or removed from that folder, Songbird will automatically update the library. It's a little "dirtier" than just syncing your entire library, but it gets the job done and allows me to take a piece of my library with me wherever I go and browse it from the comfort of a simple interface.
Do the Best You Can with What You Have
If you're in the more difficult position of working on a system that doesn't allow you to install applications, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do the best you can. You can make portable versions of many applications and run those, if your workplace allows it. This doesn't necessarily allow for all the above methods, but Xmarks and Lastpass will still work with little intervention.
While we focused a lot on the applications, preferences, and layout of your workspaces, remember that your technology is not the end all be all of your productivity (sometimes pen and paper is the simplest way to take everything with you). Your productivity depends a lot on the way you manage your workflow: things like staying focused and dealing with information overload and multitasking are potentially huge bottlenecks, too. These tools and tricks will certainly save you time day-to-day, but they won't do a thing if you lose good work habits as soon as you pick up and move.
Send an email to Whitson Gordon, the author of this post, at email@example.com.
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010
How to Keep Your Workflow in Sync Across Computers [Productivity]