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Free yourself from your computer. For free.

2010-12-23 2 comments

I’m going to teach you to be like me.  Now you are asking yourself, “Why would I want that?”  I’ll tell you.

If you’re like me, you use a computer regularly.  Very regularly.  Like maybe bordering on too much.  Perhaps you use multiple computers, such as at home and at work.  And if you’re like me, your digital data is vastly important to you: without access to all your emails, documents, photos, website bookmarks, etc., you would be screwed and your life would be hugely inconvenienced, to put it mildly.

But unlike most of you, my computer has no importance to me.  If my computer were to suddenly get destroyed, stolen, etc., I would not fret one little bit.  And it’s not because I’m rich, because I am most definitely not rich.  So why would the loss of my computer not bother me?  I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to demonstrate something else:

If I am traveling around in my day to day life or even if I’m traveling to some place afar, I never have to think to myself, “Did I remember to bring with me my [fill in the blank]?”  Why not?  For the same reason I wouldn’t sweat the loss of my laptop.  I have freed myself from my computer.  What does that mean?  I’ll feed ya, baby bird:  What that means is that even though I am constantly on any given computer, that particular computer is just an interface between me and my digital data.  No matter where I go, no matter what computer I’m using, my data and I are connected in the same way.  That’s because my data is cloud distributed.  Cloud distribution is the key to my success, and I’ll explain exactly what that means. Cloud distribution means my data is distributed in many locations, and they’re all in sync.  However, that doesn’t mean my data is ONLY in the cloud (this is a very important distinction).  My data is also on any computer I use, so if I’m cut off from the cloud, it doesn’t matter; I still have access to all my data, and I can make changes to my data while offline.  As soon as that computer regains its connection to the cloud, my data changes are saved to the cloud and to all my other devices, just as if nothing unusual had ever happened.

Here’s how I did it, and it didn’t cost me a penny:

Before we get started, you’re going to have to make a realization.  You need to realize that some of your data is unique and/or self-generated (like documents you wrote, photos you’ve taken, bookmarked websites, emails, etc.).  This data will be referred to as your valuable data.  The rest consists of stuff that is easily searched for and gotten from the web, like maybe programs or downloaded movies.  This will be referred to as your non-essential data.  The reason for making these two categories has to do with storage space and bandwidth.  Ok, ready?  Here we go:

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Step 1.  Dropbox.

Dropbox is absolutely key to my success.  Dropbox is an application/service that offers file synchronization.  You can sign up for a free account at dropbox.com.  A free account comes with 2GB of space.  However, you can increase that to a maximum of 1̶0̶G̶B̶ 19GB(Update 2011-04-26: Dropbox increased the maximum capacity of free accounts to 19GB) by referring other people and doing various other things on the dropbox website.  I maxed mine out, and that is important because for my purposes (and probably your purposes too), 2GB is not going to be enough but 19GB will be.  Once you sign up and have your 2GB account, you get an additional 250MB (that’s .25GB or 1/4 a GB) anytime someone clicks your referral link, creates a Dropbox account, and installs the Dropbox software on their computer (Update 2011-04-26: Dropbox now gives double the referral space (500MB or .5GB or 1/2 a GB) if you prove to the Dropbox website that you have an educational email address, which is an email address that ends in .edu).  And they (Dropbox) have a way of knowing whether a computer has already been used for this purpose, so you have to do it on a new computer each time.  So spread Dropbox to all your friends and family and make sure they use your referral link so that you get credit and get the extra storage space. There are ways to take advantage of this that some people do such as going into a computer lab or similar place and using each computer to give themselves a referral, or using a virtual machine software on their own computer to get the referrals. I am not condoning those practices, I am just being realistic and telling you that there are some people who do that. Note that Dropbox also has premium accounts that give you much more space for a monthly or yearly price.  But for the purposes of this tutorial, I’m keeping my promise that everything is free, so we’ll assume you’re going with the free account.

So, you’ve created your Dropbox account, maxed out your storage space to 19GB, and installed Dropbox on all your devices (computers, laptops, smartphones, tablet devices, etc.). (Note to certain people: you might not be aware of the fact that an iPhone is a smartphone and an iPad is a tablet device. There are many different brands available; Apple is just one of them).

When you install Dropbox on your device, it gives you the option to put the Dropbox folder anywhere.  I recommend putting it in your user folder.  For example on Windows 7 point it to C:>Users>username. On a Mac this would be in harddrive>Users>username.  On Windows XP it would be C:\Documents and Settings\username.  They have it for Linux too but I haven’t used it so I can’t comment on the specifics of a Linux installation.

Now, in your Dropbox folder (which is called either “Dropbox” or “My Dropbox”), you’re going to create a folder called Documents or Docs or whatever.  Put all your documents in that folder.  Next, you’ll notice that in your Dropbox folder there’s a folder called “Photos”.  Put all your photos in that folder.  Now this next part is up to you: you create whatever folders you need to inside your Dropbox folder and put whatever files you consider to be valuable data into your Dropbox folder and its respective sub-folders. You may organize everything in your Dropbox folder any way you want, with one caveat: when you first install Dropbox and look inside your Dropbox folder, there will be a certain 2 folders in there, one called “Photos” and one called “Public”. DO NOT delete either of those folders. I’ll explain why later.

Once your valuable data is in the Dropbox folder and you have an active internet connection, the files inside your Dropbox folder will automatically be synced to any devices you’ve installed Dropbox on, as well as to your online account.  This means that you can access your data from any of your devices, with or without internet connection.  But what if you find yourself using someone else’s device? No problem.  You simply go to dropbox.com, sign in, and you have access to all your files.  Dropbox is also useful for sharing files.  Inside your Dropbox folder is a folder called “Public”. Any file that you put in this Public folder you can share by right-clicking (or ctrl-clicking), selecting “Dropbox”, then click “Copy public link”.  Now you can paste this link in an email or wherever, and people will be able to click that link and get that file.

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Step 2. Gmail / Google Apps.

If you already have a Gmail account, good.  If not, then create one (it’s free).  I don’t care if you don’t want to switch to Gmail.  You have to or you’re making a poor life decision and you’ll get left in the digital dust.  Ok, so you’ve got your Gmail account.  Note that you now have all the other Google apps like Docs, Spreadsheets, etc. and anything that you could do in the past in Microsoft Word or Excel or whatever, now you can do it all using all the various Google tools.  Now you’re no longer dependent on a computer having the right software installed on it because you’ll always have access to your Google tools.  But what about if you lose internet connectivity?  That won’t be a problem once you do enable offline access to your Google stuff. I’ll explain how to do it but in the future the steps might change as Google changes its interface. If that’s the case, you can easily find instructions by searching Google. But anyway, at the time of this writing, the steps are as follows:  Sign in to your Gmail account at gmail.com, then click on settings (in the upper right-hand corner), click “Offline”, select “Enable Offline…”, then scroll down and click “Save”.  It will ask you if you want a link to offline mail on your desktop, start menu, and quick launch.  I recommend selecting at least one of those so you can click it when you need to.  Now your email is mobile (web-based) but ALSO saved on your computer in case you lose internet connectivity.  Any changes made while offline will be automatically synced once internet connectivity has been reestablished.  Now, on your smartphone and/or tablet device, download and install Google Sync and set it up by logging in with your gmail address and password.  Select calendar and contacts, and set it to automatic.  Now your contacts and calendar automatically & wirelessly synced across your phone and any computer.  If you were to have your phone lost/stolen/broken, no need to worry about your contacts and calendar, because it’s still all in your gmail account.  Just replace your phone, install Google Sync again, and voila! All your contacts and calendar data will be in your new phone.

BONUS: For only $9/year, you can have all the benefits of a Gmail account and also have a custom domain name for your email address.  For example, instead of name@gmail.com you would have name@mydomain.com, where “mydomain” would be replaced by whatever you want.  You can find a good article on this topic at Lifehacker located here: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/12/why-you-should-use-google-apps-with-your-personal-domain-for-your-google-life/

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Step 3.  Xmarks.

Simply put, Xmarks synchronizes your website bookmarks across multiple computers and browsers.  It also gives you access to your bookmarks from any device that can go on websites.

Before we go any further, it should go without saying at this time that you should be using either (or both) of the two best browsers: Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.  If you have any questions about this issue, you may find it helpful to listen to the ThoseOnBoard Podcast #0.2 – Choosing The Best Web Browser.

So now that we’ve established that you’re using either Firefox or Chrome for your web browser, go to Xmarks.com, create a free account, then install the Xmarks extension (the site has instructions on this, it’s very simple.  Xmarks is completely free, however if you want they have a premium service that you pay for and get added perks.  Just check their site if you’re interested.  Now, on your smartphone/tablet device, install and setup Xmarks as well.

Voila!  You are now liberated from your computer.  All your valuable digital data is backed up, synchronized, and readily available from any device.

Ok, so I lied a little bit when I said that I wouldn’t mind a bit if my computer were destroyed/stolen/etc.  Of course I would be angry because I’d have to buy a new one and like I said before, I’m not rich.  But I would be comforted by the fact that all my precious data isn’t gone forever.  And ain’t that somethin’?

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