6 of the best FTP clients for OS X
18th Oct 2009 | 10:00
Which file transfer app is best for speed and functionality?
FTP Clients: Introduction
FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a well-established way to upload and download files online.
FTP client utilities (the programs you run on your Mac to connect to FTP servers) aren't exactly exciting, but they can be really useful. We don't use these things for general downloading much these days, but this is still the best way to move large files around.
If you ever do web design work of any description you'll recognise the need for a good FTP client. Even if your web software uploads for you you'll still find the need to look in yourself from time to time.
Anyone with WebDAV storage (and that's all of you with MobileMe accounts, by the way) should sit up and take note, especially if you use iWeb or iDisk. Apple's background updating takes an age to finish, but a good FTP utility can make life much better.
Support for Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) is also useful for very large file-handling. The six programs in our test represent some of the best in this category, although there are others worth exploring too, if you have the time.
The evaluation of the different programs was done using a number of different tests, all cooked up to reveal each FTP's individual strengths and weaknesses in different situations. We looked at everything from speed and file management abilities through to syncing and automation. We also considered the interfaces, although not as part of a separate test.
Test One: Speed
Simple drag and drop for uploads and downloads works with all these utilities, and they all handle large single file transfers at similar speeds. Transferring large numbers of small files takes longer, as each item has to go through its own transfer negotiation process.
Because of the way some tools handle simultaneous transfers this produces surprising results, with the visually clunky FileZilla and Yummy FTP beating the rest and Transmit coming in last. Most utilities performed fine, but it wasn't all plain sailing.
AYE, CAP'N:Captain FTP gave a problem-free performance when it came to transfer speeds
Cyberduck regularly warned about FTP errors during uploads, although the data transferred correctly. We found FileZilla offered no obvious way to delete files (hint: ≈-click), and only quitting the app appeared to cancel in-progress transfers. Finally, Yummy FTP unexpectedly quit a couple of times during downloads…
Test Two: Mirroring/syncing
We looked at the tools' ability to watch folders on the local Mac and upload files or keep them synchronised with remote directories on the server.
Captain FTP offers 'virtual folders' – applets that upload what's dropped onto them over to a designated location. It also offers watch folders for syncing data, but this needs extra software and failed to work.
Yummy FTP's FTP Watcher offers automatic uploading with local archiving. Cyberduck doesn't synchronise folders automatically, but it will do it on demand with download, upload and mirror options. Fetch only mirrors manually.
YUM! YUM!:Yummy FTP's Watcher feature offers automatic uploading with local archiving
Transmit's manual Synchronize options distinguish between mirroring and updating, and can download or upload as required. Droplets can also be made for quick uploads.
FileZilla offers directory comparison and synced browsing, but no syncing or mirroring.
Test Three: iDisk connections
Using Apple's iDisk in Finder can be a painfully slow experience. Curiously, third-party tools that can connect will do it more rapidly. Why can't Apple speed up Finder to match?
First up are the apps that opted out of this test: Fetch doesn't support WebDAV, nor, in fact, anything other than FTP-based protocols, so it was no help here. FileZilla is also a purely FTP-bound file transfer tool, as is Yummy FTP.
Then the failure: Cyberduck purports to offer iDisk support, but its uploading bug bites hard; items fail at the end of the process and aren't transferred at all.
TRANSMISSION:Transmit provided plenty of options for connecting the iDisk with no fuss
Finally, the two that completed the course: Captain FTP doesn't fill in iDisk details automatically when selected, but it performs fine otherwise. Transmit provided easy ways to connect to your own iDisk, another user's iDisk, someone's shared Public Folder, or any other WebDAV source, even securely over HTTPS. Marvellous.
Test Four: Bookmarks
Managing lots of connections can be fiddly, so we tested the tools with several FTP logins.
Captain FTP has an Address Book window for connection list management – with options that may be daunting to some. Usefully, it imports lists from Fetch and Transmit.
Cyberduck's Bookmarks display is part of its connection windows; simple, but with no way to subdivide the list. Fetch's Shortcuts display hasn't changed much for two decades. Entries can be edited and multiple lists can be made and saved, but it remains clunky.
FileZilla has a bookmarks feature, but it's picky about URL formatting and often fails to store new bookmarks.
FTP FAIL:The dreaded FileZilla with its somewhat confusing interface
Yummy FTP's bookmarks options are well thought-out, however Transmit takes the prize for pleasing flexibility. Its Favorites can be organised into different collections, synced with MobileMe, and saved as droplets.
Test Five: Permissions
Even the simplest hand tweaked forum or blog needs permissions control. You probably won't need to alter file and folder permissions often, but when you do you'll appreciate things that make this easy.
Everything in our tests handled permissions settings adequately, although FileZilla once again gets the booby prize for only putting this command into the pop-up contextual menu. If you don't right-click/≈-click something you'll never see it.
Most of the apps use ordinary windows for permissions display and control. Yummy FTP uses a drop-down sheet-style dialog. Cyberduck uses a palette, which vanishes when the app isn't frontmost.
GO FETCH!:Fetch was the only one on test that was unable to apply permission changes recursively
All but Fetch can apply permission changes recursively – going down into folders – and Yummy FTP and FileZilla can target just files, just folders, or both. Only Captain FTP and Transmit can edit the owner and group.
Test Six: Editing and helpers
For web designers and those who dabble in scripting, you will benefit from a file transfer tool that helps you edit your files without having to download, save and re-upload all by yourself.
This is handled differently in some tools. Captain FTP and Cyberduck have no built-in editor, handing files to TextEdit or BBEdit, respectively, for editing. Yummy FTP's internal editor appears as a sheet attached to the file browser window, so you can't work on more than one file at a time.
CLEVER DUCKY:Cyberduck's iDisk support failed during tests
FileZilla uses third-party apps for editing, but HTML files default to your browser and the options for changing this are designed for Windows rather than the Mac. But it is possible to work around this. Fetch's internal viewer didn't work, but it can hand off files to various different editors.
Transmit has a decent internal text editor that opens in a new window plus simple links to your preferred external editors.
The Winner: best Mac FTP client
There was one product that came to the front in almost every test, so we have no hesitation in declaring Panic Inc's Transmit our choice for the FTP Group Test winner.
Transmit shows that the combination of elegant form and useful function can lift a product head and shoulders above its competition.
It isn't perfect; it would be wonderful to have syntax-coloured text in its internal text editor, for example, and it didn't fare that well on the basic file transfer speed test because it processes the items within a single upload request sequentially.
However, it's a well-honed tool that is designed to work in a pleasing, as well as efficient, manner. Add to this the Dashboard client (also offered by Captain FTP, Fetch and Cyberduck), the Docksend ability (drop a file onto the dock icon for predefined uploading to one or more locations), and the droplet creation support and you have an app that is designed to work hard.
Of course, many of the other products on test are worth considering, but most will agree that Transmit is king of the FTP world.
First published in MacFormat Issue 212
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