File sharing

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Too bad.

This page is about sharing documents, photos, and other mundane things on a LAN in order to avoid the trouble of hustling around with floppies or USB keys. Before you start, make sure you have enabled file sharing on all the computers that will be using it. Then, just follow the appropriate directions below.

Note: You should ALWAYS password-protect your shared folders, especially if you have an always-on Internet connection (like cable or DSL), and even if you don’t share sensitive files. Windows File Sharing in particular has been exploited by hackers many times in the past to gain control of the computers of unsuspecting victims. A password won’t make you entirely safe, but it’s a good first-line defense, and it’s one of the simplest things you can do to protect yourself.

Windows XP

Open Windows Explorer, either by opening My Computer or selecting Start » All Programs » Accessories » Windows Explorer. Find a folder you would like to share. Right-click on it and select Sharing and Security…. You should see something like this:

Windows XP folder sharing dialog window

Folder sharing options in Windows XP.

Click on the “If you understand…” text in the lower half of the window. You may see a pop-up window:

A pop-up warning about sharing files manually

Windows wants to hold your hand.

You can choose the Network Setup Wizard, but if you really wanted Windows in the driver’s seat, I assume you wouldn’t be reading this tutorial. So choose Just enable file sharing and click OK. The folder sharing window should now look like this:

Windows XP folder sharing dialog window, part two

The same window, now with actual stuff to do!

This is pretty straightforward. Check the box and choose a name. If you want to edit, update, or delete, or add files in this folder from other computers, also check the Allow network users to change my files box. Then hit OK. The folder will be instantly available on the network as:

(What is my computer name?)

On PCs, you can type in this address at the Run prompt (Start » Run) or in any Windows Explorer address bar. On Macs, go to Finder and select Go » Connect to Server.

Note that this shared folder will not be password-protected; any computer on your local network will be able to access it. This is Microsoft’s idea of “simple file sharing,” and although it makes sharing slightly easier, it makes security monumentally more difficult than in previous versions of Windows. Setting passwords on shared folders in Windows XP requires you to disable simple file sharing and set fine-grained user-based permissions — something that doesn’t work very well at all on a home network.

Fortunately, you can “hide” a shared folder. Though it will remain publicly accessible, it will not show up when someone browses the network. Users must know the name of the shared folder in order to access it — a form of security by obscurity. To hide a folder, simply add a dollar sign ($) to the end of the share name.

Macintosh OS X

By default, you can only share the “Public” folder in your home folder, and this is done automatically when you enable file sharing. If you want to share other folders, try SharePoints.

Windows 9x

Open Windows Explorer (Start » Programs » Windows Explorer). Find a folder you would like to share. Right-click on it and select Sharing…. You should see something like this:

Windows 98 folder sharing dialog window

The Windows 98 folder sharing dialog — a relic of unencumbered utility.

Select Shared as and choose a memorable name, like “Cher” or “Raffi.” You then have the options of Read-Only, Full, or password-dependent access. As you might expect, Read-Only access only allows other computers to read (and copy) files from the shared folder. Full access allows other computers to read, modify, delete, or add files to the shared folder. Password-dependent access provides other computers with Read-Only or Full access, depending on which password they enter.

Conveniently, if the thought of entering passwords to access your own files is repulsive, Windows can be set to remember passwords after the first time it accesses a share. Just watch for a “remember my password” link when you log in.