Managing Multiple Computers

 Posted by on 4 May 2010 at 7:00 am  Computers, Productivity
May 042010

I posted the following commentary to the OProducers e-mail list a few weeks ago. Although I still have a few kinks to work out, I’m happy to report that my new e-mail system has made managing my e-mail so much easier!

For some time, I’ve been struggling with the management of multiple computers, particularly with e-mail. My iMac desktop is my primary computer, but I often read and send e-mail from two secondary computers: my MacBook Pro laptop and my iPhone. Happily, I think I’ve finally found a workable solution, largely using MobileMe. It’s not perfect, but it’s a huge improvement. For many of you, that solution will be old hat — or unnecessary. Yet I hope that others might find it useful. And I hope that folks will have some suggestions for alternatives or further improvements too!

Until recently, I’d been limping along with old-fashioned POP e-mail service. I could read e-mail — and reply too — on any of my computers. However, messages would only be deleted from the server only once downloaded by my primary computer, as that’s where my mail archive resides. That was inefficient. Sometimes I would see an e-mail multiple times before I’d be able to file it away. My iPhone was often cluttered with old messages that I’d have to delete in a tedious fashion due to the lack of a “select all” button. While at my secondary machines, I couldn’t flag a message for an action or reply, so I’d have to do that immediately — or hope to remember it once I downloaded my mail to my primary machine. Although I could send e-mail from the secondary computers, saving those e-mails in my archive required auto-BCC’ing myself, then downloading them to the primary computer, then moving them into the “Sent” folder. Ugh!

Given the amount of e-mail that I receive and send over the course of a single day, I had to find a way manage my e-mail better. Lately, the problem seemed worse: I’ve often failed to empty my inbox for days or even weeks on end. That’s unacceptable: I must empty my inbox twice per day in order to manage my projects effectively and keep my mind clear for substantive intellectual work.

Using a web-based e-mail system was not an option for me, as we have a fairly slow internet connection. (It was just upgraded from 1.5 Mbps to 3.0 Mbps. Yipee!) Instead, I needed some better way of syncing e-mail across machines.

Upon thinking about this problem, I realized that the best solution would be to switch from POP to IMAP e-mail. My internet host doesn’t offer IMAP, and because I wanted to sync iCal, Address Book, and MacJournal too, I decided to sign up for Apple’s MobileMe.

I set up my e-mail as per these instructions. My e-mail address is still [email protected]. However, all e-mail sent to that address is forwarded to my MobileMe account. To preserve [email protected] as my address on outgoing mail, I’m using a different SMTP server than MobileMe.

More importantly, all my incoming, outgoing, and saved mail is stored on the MobileMe server, then continuously synced with my three computers. Thus all of my computers are completely up-to-date with what I’ve read, drafted, sent, filed, etc. That’s sooooo fabulous! However, I don’t want to keep my mail on the MobileMe server forever. So periodically, I transfer my e-mail from the folders on MobileMe to my iMac, then sync that archive with my MacBook Pro.

I can read and manage my e-mail on MobileMe’s web site. However, I can’t send e-mail through any SMTP server than MobileMe, so that screws up my outgoing e-mail address. Since I don’t want that, I don’t plan to use the web interface, except in an emergency.

Of course, I could have gotten IMAP e-mail elsewhere, likely for cheaper. However, MobileMe allows me to easily sync my calendar, address book, and other third-party software. That’s hugely valuable to me too. For example, I can now edit my calendar via my laptop, whereas before I could only read it. And I can sync MacJournal — the program I’m using for drafting blog posts — between my laptop and desktop. Totally separate from MobileMe, I use EverNote to store references, notes, and other useful information. That data is stored on their server, so it’s available from any computer. And I use Xmarks to synchronize my FireFox bookmarks with Safari (and thus with my iPhone) and between computers.

It’s a terrible failing of the computer industry that syncing files between computers is so darn difficult. I’d be very interested to hear what others are doing. I’ve taken a huge step forward, but I know that I could do more!

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