Editor's note: When this review first posted, it implied that Laplink ShareDirect was much more expensive than it is and that its users were subject to file transfer limits. The review has since been corrected. (2/24/05)
Even if your work team is not in the same physical location, Groove Virtual Office 3.0 File Sharing for Windows makes online file sharing and collaboration possible. Effective, easy to use, and almost invisible, Groove lets you share any folder on your hard drive and also chat online with colleagues--allowing you to work from home or from a hotel or an airport with a Wi-Fi hot spot. With a per-seat cost of $69, Groove contains strong security, helpful virtual-meeting tools, and an upgrade path to versions with more online meeting features. We love its customization options, and we like that you pay a one-time fee, as opposed to Laplink ShareDirect which is less expensive up front, requiring an annual subscription fee, but it could get costly over time. Downloading and installing Groove Virtual Office 3.0 File Sharing Edition takes only a few minutes (longer with a modem). If you'd like to test it before you fork over a few thousand, there's a 60-day trial version.
The main interface in Groove is called the Launchbar. Other than the Launchbar, which is new in version 3.0, Groove works within your existing file system. Open a file in Windows Explorer, and you'll see a new button on the top right called Folder Sync. Click this, and Groove will sync the contents of your shared folders on your hard drive with online PCs or with its relay server for PCs that are currently offline--that way, you can access the files anytime from any computer with Groove installed. Groove is perfect for smaller businesses without VPN connections. From within Windows Explorer, it's also possible to invite other Groove members to view your shared folders if, say, you need to collaborate on a multifaceted sales presentation. Groove Virtual Office 3.0 File Sharing Edition is generous with its features, offering more than you might expect from a file-sharing tool. When you share a folder, you'll see a list of all the people with access to it on the folder's left side. Icons show whether those people are online and even whether they're currently browsing the contents of that folder. You can start a chat session with them from within the folder window, say, if you want to gather some sales data on the fly. Groove also lets you instant-message other Groove members who aren't online; those messages will be waiting for them when they next log on.
In our informal tests, swapping files within Groove was nearly as quick as swapping between two local drives. Groove doesn't have a check-out system, however, so it's possible for two or more users to edit the same document at the same time--oops. When they return them, however, Groove will make two different versions so that one doesn't overwrite the other. To allow more than one person to edit a document at the same time, you'll need a more advanced version of Groove.
Groove offers 192-bit encryption (Laplink offers 256-bit, which is better), and Groove lacks a built-in virus checker like Laplink ShareDirect's, the omission of which could allow you to spread a virus among your coworkers (although individual desktop antivirus solutions should prevent that). Although Groove won't transfer individual files larger than 2GB, it doesn't limit the number of file transfers over a given period of time. Laplink ShareDirect limits transfers if both users are behind a firewall, starting at 50MB per month, depending on which plan you use. In our informal testing, Groove sometimes didn't see when other users were online, a glitch that Groove was unable to explain. Rebooting fixed the problem.
Besides exchanging files, Groove Virtual Office 3.0 File Sharing Edition lets you create virtual work spaces, where you can get team members together to chat online about a project. Work-space tools include a notepad, a threaded discussion area (meaning that you can comment in public on another person's message), and file and photo storage. Laplink does not offer as many features. Groove's technical support page directs you to several helpful online forums, but if you want help directly, you'll need to pay. Support for the File Sharing Edition costs $25 for a 12-month subscription, and that's only for e-mail support. In comparison, Laplink ShareDirect offers free e-mail support and unlimited online-chat technical support. Phone support isn't an option for Groove Virtual Office 3.0 File Sharing Edition users; it's available only to paid subscribers of the Gold and Platinum Editions.