By Dustin Sklavos
E-mail is a great method for sending text over the Internet, but when it comes to sending large file, you'll likely need a more robust data transfer system. We break down four of the best File Transfer services available today in this buyers guide.
When I'm not writing hardware and software reviews, I'm a filmmaker. My composer has lived on the opposite side of the continent for as long as I've known him, but because of internet technology we're able to collaborate on films without so much as a phone call. I can send him video clips, he can score them and send them back, and I can just e-mail him and tell him "do this, that, and the other." We are by far not the only ones doing this.
Even beyond the arts, oftentimes friends need a specific file from you, a text file, or an image, or whatever. Maybe you need to make a single file or series of files available to specific people. I can tell you that while having your own site and server space can certainly make things easier, but logging into your FTP and oftentimes having to create an HTML file just to link to a file can be a major hassle.
Long story short: multiple sites and services have devised ways for you to get your material into the hands of the people you want it to. I already espoused the virtues of Dropbox previously, but today I bring you four other options for sharing files -- FilesAnywhere, YouSendIt, RapidShare and WeTransfer -- and discuss the pros and cons of each.
Using FilesAnywhere, I got the distinct sense their service was designed for power users and only power users.
FilesAnywhere signupFilesAnywhere service page
Signing up for their service is easy enough, and like many they offer paid usage models that expand their features and give you more flexibility. Unfortunately, compared to the other three services we're playing with today, FilesAnywhere's file size limitation for free users is punishingly small. 25MB per file is generally adequate enough to send a compressed song, or a text file, or a PDF, but severely curtails the service's usefulness.
What's worse, the service is hard to use. I can appreciate a robust service, but the level of abstraction here is poorly handled. FilesAnywhere's interface grossly over-emphasizes functionality, and is needlessly complex. It strikes me as being as obtuse as older Linux GUIs used to be, and I get the feeling that's the kind of user they're gunning for.
Even the number of plans they offer feels needlessly complicated at a staggering seven different account types. This is just unnecessary. Even at the enterprise level, I can only imagine IT grunts having to explain to their technophobic management about why they should go with FilesAnywhere, then having those managers take one look at the site and tell their employees to shove off. I'm all for more power and more features, but it needs to be abstracted far better than it is here.
I may be being too hard on FilesAnywhere. Having what amounts to your own personal hard disk floating around on the internet -- like Dropbox -- is certainly useful. The ability to use the service to send a fax(!) or even receive faxes on a paid account is obscure but handy. You can still use it to just post a file and send people links to download that file. But between the grossly limited file size for free users and the complexity of the service, I have a hard time recommending FilesAnywhere.
After FilesAnywhere, YouSendIt is the only service in our roundup that requires you to sign up and create an account. For our purposes, I created a 14-day trial account of the "Pro" plan.
YouSendIt signup pageYouSendIt service page
As a small pat on the back, I'd like to say that I appreciated YouSendIt not asking me for credit card information for the 14-day trial account. There's a free account you can sign up for, but it's just slightly buried in the "Plans & Sign Up" page; the front page makes no mention of it. That account is very limited with a maximum file size of 100MB, but the "paltry" 100 downloads per file makes up for it somewhat. 100MB is not ideal but at least somewhat reasonable.
What's striking is how open the pricing is for add-ons when you send files. There are just checkboxes with prices next to them, offering extra features beyond just the basic "upload-and-e-mail" service. Truthfully I was a little put off by this, as it felt like an attempt to nickel-and-dime people, but all of those services can be added into your account if you use one of the two plans beyond "Pro."
Where YouSendIt really distinguishes itself from the competition is in the sheer flexibility of the service. There are plug-ins available for Outlook, Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Office, Final Cut Pro, Aperture, iPhoto, and Photoshop, along with tracker apps for the iPhone and BlackBerry!
Ultimately YouSendIt works as advertised. You upload a file, they send a link in e-mail, and the recipient downloads that file off of the server. I appreciated the simplicity, especially after trying to work my way through FilesAnywhere's feature bloat.
RapidShare may be the most well-known of the services in this roundup, and for a quick "here's this file for you" it really can't be beat. There's no sign-up required, no e-mail address required. You upload your file on the front page, they give you a link that you can then IM or e-mail yourself, or you can enter an e-mail address (or several) and a message and they'll e-mail the link for you.
RapidShare service pageIf you're asking for simplicity I have a hard time finding any way to distill file-sharing down any more than this. Which is why it's unfortunate how hazy things start to really get on the RapidShare site. Having a Craigslist level of simplicity in your page design is fine and appreciated these days, but the design here leaves a bad taste in my mouth. You can sign up for a Premium Account which will offer more of everything, or you can sign up for a Collector's Account, for which no information exists on their site other than to tell you that you accumulate points using it that eventually lead to a free Premium Account.
A warning over the FAQ that its answers might be out of date doesn't exactly instill confidence either. RapidShare as an operation may be simple, but it feels slapdash and there's nothing there that makes me feel like giving them money. As I said before, for basic "here's your file!" RapidShare is pretty excellent, but beyond that it just seems too obscured to be trustworthy. Some clarity on the site would go a long way.
Our last contender is WeTransfer, and that's basically what they do. When I opened their page, my first and most immediate reaction was "holy crap, it's all Flash." The basic, main page that any user is going to see and spend the most time on is done entirely in Flash. Using Flash for your entire front page just seems like asking for netbooks everywhere to burst into flames.
WeTransfer service pageGood thing WeTransfer works well, then. There's no account to sign up for and I don't get the sense there ever will be. WeTransfer has a tiny panel in the center of your browser that lets you send someone (or up to twenty someones) a link to a file of up to 2GB on their server. That link will last for two weeks. The interface is simple and attractive, and the only reason RapidShare beats it for simplicity is because WeTransfer requires e-mail addresses. The flipside is that WeTransfer is, on the whole, easier to use.
But there's that Flash thing. I have no problem with Flash, but doing your site entirely in Flash and then having on the FAQ page "HTML version coming soon" screams "backwards" to me. Advertising is handled by having rotating images in the background, and these images are actually quite attractive. They're not hideous flashing ads or anything like that, just tasteful, textless high-resolution stills. Click the background and you're taken to the advertiser's site. I don't know that this model will work, but I give them points for trying. Still, I'm not sure Flash is necessary to achieve what they've done here, or at least not a browser window full of it.
The interesting thing about this roundup is that ultimately every service acquits itself fairly well for its specific purpose. I don't think we have any major challengers for Dropbox, which will probably remain my weapon of choice for collaborative projects for the foreseeable future.
Of all the services, only FilesAnywhere really operates as net-based storage, and if you're willing to weed through the countless features and figure out which of the seven plans is right for you, I can see it being incredibly useful and powerful. But it's pretty clearly for the power user, and you know who you are. Grandma Millie should steer clear.
YouSendIt and WeTransfer occupy similar space, I think, since they're really e-mail-centric services. If you need a basic means of disseminating files, WeTransfer's a great option, while YouSendIt is much more robust and offers more features.
Finally, RapidShare's best feature is its front page: the ability to just upload a file and then shoot the link out to a few friends makes it ideal for a quick transfer. Anything beyond that I find suspect, and information just isn't as readily available on their site as it needs to be.
What you're left with now are five services that all occupy very specific niches. Of all of them, I think FilesAnywhere tries the hardest to cover all the bases, but even ignoring quibbles with their interface design there is complexity that must be added in order to handle all of those different uses. But there isn't a single authentically bad or silly service in this lot, and if one (or all!) of them sounds like it suits your needs, godspeed.
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By Dustin Sklavos
Label: FILE TRANSFER