A better briefcase

A couple of months ago I took the plunge and moved back to using an Apple Mac computer at home after seven years using various machines running Microsoft Windows (notwithstanding a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the 1980s, a funky blue PowerMac G3 was my first ‘proper’ home computer). In the main, this has been a positive experience and I’ve more often found myself grumbling about handy Mac features I miss when using Windows than the other way around. However one tool I’ve really missed is the Windows briefcase. My professional life is such that I’m sometime working at home, sometimes working at my University desk and sometimes working on the move. Windows briefcase allowed me to keep copies of all my work folders on a USB stick that then synchronised with folders on my home computer. But briefcase only works with Windows and there didn’t appear to be a viable Mac alternative, until I discovered an even better way of doing things.

It is possible to create a briefcase folder on a Windows computer, copy it to a USB stick and then work with the files on a Mac – the Mac sees the briefcase as a regular folder and the Windows computer will synchronise the briefcase folder with its local folder once it is re-inserted. However you can’t have the briefcase synchronise with a folder on the Mac. The briefcase ‘application’ is only recognised on a Windows computer. I’ve seen discussions about the use of a Mac Automator action to synchronise two folders, but having tried this it is very slow. Without digging under the bonnet, it appears that briefcase works by keeping a separate record of file additions, modifications and deletions that is used to only synchronise what has changed. Automator actions on the other hand work by first comparing every file in each set of folders to determine what to synchronise. If these folders are large, this takes an age.

The solution came, in part, from thinking about the problem differently. Increasingly, wherever I work there is an Internet connection so, instead of synchronising with an external drive, why not synchronise with online storage? This is more in-line with a cloud computing approach (keeping all my data online rather than on specific computers) and means I can access my data wherever I can access the Internet – no more needing to remember the USB stick! Although Apple provide online storage as part of their Mobile Me service, I chose to use something a bit less tied into a specific operating system (and free) in the form of Dropbox (with thanks to Rich for the tip).

You might think that there my problem was solved, alas no. In addition to online storage, Dropbox provides small applications for both Mac and PC that run in the background ensuring a folder on your local computer is kept synchronised with your online folder. So far, so synchronous. However, like many people, I work in a large institution that (understandably) keeps very tight restrictions on what software is installed on its desktop computers. No Dropbox client for me then. There is an alternative in that you can access your online folder via a web page interface (Mobile Me does this too), but the process becomes overly complex and error prone. Instead of opening, closing and saving a file within whatever programme you’re working within you must login to the web interface, download the file, open the file and, when you’re done, remember to go back to the web interface and re-upload it. Phew! The answer to part two of my problem was to go back to the USB stick.

Although I cannot install the Dropbox client on my desktop PC, I can install the portable version of it on a USB stick. In brief, portable applications allow you to run an application from a removable drive on any (generally, Windows) computer without having to install anything on that computer. So, I can access a synchronised copy of my online folder by inserting a USB stick containing the Dropbox portable application into my University computer. This might seem a return to the old days, but I only need to use the USB stick at the University. I don’t need to re-synchronise the USB when I get home as the online folder is already in synch – Dropbox portable having already done it.

There is one final bonus to this approach. Using synchronised online storage relies on an Internet connection. Having a USB with Dropbox portable and, consequently, a synchronised set of the online folders too means that I can work without a connection if needed.

3 thoughts on “A better briefcase

  1. Richard

    Nice solution, I use DropBox regularly although for backup other than sync (at the moment). I wasn’t even aware there was a portable USB version, cool (although it would be even cooler if it wasn’t Windows specific – bah).

  2. Rich B

    I’ve another twist to this having just invested in a supplemental Dell Mini 9 netbook for some Ubuntu development (which btw is a great bit of kit and runs Ubuntu like a DREAM..!), anyway, great it may be but with an 8GB SSD it’s not exactly spacious (which isn’t why I bought it anyway), so, with this post at the back of my mind I just installed DropBox to it and pointed the DB folder to my rather expansive 64GB SpaceLoop XL USB Pen Drive.”Job’s a Good ‘Un” as they say around there.

    And, if I was REALLY wanting to get saucy I suppose I could use the SpaceLoop on the Air too, sign up for the 50GB package and sync away until the cows come home.

    DropBox is great.


    (PS – Do I get £10?)

    1. Simon Post author

      Nope, but the good-karma vouchers are on the way.

      It was your tip put me onto Dropbox in the first place.. Just been using it to co-author a paper with a colleague – shared folders between our Dropbox accounts. So it’s great for version-control too.


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