How to sync files between Macs and sync between Mac and PC

Sync files and folders between computers the easy way

Sometimes we need to work on more than one computer and sometimes we work with other people on projects and they have their own computer. How do you keep all the files in sync? Let’s see.

Why might you work on more than one computer? You could have a desktop computer like an Apple iMac and a laptop like a MacBook for when you are away from the office or home, working on the go at Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes or hotels. You could have a Mac on your desk at work and a Mac at home and you may want to access files on the other computer, such as work files from home or files at home from work. How do you sync between Macs?

You may need to collaborate with other people on work or personal projects, such as ebooks, reports, documents, newsletters, magazines, websites, product launches, and so on. There are many cases where we work with others. Working together on the same set of files in the same folder is much better than being isolated and alone. We need to share files and folders and keep everyone in sync.

What if one computer is an Apple Mac and the other is a Windows PC? Your home computer could be a Mac and your work computer a PC, how do you sync files between Mac and PC? When collaborating with others, you may have a Mac, but some could have PCs. A mixed group of Macs and PCs is awkward when you need to keep everyone’s files in sync.

Let’s look at these scenarios and see how to share files and folders and sync between computers.

Sync files between Macs you own

If you own two Macs, and they can be iMacs or MacBooks, they can be kept in sync using iCloud. This is by far the simplest way to make files available everywhere and you can see the same items on every computer.

Just sign into iCloud using the same Apple ID on every computer. Open Finder and select iCloud in the sidebar. The folders and files displayed are exactly the same. They can even be accessed on the iPhone and iPad.

If you are working on a document, graphics and artwork, collecting resources for a project, just create a folder on iCloud and put all the files in there. It will be available everywhere. It is possible to go a step further and the Desktop and Documents folders can be synced across your Macs.

Enable iCloud Drive in System Preferences on the Apple Mac
Enable iCloud Drive and click Options

Sync desktops and documents between Macs

  1. Go to System Preferences
  2. Click the iCloud icon
  3. Make sure iCloud Drive is ticked and you are signed in
  4. Click the Options button to the right of iCloud
  5. Tick the Desktop & Documents checkbox
  6. Click the Done button at the bottom
  7. Wait for it to sync your files and folders
Sync the Documents and Desktop folders between Apple Macs using iCloud Drive
Sync the Desktop and Documents folders between Macs

It could take from minutes to hours to actually sync and it depends on the number and size of files stored on the desktop and in the Documents folder.

This sync technique uses iCloud storage and your plan must have sufficient space to store all the files. Select the Documents folder and press Cmd+I to see how much space it is using and upgrade your iCloud plan if necessary.

With Desktop and Documents sync, it is all or nothing, which is a problem when space is limited, either online in iCloud or on the computer, like an iMac with a 1 TB drive and a MacBook with a 128 GB drive. It may not be the best method for syncing computers.

Backup and Sync from Google on the Apple Mac

Google Drive (the app is called Backup and Sync from Google) enables the whole contents of the Google Drive folder to be synced between computers. It offers more control than iCloud and you can choose which folders in Google Drive are synced, from one to all of them.

Desktop, Documents and Pictures folders can be backed up and each item can be selected separately. It also enables you to choose any folder to be added to the list. This is a useful trick that iCloud does not have where it’s all or nothing.

Microsoft OneDrive is also great for syncing files and folders between multiple Macs you own. Install the OneDrive icon (sign up and get a Microsoft ID if you need one), and you get 5 GB of online storage space. The app on your Mac can sync all of OneDrive or just the folders you select. You can access your files on any computer and edit, delete, and create them.

Sync files between Macs with different users

If you and someone else need to work on a project and have access to the same set of files, this presents problems because you will have different Apple IDs and different iCloud accounts, so you cannot see each other’s files. How do you collaborate with others on projects and share files between computers?

It is the same situation if you have a Mac at work and sign in to a company account and a Mac at home and have a personal account. Your work and home Macs will not be able to see each other’s files.

A single file can be shared on iCloud by Ctrl+clicking it and selecting Share > Add People. A list of methods for sharing a link to the folder are listed, like Email and Messages. However, it would be tedious to do this for every single file you want to share. What if there are 100? You need to be able to share a folder and everything in it.

iCloud cannot share folders. At least not right now (June 2019). However, it is promised in macOS Catalina, which is available late 2019. When you get your hands on Catalina, Ctrl+click a folder, select Share and see if you can add people, as you do with a file.

One way to sync files between Macs with different users no matter which version of macOS they are running is with a third party app. Dropbox is the best known and folder sharing was available long before Apple got around to it and it is easy to set up.

Share a folder with another computer user with Dropbox on the Apple Mac
Sync a folder between users by sharing it with Dropbox

Sync files between computers with Dropbox

  1. Install Dropbox on both computers – a free account works fine
  2. One of you, it doesn’t matter which, Ctrl+click a folder in Dropbox and select Share
  3. Add the email address of each person you want to share the folder with
  4. Click the Share button to email the invitations
  5. When an email arrives, click the button to open a browser on the Dropbox website
  6. Accept the invitation to add the folder to your dropbox
  7. The shared folder appears in the Dropbox folder on the computer
Invite someone to share a Dropbox folder on the Apple Mac
Invite someone to a shared folder on Dropbox

Anything that happens in one Dropbox folder is mirrored in the other, so you can add files, delete them, edit them and so on. The files on everyone’s computers are updated and kept in sync.

Sync files between Mac and PC

Dropbox works the same with PCs as it does with Macs. A folder on one computer with Dropbox can be shared with another person using Dropbox on another computer, Mac or PC.

Dropbox works for different people with different Dropbox accounts on different computers. Whether all are Macs or a mix of PCs and Mac, Dropbox can sync a folder between them.

The whole Dropbox contents are shared if you own multiple computers and sign in with your account on each one. Install Dropbox on every PC and Mac you own and your files are kept in sync everywhere. Just work in the Dropbox folder instead of the Mac’s Documents folder.

iCloud for Windows PCs was recently updated and it gained the ability to share iCloud folders and files created on the Mac with Windows PCs, provided both Mac and PC are signed into the same iCloud account.

iCloud settings on a Windows PC
Install iCloud from the Windows Store and enable iCloud Drive

Share files between Mac and PC using iCloud

  1. Go to the Windows 10 Store and search for iCloud
  2. Install the iCloud software on the Windows PC
  3. Start iCloud and sign in with your Apple ID
  4. Tick the iCloud Drive checkbox
  5. Wait a while and then open iCloud in Windows Explorer
Windows Explorer showing iCloud Drive files and folders
iCloud Drive files appear in Explorer in Windows

Folders and files in iCloud on the Mac appear on the PC. Apple has learnt a trick from Microsoft and not all of iCloud files are downloaded to the PC. It looks like all files and folders are present on the PC’s disk, but actually, large files are kept online using the Files on Demand trick that OneDrive uses. See the Status column in the screenshot above.

Click a file to access it on the PC and it is either loaded immediately if it is on the disk or it is downloaded and then opened.

Microsoft OneDrive has been doing this for a long time and it is a great way to save drive space on the computer. Now iCloud Drive can do it too, so you can sync iCloud files with your PC.

Summing up

Although Apple provides some features for syncing between Macs and syncing between Mac and PC, they are a long way behind what you can do with third party tools. Google Drive and OneDrive are better one computers you own, whether they are Macs or Macs and PCs, but Dropbox is best between Macs and PCs with different users. You can sync a folder with any other Dropbox users and the files appear on everyone’s computers.

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About Roland Waddilove 404 Articles
Roland Waddilove is interested in technology: Computers, phones, gadgets, software and internet. Long ago he worked on computer magazines, but is now mostly a tech writer for the web.