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Keeping documents up to date on several devices

Even though I’ve had Apple iCloud Drive for about a year, I hadn’t bothered to use it until recently.

It’s a great alternative to copying files from one device to another, which is a pain even when I can use USB memory sticks. That said, I already have a cloud synchronization system set up.

Key shortcoming of cloud-based synchronization systems

Besides, iCloud Drive, like its competitors Microsoft OneDrive, DropBox and the rest, oblige you to put your documents in their folders. This requirement would make me change the way I have always organized my files. Instead of using my trusty folder structure, all included in my “Documents” main folder, I’d have to spread files out to the service collaborators want to use. I’d face the challenge of ensuring the files are up to date in both the cloud folder and the one that only lives on my computer, and I have better uses for my time than keeping files updated in different locations.

How cloud-based synchronization systems should work

SugarSync has long been my favourite service of the bunch because it doesn’t suffer this shortcoming. (A recent free upgrade from 30 GB to 100 GB of online storage is icing on the cake.) Instead of keeping files in one “sync” folder, I can tag folders and files on different parts of my drive to sync to the cloud. In other words, SugarSync doesn’t oblige me to change organizational methods that work for me.

For good measure, SugarSync also synchronizes with GoodReader on my iPad, where I do things like review and annotate PDFs. Annotations I make on the iPad show up on my computer, and vice versa, when I manually synchronize my folders from within GoodReader. This comes in handy when I review documents in my role as treasurer on my condominium’s board of directors.

Change catalyst

I’m taking a course and want to:

  • take notes in class using mind mapping software on my iPad. (I don’t want to lug my computer to class.)
  • have notes synchronize easily to my Mac. Otherwise, I’d need to email the files to myself, then put them in the right place on my Mac’s drive.

These are the two reasons I decided to switch from Freeplane, a free, capable mind-mapping app that unfortunately isn’t available for my iPad.

So I splurged on MindNode. I had used MindNode before, but I recently bought it on a friend’s recommendation, and it’s been a great purchase.

Cloud-based sync falls short

MindNode maps reside in iCloud by default. The iPad continuously saves changes to these files to iCloud, so I know I’ll get them on my Mac’s iCloud Drive folder. But if I move them out of that Mac iCloud folder to my project folders, I can’t access them on my iPad when I’m in class.

I could use SugarSync to access the files, but I wouldn’t be able to save changed files back to the same folders. I’d be back to square one.

What I need to do is access the mind maps (where I brainstorm everything I write) in my project folders on my Mac and in the MindNode app on my iPad.

The workaround: the Mac alias (or the Windows shortcut)

The answer to this dilemma? Some of the oldest technology in operating systems.

These tiny files work the same way in both operating systems. They let you keep your work documents, folders or other computer files in one folder but access them from other folders on your computer.

Graphically, you can distinguish aliases and shortcuts from the files they link to thanks to “badges” they sport on the bottom of file icons.


Mac OSX alias badge


Windows shortcut badge





We have all used them on our computers, even if the icons we click don’t sport these badges. For instance, any time we use Mac dock icons or the Windows Start menu to start programs, we click aliases or shortcuts, respectively.

In my new setup:

  • on my iPad, I create files that reside in a folder on the cloud drive.
  • on my computer, I right-click the folder, create an alias and place that tiny link file in my work folder outside the cloud drive.

Note that I create a shortcut of the folder, not all new files. By saving new files in existing folders on the iPad, the Mac routes aliases for all files in that folder to my work documents folder. If I create a file outside of such folders, I need to create an alias for that file to access it from the correct work folder on my Mac.

To access the files on my:

  • computer, I click the alias in my work folder.
  • iPad, I go to the app (there’s no file system on the iPad outside of apps) to open the file.

I don’t need to copy files from one folder to another so I don’t need to worry that a copy is out of date, or sync, on any device. I admit this may involve two extra steps (creating and placing an alias), but it is an effective solution.

For good measure, I tag my iCloud folders for synchronization and backup to SugarSync. You can never have too many backups.

Do you face the challenge of keeping documents up to date on various devices? How do you handle this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. I have a new Samsung tablet, the Galaxy Tab A–a gift from my husband. It has the OneDrive app, but I’d have to set up a Microsoft email account, which I don’t want to do. I already have GMail and Yahoo email accounts. Is there a way I can put documents into a “Cloud” from my computer and then access them from my tablet?
    I will have to look at this, and many other issues carefully as I learn more about the new tablet.
    I find your explanations of this techie stuff very easy to follow.

    • Thanks for your compliment, Christine.

      Google offers Google Drive and you can access that using your GMail account. I don’t know if Yahoo has anything similar, though I saw news reports claiming that you can use DropBox with Yahoo accounts.

      Regardless of the service, they all work pretty much the same way, from iCloud to DropBox to Google Drive to OneDrive. Download the application, save files in the special folder that gets synchronized and, if you want to access synced folders form elsewhere on your PC (you use Windows, right?), create a shortcut to the synced file and move that shortcut into the folder where you want to access the file.