Carbonite Currents (beta) review

If you're looking for the simplest file syncing service to set up and use, Carbonite Currents is for you—just don't expect a single bell or whistle.
Photo of Carbonite Currents (beta)

Everyone and his brother seems to be getting into the folder and file syncing business of late. Dropbox, SugarSync, and Microsoft have been in the game for nearly a decade. The recent trend started with Microsoft’s folding its Mesh syncing product into SkyDrive, followed by Google Drive, both arriving last April. More recently, we’ve seen online backup services such as our Editors’ Choice SOS Online Backup, with its launch of the security-focused FileLocker syncing service. And online backup providers IDrive and Mozy have offered syncing services for over a year. Now it’s Carbonite’s turn. And the noted online backup firm takes a decidedly unique approach to syncing that may be just what the doctor ordered—at least for people with very simple file access and versioning needs.

Signup and Setup
Currents’ setup is just about the easiest of any syncing service’s, and it doesn’t require you to create a separate syncing folder. Clients are available for Windows, Mac, iOS & Android. You can sign up for a free beta test account at labs.carbonite.com. The tiny 6MB Windows installer installs Microsoft .NET 4.0 if that’s not already on your system. (The Mac installer is small, too, at 8.4MB) After you OK a second User Access Control dialog, the Currents signup window appears. After initial installation, the Mac and PC interfaces are identical. A simple email address, confirmed password, and agreement to the terms of service are all that’s required to create an account.

As with FileLocker, the only Currents password strength requirement is that it be six characters long—you can’t even open an Outlook.com account with that kind of password weakness, so this raised a security red flag for me. But the knowledge base for Currents states that the service “encrypts your files on your computer before sending a copy of them to our secure online servers. Your data is then sent to us using a secure SSL connection…” This is actually pretty impressive, since competitor FileLocker only pre-encrypts files you’ve included in folders you’ve designated as “UltraSafe.”

If you already have a Carbonite account with the email you use, you can’t create a new Currents account with that address, but you can log into Currents with the existing account—a nice side perk for exsiting Carbonite subscribers. Next, you’ll get a confirmation email to verify your account so you can get going with Currents. Once this is done, you’ll see an explanatory graphic, telling you pretty much to keep calm and carry on working on your documents as you normally do.

The graphic also says that the last 30 days of your work will be continuously synced, that you can access them from anywhere you have Currents installed, and that you’ll be able to share everything with friends and coworkers. That 30 days is a big differentiator from FileLocker, which saves all your changes indefinitely. But as I saw later, a Currents Premium version will extend this, when the service is fully launched. No pricing details yet.

What’s Being Synced?
But the big mystery of where your files can be located isn’t covered in this introductory panel. Tapping Next answers that—anything you save to Desktop, Documents, Pictures, Music, or Movies will by synced by default. As with FolderShare and SugarSync (but unlike SkyDrive or Google Drive, which keep a single uber-syncing folder to which you can pile on subfolders), you can designate any folder on your PC for syncing. To my surprise, I was even able to specify external and network drives. Next, the setup wizard starts “gathering your stuff from the past 30 days.”

The program’s window is divided into two panels, which at first were empty for me. On the left a manageable three buttons looked like a document, a group, and a settings gear. In fact, the only option when you click Settings is to go back to the synced folders selection page. At the bottom of the right panel was an orange “Open” button. Finally, the panels populated with some file entries. When hovered over, the line for each presented three green buttons—Share, Versions, and Comment. In keeping with the service’s simplicity, its window isn’t resizable.

As you use Currents, your most recently edited file moves to the top of the list, which seems pretty helpful. When I signed into the same account on a Mac on which I’d set up Currents, the same list appeared, except when I clicked on a file entry, the right panel displayed a preview of the file—even documents—rather than just a huge icon my Windows installation. One thing I noticed was that when I signed into Currents on the Mac (which I hadn’t used in a long time), that computer’s Documents and Desktop files weren’t synced, though the settings seemed to indicate that they would be. A little more experience with the service cleared all this up, as you’ll see presently.

Even on the first PC, only four documents were synced, though the settings indicated that everything in my Desktop and Documents would be synced, and there were far more files in those places. What’s going on here? Then it struck me: they really mean that part about the 30 days. The service is only concerned with files you’ve accessed in the last 30 days. Other syncing services simply cover all documents in the folders you designate. But Currents doesn’t care about files you haven’t touched in the last 30 days. Those files will remain on their original PC or Mac locations, but won’t be available remotely. This could be a problem if you simply have a set of files or folders you want remote access to or to share to collaborators, but haven’t edited all the files in the past month.

If you’re just concerned with files you’re currently working on, Currents is an appealing choice. It doesn’t require you to save your work document to a specific syncing folder as DropBox and SkyDrive do. But the only way to include a file among the synced is to open and edit it. I wish I could drag and drop files or folders onto Currents’ window to add them to what’s synced. A right-click choice in Windows Explorer or Finder would work too. But neither of these choices was in the cards.

What You Don’t Get
One major thing you don’t get with Currents that you do with every other syncing service besides Apple iCloud is a Web interface for getting at your synced files. This can come in handy in a pinch for both personal and team use, and for excellent examples of Web access to synced folders and files, check out SkyDrive and SugarSync. Currents’ lack of mere access to files via the Web also precludes the possibility of Web-based editing of the files, which you get with Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive.

Another issue is that the folder location of the file on the original source PC has nothing to do with where it’s saved on other computers. Currents keeps track of the file wherever you save it, as long as that’s in one of the covered folders on a computer where its client software is running. It even recognized when I opened a Word doc in Pages on a Mac and then saved it as a Pages doc. The only thing Currents cares about is that the file is accessible from the cloud via its own software.

A note about performance: Even when I wasn’t doing anything with Currents, Task Manager showed it taking up about 15 percent of my CPU usage—quite a lot. That said, I never noticed it slowing down my low-horsepower laptop, which is highly prone to slowdowns.

Search is one of the very few tools in the Currents window, but it didn’t support wildcards like *.doc. And of course it only searched for already-synced items—not everything in the sync-able folders.

Collaborating
Each document shows a “Share this with others” link when you hover over its entry in the file list. This lets you send an email to any email address offering access to the file. That access can either be a simple download, which doesn’t require the recipient to have a Currents account, or, for full versioned collaboration, access to the shared file. This is nice and flexible: sometimes you just want to make the file available, and other times you want to collaborate and see everyone’s changes. Oddly, the dialog for sharing only has a Close button, not a Share button, but hitting the former gets the sharing done.

When you’ve shared a file, it will get the group icon and be included in the Shared Files tab. Each time a collaborator saves the file, a version is created. You can access all of these from a dropdown that appears when you click the icon that looks like pages on the file’s entry. The dropdown shows a list of the time of each version and who saved it.

A final collaboration tool is Comments. Accessible from the last icon, in the shape of a cartoon speech bubble, next to each file, this is a simple text box. Like the Share box, there’s no Enter button here, just the X at top right to close the dialog. The comment area is just one line, so don’t be thinking about novellas here.

Extras-Mobile Apps
The Currents mobile app shares the desktop version’s extreme, elegant simplicity. After signing in on the iPhone app, I saw the same list of synced documents with the search bar at top. Tapping a file entry opened a preview of it, along with the same Open, Share, Version, and Comment buttons. As on the Mac, I could actually open my test Word document in Pages for iOS. I could even add a Pages document to my synced files by “opening” it in Currents.

A shortcoming with the mobile offering, though, was that I couldn’t actually collaborate in editing versions of the doc, though I could view, edit, make a new copy and share again to a new Currents synced file. I could even revert to an earlier version of a file, but that’s still a far cry from Google Drive’s mobile collaborative editing. I liked that Currents let me view synced files offline, but there was no way to upload photos from the iPhone to Currents syncing.

A Simpler Sync
Syncing is a great help for personal and team organization and anywhere-access to needed documents and other files. But it can get messy. Currents relieves you of all the mess, making the access and collaboration as simple as it gets. But as is often the case, with that simplicity comes a dearth of features. In fact, Currents has the opposite of feature bloat—it’s been pared down to the bare minimum.

For some, this will make it the ideal syncing option, but many users will want to be able to sync a slew of files and folders in one fell swoop, rather than only having the most recently accessed files available. Many will also want Web access to their files. If you don’t want to bother with particular folders designated for syncing, the Currents beta is currently your only choice, and if you value simplicity above all, it could be the best choice. Meanwhile, for syncing with more meat, check out one of our Editors’ Choices, such as SugarSync, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive

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Specifications
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS, Windows 7, Windows 8
Type Business, Personal, Professional
Free Yes

Verdict
If you're looking for the simplest file syncing service to set up and use, Carbonite Currents is for you—just don't expect a single bell or whistle.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc