Katherine Boehret

Sending Large Files Down the Tubes

Too many times, I’ve shared a large batch of digital files with friends or family members only to realize that I included an unwanted photo or shared with someone accidentally. But once these documents are sent, they’re out of my control and on a server somewhere being distributed via email or through a photo-sharing service. Making certain files private or changing who has access to those files is a complicated, time-consuming process.

Tubes
Tubes installs a program on the desktop (right) into which files can be dragged and shared using automatic synchronization.

This week, I tested another product in the long line of programs that uses automatic synchronization to simplify the process of sharing large files by giving you the ability to change files and privacy options at any time. It’s called Tubes (www.tubesnow.com) from Tubes Networks and it takes its name from the pneumatic vacuum-tube system commonly used in bank drive-throughs that motivated me to join my Mom on visits to the bank as a kid. Mom would pull up and a container would whoosh over through a tube to arrive beside the car window; after a quick exchange it returned with her deposit slip and a lollipop for me.

Tubes aims to work with the same sort of magic. Once installed, its desktop application stays opened on your computer as a place where “tubes” are made for sending files. Any type of file can be dragged, dropped and sent off to share with other people using these virtual tubes. As soon as you release data into a tube, a whoosh sounds (like that of the vacuum tube) and your files are encrypted and uploaded to the Tubes server.

Invited guests view your tube’s data in its full, uncompressed format. The owner of the tube always has the final say on what is shared with whom, and changes made to tubes on your hard drive are detected instantly via automatic synchronization, guaranteeing viewers will always see the latest version of the tube. Shared tubes are also accessible via the Web, saving viewers from downloading the Tubes desktop program.

Other products like Sharpcast (www.sharpcast.com) and Pando (www.pando.com) also offer ways to share large digital files; Sharpcast uses synchronization similar to that of Tubes — it all happens behind the scenes without any work on the user’s part.

Tubes is available in a free version that provides a gigabyte of storage, or in paid versions with five, 10 and 20 gigabytes of storage for $6, $11 or $21, respectively.

Most of the time, Tubes worked well for me when I installed it on two Windows machines, one running XP and one running Vista. Tubes’ smart use of an already familiar process — dragging and dropping — gives you the impression that you already know how to use it and makes sharing files seem easy. I started dragging all sorts of files into tubes that I created, naming them and labeling them with a representative icon (one of 10 offered by Tubes or one of my own images).

For all its usefulness, Tubes certainly has room for improvement. For now, there isn’t a Mac version of the program, and when friends and I tried accessing shared tubes using a Mac Web browser, the results were inconsistent and sometimes didn’t work at all. Windows Vista had its own issues. After installing Tubes on my Vista laptop, an error message labeled “invalid argument” made me feel like a member of the debate team. And I couldn’t see thumbnail images of photos in my tubes using Vista, though I could on Windows XP.

Today, Tubes is releasing an updated version of its program that aims to improve the usability and look of the product, including refining the processes of sharing tubes and looking at tubes via the Web.

Before sharing tubes, I adjusted the permissions granted to each guest by labeling them as a Reader, Author or Editor; only the Owner can invite others to view a tube. But these labels can get confusing. More than once, I granted guests the highest level of permission, which is Editor, allowing them to make changes to the files in my tube, only for the guest to be asked for his registered Tubes email and password, which an invited guest shouldn’t need.

The Tubes experience was best when the recipient of my Tubes invitations had the application installed on his or her desktop.

After installing Tubes on a computer at work, I installed it on my home PC and easily auto-synched tubes that I created at work onto my home PC — a big plus.

Tubes incorporates the Web by assigning a unique URL to every file in every tube, and every tube automatically generates its own Web site, or “tubeSite,” as it’s called. Individual URLs for each file can be found by right clicking on a file and selecting an option to copy the URL into an email or browser. I copied the URL of a shared MP3 audio file and pasted it into my browser; it played a Fountains of Wayne song with no problem. But sharing these URLs with others is only possible if the owner gives permission.

Comments about tubes can be made in the “tubeBlog” — accessible through any tube in the application or online. I created a tubeBlog for a tube with photos from one of my vacations, adding descriptions and comments to specific photos. Others, with my permission, could do the same, using the photos from the tube or just leaving comments.

A friend used Tubes to share photos with me while vacationing in Italy and Amsterdam. I added my own travel photos and an itinerary made in Microsoft Word to his tube and changed the tube’s title; these alterations synched instantly.

Even if you aren’t online, you can access tubes or make changes to them by dragging files in or taking them out; updates are made automatically the next time your computer connects to the Web.

Tubes is off to a good start, but it needs to improve its system to make permission levels more understandable for tube owners and those invited to see a shared tube. With a few improvements, Tubes could be a product that I’ll continue using on Windows computers long after this column.

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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