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SugarSync: Most useful sync tool ever. But you'll pay for it.

It syncs, it backs up, it's mobile. Cool.

Today, Sharpcast is launching the public beta of its new file synchronization product, SugarSync (download it from Download.com). Like other sync tools (FolderShare [recently updated] and BeInSync), it performs the useful service of automatically keeping the data on one PC the same as on another. This is a great service for people who use more than one PC -- a laptop and a desktop, for example. It can also be used as a crude workgroup file system (see Groove). I got a tour of the product recently from Sharpcast CEO Gibu Thomas and took some time to experiment with it afterwards.

SugarSync is very different from computer-to-computer sync tools like FolderShare and BeInSync. These systems allow multiple PCs to update each other directly. But they can only transfer files when both PCs are online at the same time. SugarSync uses a Web-based clearinghouse for files: Everything you want to sync goes up to a server in the sky, and when another computer you're keeping in sync comes online, it connects to the server to get and send the latest file updates.

SugarSync can make hosted online photo galleries that are synchronized to your PC or Mac hard disk. Rafe Needleman

SugarSync also has a strong mobile component. Not only can you view your synced files on your smartphone, but there's a mobile app that hooks into your phone's camera and will automatically upload new pictures to a directory on your PCs. The Windows smartphone app I tried was fast and easy to use, unlike many other mobile media access products I've seen that are Web-based and a little clunky.

There's also a Mac client.

There's a good mobile site as well as a dedicated smartphone app.

Despite its middleman architecture, when both sender and receiver are online, SugarSync is incredibly fast -- faster than FolderShare, which I've been using for years. However, there is quite literally a price for server-moderated sync: Someone's got to pay for the storage and the bandwidth on the SugarSync servers. P2P sync products that simply connect users' PCs together can more realistically be run as free or flat-rate services, but SugarSync will cost $49 a year for 10GB of storage; $149 a year for 100GB.

There are advantages: Since files are stored online, SugarSync is a viable online backup product. It's a bit feature-light in that regard (there's no version tracking of files, and no system rebuild function), but still workable. Also, the product's servers can transcode files for display or playback on other devices: If you try to view a synced picture on a mobile device, SugarSync only displays the small version of it, and your PC doesn't have to be on to serve or upload the file. And with server-based sync, not only do you not have to make sure your multiple PCs are on at the same time to make the sync work, you also get Web access to your files even when all your personal PCs are off. You can also share files from the Web service directly, and SugarSync has a nice utility for making sharable photo galleries (example).

SugarSync has another advantage not related to its architecture: It's incredibly easy and straightforward to set up. By default it creates a "Magic Briefcase" folder on each of your systems that's kept in sync among your devices, but you can also point the product at any other directories you like.

With your data stored on a server, though, there's a security concern. All SugarSync data is encrypted both on the servers and in transit, but guess who holds the encryption keys? SugarSync. While they are stored separately, there's no way an individual can protect the company from accessing his or her data. Thomas told me Sharpcast may offer users the capability to set their own encryption keys in the future.

Setup and configuration really couldn't be easier.

SugarSync is a unique product. Properly configured, it can give its users access to all their data from anywhere -- any computer they own or any Web-connected device. It can completely free users from caring where their data is stored, and that's a powerful thing. And while it's a great "hard drive in the sky," it doesn't force you to change your work habits and rely solely on online storage.

It is, however, expensive, unless it's used only to store a small subset of a users' files. That's counter to the product's philosophy: you have to think about what you're going to sync and what not. Until the price comes down to a real-world level at realistic storage capacities, SugarSync won't reasonably do for many people what it would actually be best at.