Product Review: Syncplicity
Debra Shinder reviews Syncplicity’s synchronization, collaboration and backup solution.
Synchronization solutions abound, and I have been trying out one of the more sophisticated offerings in that space: Syncplicity. It comes in two editions, one for personal use and one for businesses. Both integrate with Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 and provide more than just file synchronization. You get real time back-up and instant restore, full versioning with an audit trail, multi-user collaboration, and there’s support for Google Apps as well as access from (some) mobile phones.
The business edition, which I tested, also gives you pooled storage, reporting, corporate billing, help desk login and priority support, and administrators can pre-configure user accounts, centrally manage those accounts and impersonate users, and control client upgrades and sharing policies. The business plan starts at $45/month for three seats and 50GB of storage and is scalable to an unlimited number of seats and unlimited storage.
Download, Installation and Configuration
The download was quick and simple: the Setup file was slightly over 2 MB and downloaded in 2 seconds. The license agreement is pretty standard and installation of the software took a few minutes (two, to be exact). The installation wizard pops up a dialog box asking for your email address, password and computer name. If you downloaded a trial version, you were asked to select a password then and an account will be created for you. Next, you select what folders you want to synchronize. You can take the easy way and choose to sync and back up your personal folders, or you can choose to control exactly which folders get synchronized. You’ll be able to right click on any folder to add it to Syncplicity or share it with someone else. You can also sync files with web applications.
The Syncplicity Client
After you finish the installation wizard, the Syncplicity client software will open to the Folder Synchronization & Sharing page, shown in Figure 1. Here you can select which folders on the computer you want to sync and share. Choices include the Desktop, Documents, Favorites, Music and Pictures folders.
Figure 2: Sync status window
Figure 3: Syncplicity icon appears in the notification area
When you right click the icon, you’ll see the menu shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Right click options available from the Syncplicity tray icon
Figure 5: You can display the detailed status report at any time
Figure 6: Download/upload progress and estimate time for completion are shown
A nice feature in the Syncplicity client is the ability to configure how much of your network bandwidth it will use. This is done via a slider, as shown in Figure 7. A small quibble: there is no setting here for a FiOS connection; however, that’s no big deal as there is a custom setting.
Figure 7: You can configure the amount of bandwidth the Syncplicity client will use
Finally, with Syncplicity you can link to some popular online applications, for previewing and editing documents and photos. These include Scribd iPaper, Zoho and Picnik. Just check a box to link to one of these apps, as shown in Figure 8.
Figure 8: You can link Syncplicity to web applications for integrated editing of docs and images
The Syncplicity Web Interface
What if you are at a computer that does not have the client software installed? You can log onto the Syncplicity web site, where you can see your files and download or upload files from the Files tab, as shown in Figure 9. To download a file from the site, just right click it and select Download. From the right context menu, you can also show revisions, which tells when the file was added, modified and other actions taken, or you can move a file to the recycle bin.
You can also download the Syncplicity softw`re from the web site (Install tab), invite others to try out the service (Invite tab), and get help with problems or answers to your questions via the community forums, user manual or by contacting the support team (Support tab). Business users can get instant help, with a dedicated support representative.
The Account tab has several sub-tabs. On the Account sub-tab, you can see how much of your storage quota is being used. If it is a business account, this shows the quota for the entire company. You can use the Personal Info sub-tab to change your name, email address or password. The Computers sub-tab shows the names of the computers you are synchronizing through Syncplicity, as shown in Figure 10. Note that these are the friendly names you assigned to your computers in Syncplicity when you installed the client software and registered them – not the computer names assigned to them in Windows. This adds a small layer of security, as it avoids revealing your computer’s NetBIOS name that could be used to find it on your network.
Figure 10: The Account tab is further divided into four sub-tabs
The Referral sub-tab shows your referrals to friends or colleagues, by which you can increase your storage allocation by 1 GB per referral (up to 3 GB).
You will also see the Google Docs tab, which we’ll discuss a little later in the section “Key Features and Advantages.”
Since one of my primary areas of expertise is security, I like that the Syncplicity web site automatically logs you out after 30 minutes of inactivity. I would like it even better if there was a way for the administrator to configure that time period, but this does ensure that if a user forgets and goes off and leaves the computer unattended while logged on, it would not stay in that state for hours.
The Administrative Console
Where Syncplicity really shines, for organizations, is its easy-to-use but powerful administrative console. This is web-based (a secure https site) and gives you a very intuitive tool for adding new users, managing user accounts, and setting policies. The console tab of the web interface is shown in Figure 11. This tab only appears when you are logged on with an administrative account.
Figure 11: The secure web-based administrative console is both powerful and easy to use
Adding new users is easy; just enter their email addresses and a wizard will walk you through the steps, where you can specify which of their folders you want Syncplicity to control (Desktop, Documents, Music, Photos, Favorites) and which of the shared folders for your organization these users should be able to collaborate on. Note that you can give them reader only permission, or “collaborator” permission, which includes full read and write access. The user will receive an email invitation, as shown in Figure 12, and will need to respond to it in order to activate his/her account.
Figure 12: The users you add will receive an email invitation to activate the account
Best of all is the ability to set policies for your users, as shown in Figure 13.
Figure 13: Administrators can set policies controlling how users use Syncplicity
- Registration Wizard Configuration - Where you can choose whether to bypass the configuration options screen, or allow users to change synchronization and sharing settings in the wizard.
- Folder Sharing Policy - Where you specify whether or not users can share folders with people outside of your organization.
- Shareable Links Policy - Where you specify whether anyone can access and download files through shareable links, or only authenticated company users can do so.
- Share Naming Convention - Where you determine whether to append the owner’s name to the name of a local folder when accepting a share, or just use the name of the folder alone.
- Client Update Policy - Where you can control whether all Syncplicity updates will be installed automatically, or just those that are required to keep Syncplicity online.
A very cool feature is the ability for administrators to impersonate users; that is, you can log in as any of the company’s users and troubleshoot their accounts – without knowing the user’s password.
Key Features and Advantages
There are many synchronization solutions available, but some things about Syncplicity make it stand out from the crowd. In addition to the Windows Explorer integration and the user-friendly administrative console, here are some things I really like:
Google Docs Integration
It’s easy to link your Syncplicity account to your Google Docs account – just go to the Google Docs tab and click a link, as shown in Figure 14.
Figure 14: It’s easy to link your Syncplicity account to your Google Docs account
The Google Docs site will require you to confirm that you want to grant access to the my.syncplicity.com site. Then you’ll need to specify which Syncplicity folder you want to sync with Google Docs. You can choose an existing folder or create a new one, as shown in Figure 15.
Figure 15: You’ll need to specify a folder for syncing Google Docs, and choose export formats
Syncplicity automatically converts your documents, spreadsheets and presentations from their current format into the Google Docs native format as it synchronizes them. This is necessary for you to be able to edit the files in Google Docs. You can specify what format you want files created in the Google Docs account to be exported in. For example, for documents you can choose DOC, HTML, ODT, RTF or TXT. The newer Microsoft Word format, DOCX, is not a choice.
Once you have it set up, your Syncplicity folder and your Google Docs documents will always be kept in sync. If you make changes to the copy in one location, those changes will propagate to the other. If a conflict is detected, Syncplicity will save copies of both versions in both locations. Also note that when files are converted to Google Docs format, some features (such as track changes and comments) are removed. However, you don’t have to worry about the version with those features being overwritten. Both will be saved, with slightly different names.
Something I always like to try out on any web-based service is how quickly I get a response when I attempt to reset my password. That is because with some services, it can take several minutes or even hours – during which time, you are stuck, unable to log on. I was happy to see that when I requested a password reset through the Syncplicity site, the email response was in my Inbox almost instantly. I also like that the reset link is valid for only one use and for only 24 hours. In addition, it asks that you reply to the email if you did not request a password reset. This makes me feel that the Syncplicity folks have more than a passing interest in protecting my account from unauthorized access.
One thing I might do differently: The messages (welcome, password reset, etc.) are in HTML and by default, pictures don’t download on some email clients. They look pretty, but it might be better if those messages were sent in plain text.
The online User Manual is a godsend if you hit any snags or have problems or questions about how the software works. It’s nicely organized, showing you step-by-step instructions from installation to troubleshooting, including detailed information on how to set up and use the business console to manage a company account. You can find ithere, and shown in Figure 16.
Figure 16: The online manual will answer most of your questions and help you with any troubleshooting issues
I am always interested in the details of how cloud-based services secure my data, and with some of them, it can be difficult to find out. Syncplicity puts those details on its web site. Data is transmitted using 128 bit SSL encryption and stored using 256 bit AES encryption. But that’s not all: the data and encryption keys are stored in geographically separate datacenters, and multiple replicas are made of all files so that you have both security and reliability.
Syncplicity fills a unique position among the plethora of synchronization tools available today. For consumers, it provides ease of use as well as off-site backup of important files. For business users, it’s an affordable solution that gives administrators control over how users synchronize their data and provides automatic backup each time files are changed. Its “anywhere access” via the web site is ideal for those who must often take their work on the road. You can watch videos showing the Syncplicity administrative site and the client software in action here.
I like Syncplicity. I like it a lot. The more I worked with it, the more I liked it. The folks who make it are former Microsoft employees and that shows in its seamless integration with Windows – yet it also works with Google Docs and other distinctly non-Microsoft services and products. The name is obviously a combination of the words “Synchronization” and Simplicity” and it was well chosen. There is nothing complicated about using this product, either from the user or the administrator point of view – yet it does everything it needs to do; this is a rare case where lack of complexity does not mean lack of capability. I have no qualms about giving it the coveted Gold Award.