Your smartphone is your true mobile companion. It has more computing power than it took to put a man on the moon. It's an always-connected PC, sitting in your pocket; yesterday's dreams made real. And, as such, your smartphone is the perfect device for dealing with your precious documents and files.
No other hardware has the power of internet connectivity, push notifications, compatibility with our PC operating systems, and most importantly, is omnipresent in everyone's lives, ready to be called on at a moment's notice.
Despite the smartphone's power to put files and documents at our fingertips, it can be surprisingly difficult to access them. One particular offender is iOS, which, despite being the operating system behinds the world's most popular handset, the iPhone, is totally inept when dealing with files.
We should point out that we're concentrating on iOS in this article, merely because it's the most restricted of the smartphone operating systems. Many of our tips will also apply to Android and BlackBerry handsets too. Grab the Dropbox app for Android and you'll be able to do many of the things we describe here.
Back to iOS, then. It hides its file system, it's unable to read files placed onto its memory using a USB connection, there's no microSD port for moving files physically, and Safari will plainly refuse to use web versions of online file systems such as Dropbox. It's like the anti-computer.
Even if you're able to access them - perhaps by connecting a camera connection kit to an iPad and inserting an SD card - iOS has little provision for reading files natively, so that essential Word document will be about as much use to you as an animated GIF of a gurning Jeremy Clarkson.
Luckily, what can't be done natively on the iPhone can mostly be achieved though the use of apps. You can extend your phone's functionality to add features, and when it comes to going mobile with your files, there are plenty of methods to choose from.
One of the first names that come to mind when dealing with file storage and distribution is Dropbox. And rightly so. This online cloud storage service has rocketed in popularity over the last couple of years due to its excellent connectivity options, fast speeds and intuitive interface. One of the best things about Dropbox is that it's multi-platform - you might already use it on PC or Mac through a desktop app or through the browser portal, which lets you to access the files you're storing from anywhere.
However, fewer people are aware of the rather excellent iOS version of the Dropbox app, which really puts you in control of your stored documents. If you're ever away from your PC, on the move or simply need to access an important file quickly, your smartphone can come to the rescue.
You can download the Dropbox app for iOS from the App Store free of charge. Once it's installed, tap it to open and you'll be asked if you're a Dropbox user. If you've used the service before, just add your details to access your files. If this is your first time using it, click 'I'm new to Dropbox'. There's a short signup process, which is kept to a minimum, then you're taken to your storage area.
Once you're logged into the app you can view any file that's been uploaded to your Dropbox and stored in the cloud from any system; this means your files can cross between Android handsets, PCs, email accounts, the lot.
There's also the option to view files, which is one of the few ways you can actually read documents that have been sent to your iPhone, given its usual stoic refusal to view anything other than PDFs and images.
Dropbox is able to natively display a host of image types, a variety of text documents and a string of other common file types besides. Unfortunately you can't make changes or amendments to the documents, and they will only open in a read-only mode.
Share and share alike
You can, however, redistribute files, which can be a godsend when you're on the move. If a colleague or family member has ever called you to ask for a file while you're enjoying a day off, it can often mean an irritating journey to your PC to send it.
Retrieving the file on Dropbox makes the process much easier. Open any file, even if it's in an unreadable format, and press the icon at the bottom left that looks like two linked chains. Choose 'Email link' and a new message containing a hyperlink will open using the iPhone's default mail programme. Send that to the recipient and they can download the file without any hassle, leaving you to get on with your day.
One weakness of using Dropbox on your iPhone is that there's little scope for uploading to the app. You can add files, but with iOS's limited file support you can only deal with your photos.
Thankfully, there's another way. Other apps that let you interact with your files can connect with Dropbox, letting you save your files in a central location. A great example of this is the email app provided with iOS. Scroll to the bottom of an email containing an attachment and tap it. When it loads, press the forward arrow in the top right corner. Choose 'Open in' and select 'Dropbox' from the list. The app prompts you to pick a location for it to be saved in before it's uploaded to the cloud.
Dropbox presents one of the simplest ways to control your files using your iPhone, and there's not a lot that it can't do.
However, mobile workers who use a host of FTP connections may find there's a lack of options on offer, and could be put off by the need to use the desktop application. Locked down corporate systems won't let you install the app either, which means it's a case of using the clunky web interface, which is never a good thing.
However, an iOS app called Air Sharing does offer a neat alternative.
Air Sharing and DiskAid
While Dropbox is a fantastic way to access files when you're away from your PC, it doesn't put you in full control. If you're looking to really work remotely, try the Air Sharing app, which is available for £1.49 from the App Store. This features a host of functions that give you the power to turn your iPhone from a basic file reader into a powerful server.
In short, Air Sharing lets you use your iOS device as a portable hard drive, with your files stored wherever you go. You can access them via your phone, PC, Mac or via a web portal which offers 10GB of storage. You can even mount your iOS device onto your desktop as if it were a portable hard drive, which is particularly useful if you have a large capacity device; it may not matter to you if the phone itself can read the files if you're always carrying the equivalent of a large USB drive in your pocket.
The key benefit of Air Sharing over other types of mobile storage is that instead of storing your data in the cloud, it uses the physical memory on your iPhone. This means you can use up to 10GB of storage, rather than the measly 2GB provided with the free version of Dropbox.
It also means that you have a backup if you need a file when you're offline, and you may even get better speed running over Wi-Fi than you would over USB.
To get started, download the Air Sharing app from the App Store. There's a Pro version that costs £3.99 and has many more features, and you can upgrade at any time. Mounting your iPhone as a physical drive on your PC is easy. First you need to connect your iPhone to your home network, then open the Air Share app and press the wireless icon at the bottom of the home screen. This will open a small menu that contains important information about your account.
Put your iPhone to one side and turn to your PC. In Windows 7, click the Start menu and right-click 'Computer'. Choose 'Map network drive' from the list, then enter the IP address listed in your Air Sharing app into the 'Folder' field. Click 'OK' and a Windows Explorer window will open showing all of the files contained in your Air Sharing inbox.
You can also do the same on a Mac, if you're using one. Begin by right-clicking on the Finder icon in your dock, then choose Connect to Server. Use the same IP address as you would on PC in order to have the storage location mounted for seamless connection between Mac and iPhone.
The support provided by Air Sharing is also fantastic, and includes some difficult formats. There's iWork, Microsoft Office, HTML, RTF, PDF, movies, audio, and even source code, including C++. That could prove invaluable if you're a programmer.
If you're a mobile worker, Air Sharing has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Unlike Dropbox, it supports a wealth of FTP file sharing protocols, Home Pipe, MobileMe, and Dropbox itself, which gives you plenty of options.
You don't have to settle for FTP links to get more from Air Sharing; if you have Bonjour installed on your PC or Mac, you can connect using your web browser. This address doesn't change from session to session; just find it in Air Sharing's connections menu once and you'll always know exactly how to connect to your phone.
View your files on your PC
Air Sharing is a powerful tool, but it's possible to supplement or even replace it with a different, more hardcore application. DiskAid is a PC app that lets you explore the contents of your iPhone like any other drive. You can download a 14-day trial, after which you can pay $9.95 to upgrade to the full program.
Once the trial is installed, it will prompt you to connect your iOS device, which must be unlocked the first time so DiskAid can recognise it. You will then get a basic file tree view, which lists all your installed apps as well as general storage. This is the bit of iOS that Apple tries its best to hide from public view - the file system itself.
We're of the mind that Apple isn't trying to be deliberately awkward, though; Steve Jobs' philosophy, even back when he and Steve Wozniak were designing the original Apple home computers, was that they should be simple enough for anyone to use. There was even an argument in those early days; Woz had to fight hard for the Apple II's expansion slots.
Reminiscing aside, you can use the DiskAid app to transfer files to and from your iPhone's memory. Unfortunately it's not a straightforward case of dragging and dropping - the tools are located at the top of the DiskAid window. Click one of these to locate the file and the destination, and DiskAid will take care of transferring it to your memory. This does introduce one large issue: you'll need a machine with DiskAid installed to move files around on an iOS device, so it's not a universal solution.
If you're using Air Sharing, you can also find these files by choosing the app from the list located near the bottom. Click on the name to display a new folder containing all of your remote files. You can transfer these to your PC by clicking them and choosing 'Transfer to PC'. Just set the destination and your file will be copied across.
There are a few other file management solutions worth mentioning here. If you're looking to grab files straight from the internet and store them on your device, you could do worse than trying Downloads, a £1.50 app that especially suits MP3s, given that it has its own built in player.
Or, if you're looking to improve iOS compatibility with media files, try something like VLC Streamer, which plays back videos of all types, streaming them over your network.
Or why not try Screens, which lets you see and control your PC's desktop directly from your phone? It's pricey at £14, but worth the investment.
If you're really looking to take control of your files then iOS is far from perfect, but the huge range of apps on offer means you don't have to rely on USB sticks and clunky cloud web interfaces.
We heartily recommend anyone to try Dropbox, and the app is a great extension of a superb web service. Alternatively, Air Sharing is a fantastic service, especially if you go for the pro version.