Mark Bult Design: San Francisco, CA, Established 1988

Web design and development for small and large business, e-commerce, b2b, b2c, SAAS, and community websites. User experience design and usability testing.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Syncing your home and office Macs

I was leaving my job and had accumulated three-plus years of contacts, website bookmarks, emails, etc., that I wanted to keep and transfer to my home computer, but I didn't necessarily want to use the same apps at home that my company used. For example, Mac users in my office used Microsoft's Entourage (the Mac equivalent of Outlook) for address book, shared calendering, and email.

Despite two or three super-annoying bugs that Microsoft never fixed in the three-plus years I used it, I actually liked Entourage more than any Microsoft software I've used since the old System 9 days when the Mac version of Internet Explorer was the only really decent browser on the market for a few years (obviously this was before Safari, Netscape had been swallowed whole by AOL and was beginning to suck pretty bad, and Firefox hadn't even been invented).

But why would I splurge for Microsoft's Entourage at home when my Mac comes with three great free apps (Address Book, iCal, and Mail) that do fundamentally the same things Entourage does, and all work together too?

So I needed to figure out a way to sync data from the work computer with the home computer, while also switching from some apps to different ones. There were a lot of tips on the web about how to switch from Entourage to Address Book or how to go from Outlook to Entourage, but these tips all required that you were either doing this on one computer, or had the two computers in the same room.

I needed solutions that would work between work and home. It took me a few days of researching and experimenting, but I came up with some solutions that worked well.

Read on for solutions to these problems:
Problem #1: Can I export my Entourage contacts and email?
Problem #2: How do I get my IM contacts to my home computer?
Problem #3: How do I sync that newly exported data from work to home?
Problem #4: How can I take my web browser's bookmarks home?
Problem #5: I don't want to lose all my web site passwords saved in my browser!
Problem #6: How do I open Word documents at home?
Problem #7: Can I consolidate my home and work iTunes libraries?




Problem #1: Can I export my Entourage contacts and email?



Entourage to Address Book
This was easier than I expected. Entourage on OS X lets you export your contacts as vCards, which is a cross-platform text format (.vcf) that is recognized by almost any contact app (like Apple's Address Book). It's simple: In the Finder, make a new folder called vCards. In Entourage, select all your contacts, and just drag them all to the folder (it may take a couple minutes if you have a lot of contacts). Then, in Address Book, simply select File > Import > vCards... from the menu (see picture below), and navigate in the dialog box to the vCards folder you dumped your Entourage contacts into.

After that, I could sync my Address Book with .Mac to get them to the home computer. But more about that in a moment.








Entourage to Mail
This bit was unexpectedly simple too. Similar to the previous scenario, if you just drag an Entourage email folder or your entire in-box from the program to the Finder, all the data gets exported and packaged into the popular .mbox format. It even includes attachments, much to my surprise.

After that, all you have to do is transfer all those .mbox files to your home computer, and if you're going to use Apple's own Mail app at home like me, you simply open Mail and select File > Import Mailboxes... from the menu (see picture below).



Next you'll see a dialog box named Import (see picture below), in which you'll want to select Other from the list and hit Continue. Then you just use the ensuing dialog box to navigate to the .mbox files on your hard drive and then Mail will churn through them all (it may take a while if you have a lot of email) and put them in a new folder titled "Import."






Problem #2: How do I get my IM contacts to my home computer?



I use the excellent, multi-service, open source Adium X at both work and home, but Adium stores some of its contact data locally. So if you've added a nickname to a contact to remember that, for example, pirate2am is Hilary, then you only have that notation on the one computer, and the next time pirate2am IMs you while you're on the other computer, you may not remember who that is (don't you hate having to ask somebody "Who are you?" on IM?).

So my solution concentrated on finding a way to export my contact list from Adium at work and then syncing it with my contact list at home. There's no built-in function for this, and sadly there's not even an export function in Adium (although the latter is on their development roadmap), so I couldn't just export a tab-delimited or CSV file to take home and import.

At the same time, I also had duplicate contacts in Adium and Address Book, but in the IM client you normally have little more than their username, their IM service (AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, etc.), and maybe an avatar. In Address Book, you obviously have a lot more fields. But if you're like me, for some people's entries you don't have their IM, you always just have that in your IM client, so why bother? And perhaps you want to capture their avatar from the IM client and copy it into Address Book's nifty picture field.

Doing a Google search brought me (eventually) to Adium Book, a little OS X AppleScript app made by a Brazilian programmer named Aurelio.

This little app worked great, looking at Adium X and Address Book at the same time, comparing records, and giving me a simple interface for resolving conflicts (see picture below) like duplicate names and/or differing data for the same name. It even let me copy avatars back and forth, and if I had two different ones for a single person, it let me choose which one to use, or to keep a different one in each app.



Now that I had all my IM contacts copied from Adium X to Address Book, I still needed to get them home. So it was time to sync using .Mac.




Problem #3: How do I sync that newly exported data from work to home?



I'd been avoiding getting a .Mac account for years, since I couldn't justify paying $99 a year for things that I can already do on my own website (e.g. web pages, blogging, webmail, etc.), or through other services that have more robust features (e.g. photo sharing, bookmark syncing, etc.).

But because I've avoided .Mac, I've never been able to take advantage of the easy-to-use sync features that are built into all Macs. Because I had a deadline by which I needed to have my work data backed up and transfered to my home Mac, I thought it was time to give .Mac a whirl. Plus I could take advantage of the 60-day free trial and accomplish everything I wanted to do, and then if I still didn't think .Mac was worth it, I could drop it before having to pay for a full year.

There are actually two or three features of .Mac that I really like, and that are difficult to reproduce using other services (and certainly not in the easy and built-in way that .Mac works). Those features are: 1) Sync, 2) iDisk, and 3) Back to My Mac. That last one is only available to Leopard users, so until I upgrade I can't use it. But in the meantime, the first two make .Mac worth a try, and I must admit that Sync works so effortlessly that I'd almost be willing to pay for .Mac just because of that.



With .Mac you can sync your Safari bookmarks, Address Book contacts, email, calendars, keychains, and more (Leopard adds Dashboard widgets too). I wish it also worked with Firefox bookmarks, but I have other methods for that, described later.

Once I signed up for the .Mac trial period, I could suddenly sync my Address Book at work (which remember now contains all my contacts from Entourage and all my IM contacts), to .Mac's servers, and then go home and sync .Mac with my local machine(s). Suddenly I have exact copies of all my contacts at home as well as at work, plus I've got them on the web with .Mac, so I can access them from almost anywhere.




Problem #4: How can I take my web browser's bookmarks home?



.Mac also syncs your Safari bookmarks, but I primarily use Firefox, so .Mac wasn't going to cut it in this regard. Luckily, it's extremely simple to export/back up your Firefox bookmarks. Just select Bookmarks > Organize Bookmarks... from the menu (see picture below).



Firefox will bring up the Bookmarks Manager, in which you simply seelct File > Export... (see picture below), and you save the file as something like "Bookmarks_Firefox_January2008.html" on your hard drive. Then you move the file to your home computer, open the Bookmarks Manager in Firefox again, and select File > Import... from the menu.



There are some apps out there to help you resolve any duplicates, but that's a long, involved, and therefore separate tutorial, so I'm going to save that for another time. At least you now haven't lost all your bookmarks you collected on your computer at work.

Oh, and while I'm thinking of it, it's a pretty good idea to regularly export those bookmarks on your computer anyway, as a backup. I keep several years' worth of them in my Documents folder, all dated and organized by browser. I lost several years worth of bookmarks once in a hard browser crash, and I'm not going to risk that ever again.




Problem #5: I don't want to lose all my web site passwords saved in my browser!



If you're a Firefox user like me, you probably like Firefox's useful ability to store usernames and passwords at the many sites you have to log into every day, week, or month. If you're not using it, you can turn it on from the Firefox > Preferences... menu, then click on the Security icon/tab in the prefs dialog box that comes up (see picture below).



Obviously this functionality is only viable if you're not on a shared computer, and if you are using Apple's Keychain to securely store your master password. Otherwise, other people will see your username/password combination when they go to log in to Yahoo! or places like that.

I was switching from the work computer to full-time on the home computer, and I dreaded having to remember — and re-type! — all those passwords that I regularly used on the work computer. I searched in vain for an app that would export these from Firefox (which does not support this function itself, although it should) so I finally had to bite the bullet and type them all into a text file (you can't even drag and drop them out of FF's list!) which I then transferred to home and will have to re-enter.

Update: I don't know how I overlooked the Firefox extension Password Exporter when I was first looking for a solution. I've installed it now, but haven't tried it out yet. The documentation leads me to believe it can import as well, which would by useful.




Problem #6: How do I open Word documents at home?

This wasn't actually a problem for me, since I've avoided Word for years, and there are already plenty of alternatives to Word on the Mac, and even several web apps you can use instead. But for sake of completeness and because I predict there will be people who find this article who do use Word a lot, I'll mention some solutions.



TextEdit
This app is free and comes installed on every Mac with OS X, but most people don't realize it opens Word's .doc format. I use TextEdit for almost every simple text document I need to write that will eventually get printed or made into a PDF. You can drag-and-drop or cut-and-paste images into it with ease, and I think you can even drag-and-drop tabular data from other apps into it (I never need this, however, so I'm not positive). It lacks many of the vast "features" that make Word the worst of the bloatware in my book, but I never have any need for those features, and if I need to do complex layouts, why in hell would I use a text editor anyway? That's what layout programs like InDesign or Illustrator are for.

Oh, and a word to the wise about Word's .doc files: On a Mac (and on PCs too, for that matter), there's never any reason to save anything as a .doc file, which is proprietary to Microsoft and just means that anyone you send the document to is almost always going to need Word to open it. The simple alternative, which supports 99% of the functionality anyone will ever need in a .doc file, is the .rtf format. Just save everything as .rtf and the whole world will love you.

xPad
I've been using this little notepad app for years and I can't live without it. xPad does everything TextEdit above does, but it also auto-saves and adds an extremely handy tray to the side of your document window and keeps all your docs listed there, making organizing your frequently-accessed text documents incredibly easier. I keep to-do lists in there, five or ten half-written blog entries at any given time (I wrote this tutorial in it, screengrabs and all!), drafts of emails, link lists, and much more (see picture below).






Problem #7: Can I consolidate my home and work iTunes libraries?



Now this was a big one. I worked in a place where lots of music was available (Download.com has over 100,000 free MP3s, for example), and I occasionally happened upon treasure troves on the net that I was all too happy to queue up for download on the fast connection at work.

Eventually I had amassed quite a collection of songs that I didn't have at home, and when it came time to leave my job I certainly didn't want to lose those. It would be simple enough to copy them all to a hard drive, bring them home, and then drag them into iTunes to import. But I'd spent a lot of time building playlists to listen to at work, not to mention rating most of those songs. I wanted to retain that metadata!

I saw two vendors at MacWorld Expo who offered a potential solution, and I picked SuperSync because it seemed to offer a lot more robust features, even if the interface on the other one was a little cleaner and easier to understand. Plus I met the actual developer there at the booth, hawking SuperSync, so I was able to spend 10 or 15 minutes asking him "Will it do..." and "What if..." until I was satisfied that it'd probably work great for me.

That said, I purchased SuperSync but I haven't actually had time to try it yet, so I'll have to update this post after I've given it a whirl. ; )






Conclusion
I hope some of these tips come in helpful to you. I'd like to hear from you if they do. Or, if you have any additions, corrections, or alternative methods you'd like to share, please post them in a comment below, or write them up for your own site and post a link here.

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3 Comments

Blogger Yuliya said...

Hey Marky!

Excellent advice, I just switched entire to TextEdit based on your advice and I love it. The only thing I miss is Word Count. Xpad has it but doesn't have a page layout display option (as far as I could find). Do you know any program has both?

2/18/2008 08:49:00 AM

 
Blogger espd said...

Hey Yuliya!

Hmm. I'm not sure. Word count is not a feature I use very often.

I'd be willing to bet that TextWrangler has it, but it's more of a programmer's tool, so I doubt that it also has the layout display option you referred to (although I'm not totally sure what you mean by that).

There's also Apple's Pages, but that's not free. You'd have to buy iWork. I've never used Pages but I've seen it demoed, and it does nearly everything MS Word can do.

2/24/2008 04:59:00 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to sync computers from home and work foldershare is better and cheaper(as in free). It keeps all 6 of my computers sync'd, 3 are macs and 3 are PC's.

Offered by microsoft go figure.

https://www.foldershare.com/

2/25/2008 06:19:00 AM

 

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