Here’s the best way to transfer large files between your laptop and desktop

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If you do a lot of video and photo editing on location, you know what a hassle it is to move media files between your laptop and your desktop PC or Mac. 

So, what’s the best way to transfer those files from one device to another? As with just about every tech-related question ever, the correct answer is: “It depends.”

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Is this transfer the sort of thing you do only once or twice a year? In that case, the simplest option might be to copy the files from the laptop to a portable storage device, and then plug that drive into your desktop PC or Mac, before copying the files to your preferred folder. The Elders of the Internet called this process sneakernet. It involved dealing with literal stacks of floppy disks — and it was mind-numbingly tedious.

In the modern era, you can do pretty much the same thing, although you have much faster options, using portable storage devices that hold enough data to handle the entire transfer in a single swap. 

For huge video files, your best transfer vehicle is an external SSD or flash drive that uses the highest data transfer standard supported by both devices: Thunderbolt 3 or 4, or USB 3.2 Gen 2 (aka USB 3.1). 

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Plug one of those drives into a USB Type-C port, and you’ll be astonished at how fast the bits fly from Point A to Point B. If that’s not an option, an external flash drive using USB 3.0 or later will probably be fast enough to get the job done.

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What about if you don’t have a portable drive handy? Well, if both devices are running the same operating system, you can use wireless options (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) to transfer files. On Windows PCs, the feature is called Nearby Sharing; on a Mac, it’s called AirDrop. Send the file from one machine, approve the request on the other, and your files transfer quickly.

Use Nearby Sharing to transfer files between two PCs running Windows 10 or Windows 11.

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

The trouble with sneakernet, even the wireless version, is that all that file copying requires manual labor on your part. What’s more, there’s also built-in risk. If you make changes on one device and forget to copy that file to the other, you could end up with edits that are out of sync, where you’ve made changes to two different versions with no easy way to reconcile them.

Also: This feature lets you transfer folders between Android and Windows

The best way to avoid this possibility is to store those files using a cloud storage platform (OneDrive, Google Drive, Adobe Creative Cloud, Dropbox, etc.), and let a software agent on each device take care of keeping them in sync. If your work is mainly asynchronous — that is, if you do most of your edits on one machine and only need to transfer your files when everything’s complete — this option is ideal.

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