Transfer mammoth files reliably for free

Becky waring By Becky Waring

File-transfer services make it easy and relatively reliable to exchange multi-gigabyte files with family, friends, or co-workers.

Xdrive and TransferBigFiles top the list of free file-transfer services, though each of the two imposes some limitations.

The challenge: transfer a 2GB video file

It all started innocuously enough. I simply needed to exchange a high-definition video file with a friend. Even zipped, the file was 2.4GB.

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Forget e-mail. Gmail is the most generous Web-mail service for attachment size, but it tops out at 20MB. And YouSendIt’s free file-transfer service — which I frequently use and highly recommend for midsize transfers — maxes out at 100MB per file. My high-def file was more than 20 times that size.

It turns out the biggest obstacle to sending big files is not finding a free service to store them; it’s uploading the files in the first place. That 2.4GB file we wanted to exchange takes about 7 to 14 hours to transfer over a typical broadband connection (which often has an upload speed of just 384 to 768 Kbps, a fraction of its average download rate).

At first, my friend and I tried transferring the files directly between us via AOL Instant Messenger’s Send File feature. Knowing how long it would take, we started the transfer at night and hoped it would be done in the morning. The transfer wasn’t quite finished when I started work the next day, and I accidentally closed the AIM chat window, which aborted the process.

We made another attempt via AIM that evening, only to get a transmission error somewhere in the middle that again foiled the whole thing. Ultimately, we resorted to FedEx.

But now I was on a mission to find free services that could securely send and receive files of at least 300MB and, just as importantly, had a reliable resume feature for paused or interrupted uploads.

The pros and cons of the top two services

The hands-down file-transfer champ is AOL’s free Xdrive service, which requires only an AOL or AIM account. Xdrive offers 5GB of free storage and transfers single files as large as 2GB. You can upload files directly from the Xdrive site or use a desktop client to make the move.

I got the best transfer results using Xdrive’s Java applet running in Internet Explorer. Java enables a special upload accelerator that compresses files and resumes broken connections automatically.

By contrast, Xdrive’s beta desktop client was unreliable: It frequently dropped connections and offered no progress indicator for downloads. The desktop version also requires that you install the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) environment for so-called rich Internet applications.

Once your files are uploaded, you select the document(s) on your Xdrive that you want to share with others and then e-mail them a download link. You can share entire folders and apply varying permissions: read, write, modify, delete, etc. (see Figure 1).

Xdrive's main file-transfer window
Figure 1. Sharing files with more than one person at a time is simple using Xdrive’s e-mail options.

Xdrive provides direct access to your AOL address book, which makes it easy to send files to multiple recipients at one time. Perhaps the best thing about Xdrive is that you can store the files for as long as you like. With most file transfer services, your uploaded files are deleted from the server after a week or so.

The only real downside to Xdrive is the service’s 5GB storage limit. If you want to send a number of files that, when combined, are larger than 5GB, try our runner-up transfer service, TransferBigFiles.

Along with the lack of an overall storage limit, TransferBigFiles is also easier to use than Xdrive. However, the service limits individual files to 1GB.

You don’t even need to sign up for an account to transfer files directly from the TransferBigFiles site. Still, I prefer to use the service’s handy DropZone utility, which you access via a system-tray icon. DropZone lets you drag and drop the files you want to transfer at any time. You can also queue multiple files for upload and resume after broken connections.

Another advantage of DropZone is that it lets you designate the recipient(s) at the same time you start the upload; with Xdrive you must first upload the file, and then send download links to the recipients.

Your files are saved on the TransferBigFiles servers for 10 days if you use DropZone, but for only five days if you transfer the files via your browser. I recommend using Internet Explorer to download the files; when I used Firefox to test the download service, some files failed to save properly.

While neither Xdrive nor TransferBigFiles will speed up your Internet connection — a 2.4GB file will still take all night to upload — they do take much of the pain out of the transfer process. Two features in particular make them worthwhile: they resume uploads after dropped connections, and they make sharing files with multiple recipients safe and easy.

The also-rans can’t accommodate monster files

I investigated at least a dozen services before narrowing the list to the two best candidates above. The major disqualifier was file-size limits: the free versions of YouSendIt and WikiSend restrict files to 100MB or less. That’s nowhere near large enough for my video files.

Several other file-transfer services looked like good bets until I tried them out. Pando has a 1GB-file size limit and offers unlimited uploads and a reliable suspend/resume feature. However, the service requires that the recipient download and install client software; all the other services simply send download links to your recipients.

More egregiously, the Pando installer is rife with crapware that you need to decline to avoid having it installed automatically on your PC.

Another service that seemed promising was Driveway, which limits files to 500MB and features a handy upload utility. However, I experienced too many problems with dropped connections and misguided links to half-uploaded files.

Similarly, the free version of SendSpace, which has a 300MB-file size limit and a highly capable transfer-management utility, looked great until I tried to download a file. Unfortunately, downloads are throttled to just 400 Kbps unless you have a paid account. Scratch that.

Becky Waring has worked as a writer and editor for PC World, NewMedia Magazine, CNET, The San Francisco Chronicle, Technology Review, Upside Magazine, and many other news sources. She alternates the Best Software column with Windows Secrets contributing editor Scott Spanbauer.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-06-05:

Becky Waring

About Becky Waring

Becky Waring has worked as a writer and editor for CNET, ZDNET, Technology Review, Upside Magazine, and many other news sources. She alternates the Best Software column with Windows Secrets contributing editor Scott Spanbauer.