Sharing files between computers used to be something of a dark art, and this has perhaps permeated the collective consciousness of Mac users.

Seemingly few realise how simple it is to enable file sharing across networked Macs.

In fact, with each revision of Mac OS X, Apple has made it easier to share files over a network, and to access networked Macs if you have relevant clearance.

This walkthrough takes you through the process of sharing files with other Mac users, and also details settings that will enable Windows users to access your Mac (although those settings should only be active for as long as they need to be).

We also briefly mention how to share your photos and music using iPhoto and iTunes, rather than attempting to do the same using standard file sharing. When it comes to file sharing, it's worth noting that you should only share what you're comfortable for anyone on the network to access.

The Sharing System Preferences pane, iTunes and iPhoto all avoid defaulting to sharing all of your content, instead letting you decide what you want to share. However, do note that guest accounts cannot do anything destructive with your files.

For example, if someone uses a guest account to access a shared folder via Finder, they can view the folder and open files, but they cannot delete anything, nor can they edit files 'live'. Only when you provide someone with login details (a username and password) can they edit documents on the shared computer – so only give out those details when you're absolutely certain they won't be misused.

Finally, shared files can only be accessed when the host Mac is awake, so be mindful of network users when shutting your Mac down.

How to share files over a network in OS X:

01. Unlock sharing settings

step 1

In System Preferences, click the Sharing icon under Internet & Wireless. In the Sharing pane, click the lock icon. In the subsequent dialog box, type your admin password (and username, if relevant) and then click OK to continue and return to the pane.

02. Enable file sharing

step 2

Check File Sharing and you'll see the LED graphic next to File Sharing go green. Under Shared Folders, you can determine which folders are shared by default. Click + to add to the 'Public' folder(s). To removed a folder, select it and click the minus (–) button.

03. Access the files

step 3

Other Macs on the network should show your shared machine's name (the one stated in the Computer Name field in the Sharing pane) in the Shared section of Finder sidebars. Select a machine to connect to it as a guest and browse the folders enabled in the previous step.

04. Connect as a user

step 4

If you own multiple Macs and need fuller access to one that's been set to share files, click Connect As… underneath the Finder window's search field. Type in your username and password for access to the same content you can usually access on the shared machine.

05. Share with Windows

step 5

If you need to share folders with Windows users, return to the Sharing pane and click Options. In the sheet, check Share files and folders using SMB. They should then be accessible via the Windows sidebar (My Network places in XP; Network in Windows 7).

06. Share photos

step 6

If you want to share photos, avoid file sharing and use iPhoto. Open the Sharing section of iPhoto's preferences and check Share my photos; either check Share entire library or select albums to share. Other users can access shared content via the sidebar's Shares section.

07. Share music

step 7

If you want to share your music, you could share /Music in step 2, but it's simpler to use iTunes. Again, use the Sharing section within preferences, and share your library or selected playlists. Connected users will be able to navigate shared content in List view only.

08. Use Home Sharing

step 8

iTunes offers a second way to share content across computers. Advanced > Turn On Home Sharing activates Home Sharing, which enables purchased content to be automatically transferred to authorised computers. But for occasional sharing, stick to the previous step.

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Liked this? Then check out The complete guide to Mac OS X networking

First published in MacFormat Issue 227

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