It’s true that you can use your iPad instead of your Mac to take care of many common computing tasks. But unless you’re ready to ditch Mac OS X entirely, you’ll still need to transfer files back and forth between iPad and Mac if you’re going to get work done.

Unfortunately, transferring and synchronising files between the Mac and the tablet isn’t easy. There are several different ways to do it, but each has its deficiencies. This is one area where Apple could vastly improve the iPad experience, and iOS 5 and iCloud, due this autumn, should do just that. Until then, here are your choices when it comes to transferring files between your various devices.

iTunes

The officially endorsed route for transferring files between an iPad and a Mac – iTunes file sharing – is clunky. For one thing, it works only with apps that support it – meaning, Apple’s creative tools (Pages, Keynote, Numbers, GarageBand and iMovie) and some third-party apps. But even then it’s inconsistent: Apple’s apps currently make you select Save To iTunes when saving a document; other apps make their files available to iTunes automatically.

You can view Dropbox files on your iPad, but you can’t always edit them

Worse, though, is the manual effort required to keep files in sync. You know the routine: connect your iPad to your Mac and open iTunes. Select your iPad in the iTunes Source list and click on the Apps tab. Scroll down past the list of installed apps and look for the File Sharing section. Tap the app you want to copy a file from, so its files appear in the Documents pane. Hold down the Option key and drag them to wherever you want them to go on your Mac (or use the Save To button). If you change one of those files on your Mac and want the new version on your iPad, you have to drag the file back into iTunes.

As yet there’s no solution – no AppleScript, Automator workflow, or third-party utility – that makes this process easier. For that reason, we use iTunes file sharing as a backup for long Pages documents and GarageBand projects, but for little else. We look forward to iOS 5’s syncing features.

Cloud storage

Dropbox (2GB, free; www.dropbox.com) is great for syncing files between computers. So how does it fare at syncing files between Macs and iPads?

Unfortunately, Dropbox on the iPad is merely adequate – but not through any fault of its own. The Dropbox app, like numerous other cloud storage services (including MobileMe’s iDisk), offers an easy way to access the files and folders you store with the service. Dropbox’s app makes it a cinch to view data that’s in an iOS-friendly format, including Microsoft Word and Pages documents, PDFs, text files, and images. Even better, Dropbox and similar services offer you the option of opening your synced files in their compatible iPad apps; you can, for example, use the Dropbox app to send a word processing document to Pages. The flaw is that the process is one-way: you can’t send the updated file from Pages back to Dropbox.

There is a workaround. DropDAV (2GB, free; www.dropdav.com) lets you interact with Dropbox files from apps, such as Pages, that support WebDAV. If you open a Pages document on a remote WebDAV server, you can edit it on your iPad. Just remember that you’re working on a local copy. When you want to save, you must publish your document to the WebDAV server. It’s the closest you’ll get to the experience of Dropbox on the Mac, but it’s far from seamless. We love Dropbox, but some predict its untimely demise once iCloud launches.

Cloud-compatible apps

Some iPad apps have built-in support for cloud storage – most commonly, for Dropbox. Dropbox’s website currently lists more than 150 such apps. For example, there are a slew of Dropbox-compatible text editors for the iPad, including Elements (£2.99; www.secondgearsoftware.com), iA Writer (59p; www.informationarchitects.jp), and Textastic (£5.99; www.textasticapp.com). With those text editors, changes you make on your iPad are picked up almost immediately on your Mac and vice versa; the syncing process feels effortless.

The list also includes word processors such as Documents To Go (£5.99; www.dataviz.com/iphone) and QuickOffice Connect (£8.99; www.quickoffice.com), file readers like ReaddleDocs (£2.99; www.readdle.com) and GoodReader (£2.99; www.goodreader.net).

iPad apps aren’t on that list, although they do work with MobileMe’s iDisk (soon to be replaced with iCloud). Unfortunately, that integration isn’t currently as smooth as what you get with the best Dropbox apps. Publishing to iDisk is too much like iTunes File Sharing; you’re copying your file to the remote server, instead of maintaining a single, always-in-sync version.

The iPad 3G will automatically switch to 3G networking when WiFi isn’t available

Email

Until iOS 5 launches, the next best way to sync apps is by email. Email, of course, is no closer to true real-time synchronising than iTunes file sharing; you’re still sending copies of your file back and forth, and you have to be careful that you’re always working on the latest version. But using email offers a couple of distinct advantages to the iTunes model.

First, you don’t have to connect your iPad to your Mac. Second, email messages include date stamps, so you don’t need to guess whether you’re working with the most recent version of a file; you can see when you sent it to yourself.

If you rely on email file transfers a lot, it may be worth creating rules in your email client to handle these messages. In Gmail you could create a filter that looks for messages that are both from you and to you. Those messages get a Files tag and are archived into a folder with the same name.

FTP

FTP is another option for transferring files to and from your iPad. There are plenty of iPad FTP clients in the App Store –  FTP On The Go Pro (£5.99; www.ftponthego.com), FTP Deluxe HD (59p; www.i-fertility.com), and FTP Write (£2.99; www.jacware.com) – let you edit files stored on remote FTP servers.

If you have access to a remote FTP server, both your Mac and iPad can connect to it. But that means you’ll need to download files to your Mac whenever you want to work on them. You might instead choose to configure the Mac itself as an FTP server. To do so, go to the Sharing system preference and make sure that File Sharing is turned on. Then click the Options button and put a checkmark by Share Files And Folders Using FTP. System Preferences will then tell you the FTP address for your Mac. Note that unless your home has a static IP address and your router is configured properly, it may be difficult (if not impossible) to connect to your Mac when you’re using it as an FTP server if your iPad isn’t on the same wireless network.

The thumbdrive approach

Apps such as iFlashDrive (£1.19; www.lymobilesoft.com) and Briefcase (£2.99; www.heymacsoftware.com) let you use your iPad as a pseudo thumbdrive, so that you can transfer files to and from the iPad. These apps can connect to your Mac over your local WiFi network (if you enable file sharing); some can also connect by Bluetooth. A few even support remote access – including the ability to connect to SFTP servers.

However, this process still feels a lot like a wireless alternative to iTunes File Sharing: you can copy files back and forth, but you must still manage the process manually.