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Home on the Go with NetInfo

by Alan Graham

As you browse Mac OS X: The Missing Manual by David Pogue, you’ll find sections in every chapter called "Power Users’ Clinic." These are advanced tutorials on topics for more adventurous Macintosh users. What's cool about them is that they dig a little deeper into technical topics, giving power users the confidence they need to be Mac experts.

I contributed to this section in David's book, so I'd like to share one of my favorite power user tips with you now.

Use NetInfo

As you know, Mac OS X stores all your settings, your identity, and your files in your “Home” directory. This directory resides on the primary boot disk by default. But what if you move between multiple computers and use a removable drive? Can you bring your Home directory along with you? Yes, you can, though it requires some clever manipulation of NetInfo Manager (found in your Utilities folder).

First, make sure you have the latest version of your Home directory on the removable (hopefully FireWire) drive you want to use, and that it is plugged in before you start the log-in procedure.

Now open the NetInfo application and authenticate yourself. When NetInfo Manager is open, you should see a screen similar to this:

Since Mac OS X relies heavily on permissions you’ll find that, by default, you can’t make any changes here until you authenticate yourself. Simply click on the lock icon (lower-left corner) and enter your password. Once authentication is complete we are ready to move to our new “Home.”

In the Directory Browser you’ll find an entry for users. Navigate to /Users/yourusername. In the window below you’ll find all sorts of cryptic information. Scroll down until you find the Property listing for "home." It may look something like this:

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Double click on the Value(s) side (/Users/yourusername) to edit it. Now all you have to do is change this text to /Volumes/diskname, where "diskname" is the name of the removable disk or the drive you plan to use. (“Volumes” is the name of an invisible folder on your Mac OS X machine--it lists the names of all disks present.)

Press Enter, and then save your changes. Repeat this on every Macintosh you plan to use the removable media on and you are good to go.

One Small Detail

Comment on this articleiPod users: anyone carrying their Home directory around in their pocket?
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One tiny little quirk you’ll find after setting this up is that Mac OS X will leave an orphaned "yourusername" identity in the Users folder. This is basically a duplicate that won’t do any harm, but you may find it confusing. You can always delete it by booting into Mac OS 9 and throwing it away.

My iPod is My Life

I think the coolest execution of this technique is using your iPod to store your music and your Home directory. You can move your Home directory to the iPod and keep your entire life in your hand, which could be disastrous if you don’t back up. Perhaps this is a hint towards Apple’s idea of what the digital lifestyle and hub are all about. Now, if they would only build iPod support into that new Ginger device....

Alan Graham is the creator of the Best of Blogs book series and is a frequent writer on the O'Reilly Network.

O'Reilly & Associates published (December 2001) Mac OS X: The Missing Manual.