It’s a common situation — you have several computers near each other and you want to transfer files between them. You don’t have to pull out a USB drive, nor do you have to send them over email — there are faster, easier ways.

This is easier than it was in the past, as you don’t have to mess with any complicated Windows networking settings. There are lots of ways to share files, but we’ll cover some of the best.

Windows Homegroup

Assuming the computers are using Windows 7 or Windows 8, a Windows Homegroup is one of the easiest ways to share files between them. Windows home networking has been extremely complicated to configure in the past, but Homegroup is easy to set up. Just create a Homegroup from the Homegroup option within Windows Explorer (File Explorer on Windows 8) and you’ll get a password. Enter that password on nearby computers and they can join your Homegroup. They’ll then have access to your shared files when they’re on the same network — you can select the libraries you want to share while creating a Homegroup.

Someone using the other PC will just have to select the Homegroup option in their file manager, browse your shared files, and download them to their computer. If a guest comes over, you don’t have to do any complicated Windows networking configuration on their PC — just give them the password to the Homegroup and they can quickly join it.

Linux users can use the file-sharing features built into their Linux distribution, which should also be fairly easy to use.

Dropbox LAN Sync

Many people transfer files between computers by syncing them with a cloud storage solution like Dropbox, Google Drive, or SkyDrive. Unfortunately, this can take a while — the file will have to be uploaded to your cloud storage provider’s servers before it’s downloaded back to your other computers. This is a very silly way to do things, when you think about it — it can make syncing a large file take forever. If the computers are on the same network, why not just sync the files directly between them?

Dropbox stands out among the crowd by offering a “LAN Sync” feature that does exactly this. If two computers running Dropbox are on the same network, they’ll sync files directly between each other without the long upload and download. If you add a 1 GB file to your Dropbox, it will quickly sync to your other computer running Dropbox if it’s on the same network.

Best of all, you can share folders in your Dropbox with other people. If they are on the same LAN network as you are, they’ll also get the benefits of LAN sync. That means you can directly sync files to someone else’s computer if you’re sharing the files via Dropbox and you’re on the same network.

Of course, you must have enough space in your Dropbox account for the file, as it will be automatically uploaded to your Dropbox anyway. Whatever service you’re using, small files will sync quickly even if they must be uploaded first. Another service like SkyDrive or Google Drive isn’t a bad solution if you only want to transfer small files between computers, even without LAN sync.

USB 3.0 Drive

A USB drive is the old standard — it doesn’t work wirelessly, but it’s a fast way to transfer files. Best of all, it doesn’t require the computers to be connected or on the same network at all.

USB drives can be faster than Wi-Fi, particularly if you’ve picked up a flash drive with USB 3.0 support. Of course, you must plug the drive into USB 3.0 ports to get the speed benefit — most USB 3 ports are blue inside, so you can look at them to determine which ones are USB 3.0 ports.

However, if you have wireless hardware that supports the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, a wireless transfer might be even faster. 802.11ac Wi-Fi has a theoretical maximum of 1.3 Gigabits per second (Gbps), while USB 3.0 has a theoretical maximum of 4 Gbps. Both will be significantly slower in real-world use — USB 3 will likely be faster when speed is crucial for large files, but if maximum speed isn’t necessary, modern wireless hardware may be more than fast enough.

BitTorrent Sync

If you want to keep files synchronized between your computers — ensuring you have access to the same files locally on each hard drive — you may want to try BitTorrent Sync. Unlike Dropbox LAN Sync, there’s no cloud storage component, which means there’s no limit to the amount of files you can sync. If you configure BitTorrent Sync to only work between computers on your local network, it won’t upload anything over the Internet. Unlike Windows Homegroup, BitTorrent Sync will automatically synchronize the folders you specify so you don’t have to manually copy files back and forth.

Just install BitTorrent Sync on both computers, choose folders you want to share, and generate a “secret.” Provide that secret key to other computers running BitTorrent Sync and they’ll then keep that folder in sync. This will happen entirely over your LAN if the computers are on the same LAN and your files will remain private and local.

The focus on a shared secret — not on accounts — means you can share a folder with a different person just by giving them the secret. You don’t have to mess with user accounts or sharing permissions.

There are other ways you can transfer files between computers, but these are probably the best ones. If the computers aren’t on the same network, you can create an ad-hoc wireless network or even directly connect them with an Ethernet cable to take advantage of network sharing features.

Image Credit: carlesm on Flickr, Windell Oskay on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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