Two free and easy ways to share and sync folders

Gbridge creates a VPN connection for moving, backing up, and synchronizing files and folders securely with little muss and fuss; FreeFileSync takes an Explorer-like approach to comparing and syncing the contents of two folders.

Few people do all their work on a single computer. Fewer still don't occasionally need access to files on another PC, whether their own or someone else's. The free Gbridge program lets you access and synchronize files and folders on any Internet-connected PCs quickly and simply.

Gbridge uses Google Talk to create a VPN connection for the secure transfer of files between your own PCs and the machines of family, friends, and coworkers. The service requires a Gmail account, but if you'd rather not use your primary Gmail account, you can create one for free specifically for using Gbridge.

A Tale of Two Desktops
Some people store their personal data in a carefully crafted tree of folders nested as many as five or six levels deep. I go the opposite direction and throw everything onto the desktop. Then I use the free Everything file-search utility to find the specific file I need. The program can sift through my desktop folder's 2GB of files in the blink of an eye.

Now I want to take that omnifolder approach a step further by merging the desktop folders of my laptop and home-office PCs. Gbridge manages the trick, but with one limitation: the program doesn't make it easy to view the contents of the synced folders side-by-side. The aptly named FreeFileSync provides more information about the two folders before you synchronize them.

Simple syncing and sharing of folders on multiple PCs
As part of the Gbridge installation, the program creates a VPN connection for its file transfers. The Gbridge installer warns you that Windows will prompt you to allow an unsigned driver as part of the process. A command-prompt window then opens to complete the installation. The window may stay open for several minutes but will close automatically when the installation completes.

You'll then be prompted to authenticate your Gbridge account by signing into a Gmail account. If you don't already have a Gmail account, or if you want to use an account other than your primary one, a link in the Gbridge authentication window lets you sign up for new one.

Gbridge authentication dialog
Sign into your Gmail account to begin using the Gbridge service to transfer, share, or sync files and folders. Gbridge

After you enter your Gmail sign-in info, Gbridge imports your Google Talk contacts, but it doesn't contact any of them. Click one of the contacts to see options for starting a chat session, allowing the person to access your computer, inviting them to use Gbridge, or removing them from the list. Select Friends at the top of the list to view links for inviting other friends, blocking everyone from sharing the PC, and allowing all friends to access the machine.

Since I'll be sharing only with myself, I didn't need to send any invitations, but I did need to install Gbridge on both the laptop and home-office PC. Then I clicked the Create SecureShare button to begin the sharing process. In the Add New SecureShare dialog, select the folder you want to share, give the share a name, and add a description, if you wish.

Gbridge Add New SecureShare dialog box
Select the file or folder you want to share or sync and choose people to share with (if necessary). Gbridge

By default, six file types are excluded: EXE, BAT, COM, MSI, WSF, and SCR. You can remove file types or add other ones to the excluded list. You can also password-protect the SecureShare. When you're done, click OK. If you haven't selected any friends, Gbridge warns you that you won't be able to share the material. After you click Yes to the alert, the transfer begins.

Gbridge AutoSync window
Track the progress of the current sync in the list of AutoSyncs. Gbridge

When the process completes, a browser window opens showing the folder contents, including thumbnails of image files.

Gbridge's Explorer-like file viewer in a Firefox window
View your shared/synced files in a browser window that shows image thumbnails and basic file info. Gbridge

Click an AutoSync's description to open the two-tabbed Edit Options dialog. The Basic Options show the folder's location on the Gbridge server, the local file path of the source, the description, and a drop-down menu showing eight options for the sync frequency, including Once (Manual thereafter).

The settings on the Advanced Options tab let you decide what to do when a file is deleted from the local and remote folders or if a local file is changed. You can also set the number of file copies to keep, include or exclude specific files, or sync a single file.

Gbridge Advanced Options dialog box
Gbridge's Advanced Options let you choose whether to save old copies of deleted or changed files. Gbridge

It took only 20 minutes to complete the initial upload of the laptop's 1.85GB desktop folder, but it took more than twice as long to sync the folder with the home-office desktop and just under 30 minutes to sync the 1.3GB desktop on the home-office PC with the notebook's desktop. That's not bad for a free service that completed the two-way sync without a hitch.

Gbridge AutoSync window with notice of a successful folder sync
The desktop folders on the laptop and home-office PC sync once a day. Gbridge

Gbridge is capable of much more than simply syncing folders on two different PCs. You can also use it for backup, secure chat, and — most importantly — access to the entire remote PC, not just one or more of its folders. The Gbridge DesktopShare feature is based on the UltraVNC remote-access software. I didn't test Gbridge's secure chat or remote-access features.

Free sync program takes a deliberate approach to duplicate files
Using Gbridge's AutoSync makes it easy to set up and run folder syncs, but the program doesn't let you see what you're syncing beforehand. The FreeFileSync utility provides a side-by-side comparison of any two folders. Simply enter the folder paths or click Browse and navigate to them. Then click Compare to view the contents of each folder in two scrollable lists.

FreeFileSync file-comparison window
FreeFileSync makes it easy to view and compare the contents of any two folders. FreeFileSync

To sync the two folders, click the Synchronize button. If the program senses the sync may damage files or folders, it asks you to ignore the warning or abort the sync. It then shows you a preview of the sync, including how many files will be copied and added to each folder, as well as how many will be deleted.

FreeFileSync Synchronization Preview window
Before a sync begins, FreeFileSync shows you the number of files that will be copied and added to and deleted from each folder. FreeFileSync

FreeFileSync lets you copy locked files (via Windows Volume Shadow Copy service) and add commands for opening and using external applications. The program supports very long file names and works with an unlimited number of files. You can delete files before you copy them to avoid running out of disk space when syncing large folders.

One of these days, any file we want — and have a right to — will be available from anywhere at any time. Until then, fast and simple folder-sync programs such as Gbridge and FreeFileSync are reasonable substitutes.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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