Viewing Mac Files on your iPhone

You have documents on your Mac, such as PDF files that downloaded from the Web or text files that you created yourself, that you want to be able to view from your iPhone (or iPod touch). Can you do it? Absolutely. In fact, the most difficult step is likely to be choosing which of several possible alternatives you want to use.

View documents as attachments in Mail

One method, that requires no additional software beyond what comes with your iPhone, is to email the document to yourself as an attachment. You can view the document directly from the Mail app. However, if you don’t use your iPhone for mail or prefer a more direct method, there are other choices.

View documents from iPhone apps that connect to the “cloud”

If you use Internet cloud services such as iDisk (available to MobileMe subscribers) or DropBox, you can view from your iPhone any documents transferred to these locations from your Mac (assuming of course that the document is of a type supported by the iPhone). All you need is the relevant app, such as MobileMe iDisk and/or DropBox.

View documents from file viewer apps that store files locally (Type 1)

One disadvantage of the cloud solutions is that you need an Internet connection to access the stored files. To avoid this, you can use apps that directly transfer files from your Mac and store the documents locally on your iPhone. Two examples of this type of app are FileMagnet and DataCase. They both work similarly. I’ll focus on FileMagnet, my preferred choice.

To transfer documents to your iPhone, open both the FileMagnet app and the companion FileMagnet application on your Mac. Assuming both the iPhone and your Mac are on the same local Wi-Fi network, you are now ready to go. Any file that you drag to the FileMagnet window on your Mac is immediately copied to a location on the iPhone that is accessible by the FileMagnet app. Having done this, you can now view the contents of these transferred documents from the iPhone app.

View documents from file viewer apps that store files locally (Type 2)

A related class of file viewer apps avoids the need for a companion application on the Mac. These apps typically use the Mac Finder’s Connect to Server command to establish a connection between your Mac and your iPhone. This requires determining and entering the needed IP address. As such, the set up is a bit more complicated and may thus be resisted by less technically inclined users — but it works well once it’s done. Two such utilities are Air Sharing (which also comes in a Pro version) and GoodReader. I prefer GoodReader which, as it turns out, is also cheaper.

These utilities typically have more flexibility than the “Type 1” apps. For example, they may allow you to connect to sources such as an iDisk. With GoodReader, you can even save Web pages for later viewing (largely bypassing the need for a separate app such as Instapaper). To do so, you simply add a “g” to the start of the URL in Safari’s Address Box. Alternatively, you can access and save Web pages directly from within GoodReader.

Transfer documents via USB

Several Mac applications can access an iPhone attached to a Mac via the USB Dock Connector cable. A key feature of these programs is that they allow you to view the iPhone’s directory. From here, the iPhone functions similarly to an external drive: you can copy files from your Mac to the iPhone — or from the iPhone to your Mac. You can even use these utilities to rename or delete files on the iPhone (so you want to be a bit careful as to what you do here!). Good examples of such applications include PhoneView, DiskAid, and iPhone Explorer.

One other USB utility deserves special mention: Phone Disk (from the developer of iPhone Explorer). With this app installed on your Mac, your iPhone mounts automatically, exactly as if it were an external drive. If you leave this app running in the background (which is convenient to do, as its only default user interface is an item in the menubar), your iPhone appears as a drive icon on your Desktop as soon as you connect it to your Mac (as long as “Connected servers” is enabled in the Finder’s General Preferences). Very convenient.

Because of prohibitions imposed by Apple, these utilities offer only limited access to the iPhone’s directory. In particular, you are restricted to certain locations within the iPhone’s Media folder (see Figure). The only way to go beyond this Media location is to jailbreak your iPhone. If you do this, these same utilities give you access to the complete directory structure of the iPhone, including the iPhone OS system software.

Media Folder

Figure: The Media folder on an iPhone as viewed from the Phone Disk application on a Mac

Returning to the subject of file viewing, the question becomes: having transferred documents to the iPhone via one of these USB utilities, can you view these files on your iPhone? The answer used to be yes, but is currently no. Utilities such as FileApp (from the developer of DiskAid) and the aforementioned GoodReader offered this option at one point. However, Apple forced the option to be removed (as I explained in this article, which also goes into the details of where Wi-Fi vs. USB transferred documents are stored on an iPhone, and why the locations make a difference).

Why should it matter that you cannot view files transferred to an iPhone via USB? Isn’t Wi-Fi transfer good enough? Perhaps, for many people, it is good enough. But there are two advantages of USB transfers:

• Transfer via USB is faster than Wi-FI; if you have a lot of files you want to transfer at one time, this can be significant.

• Files transferred via a Wi-Fi connected iPhone app go to a special “sandboxed” location accessible only by that app. This means, for example, that if you have been using DataCase and decide to switch to FileMagnet, none of the documents that you transferred via DataCase will be viewable from FileMagnet; you’ll have to transfer all the documents again. In contrast, files transferred via USB go to a general location potentially accessible by any iPhone app. For example, when GoodReader had “USB access” it could view any file transferred (via any of the USB utilities cited above) to the DCIM folder (located within the Media folder). FileApp could similarly view these files. With this option removed, such generalized access is gone.

For now, the only way around Apple’s roadblock is to jailbreak your iPhone. If you do, apps such as GoodReader and FileApp restore their USB access.

Bottom Line

Apple could simplify this entire business by providing a single standard iPhone framework for transferring documents from the Mac to the iPhone, as well as by restoring the USB access to iPhone apps. With this in place, all iPhone file viewing apps would work the same basic way and have access to the same documents. Perhaps such a change is on the horizon. According to a Web page from the FileApp developer, Apple appears ready to restore USB functionality in the upcoming iPhone OS 3.2 for the iPad (and hopefully eventually extend this to the iPhone and iPod touch). I strongly suspect the Web page is referring to the impending method by which documents for iWork apps (and presumably other third-party apps) will be transferrable between Macs and iPads.

Unless and until this happens for the iPhone, I continue to use several of the above apps. For quick and dirty file transfer and viewing, I use FileMagnet. If I need more features than FileMagnet provides, especially for superior PDF viewing options, I switch to GoodReader. For documents already on my iDisk or DropBox, I use the specialized matching apps. For viewing the iPhone’s files on my Mac, I use Phone Disk or DiskAid — unless I need the additional features (such as access to SMS messages) found in PhoneView.