Once upon a time, you could find files in only two places -- either on your computer's hard drive or on a floppy...
disk. But these days, there's more media than ever: USB flash drives, external FireWire hard disks, packet-written DVD+RWs that mount like removable drives, network shares, cameras and phones that double as removable disks and so on. Synchronizing files between computers and removable devices has become exponentially more difficult. The Briefcase function in Windows covers some of this territory, but it has gone largely unused: Most people find it too unintuitive or don't even know it exists.
Microsoft has come to the rescue with a freeware tool called SyncToy. Written for Windows XP and Windows 2003 and higher (since it uses the .NET framework), SyncToy uses a very simple methodology for keeping any two pairs of folders in sync.
The user defines a pair of folders and the synchronization actions between them that will need to be performed. The program refers to the two folders as the "left" and "right" folders, according to their positions in the program's display. For instance, if you have a removable drive you want to keep synchronized with a folder on your desktop, you can define the removable drive as the left half of the pair and the desktop folder as the right half. The program can then run one of a set of actions against the two folders:
Synchronize: New and updated files are copied in both directions. Anything renamed or deleted on one drive is renamed or deleted on the other. Most people will want to use this option. By default, overwritten files are copied to the Recycle Bin, so they can be recovered if need be.
Echo: New and updated files are copied left to right. Anything renamed or deleted in the left folder is also done in the right folder.
Subscribe: Updated files on the right are copied to the left, provided the left-hand folder has a file with that name.
Contribute: New and updated files are copied left to right. Renames are echoed in that direction, but nothing will be deleted.
Combine: New and updated files are copied in both directions. Nothing is renamed or deleted.
If you're not sure if a particular action will be what you need, you can always click Preview in the folder pair's action page to see what the results of running the selected action will be. There are other copying options that, for instance, let you include or exclude specific subfolders and/or let you decide whether or not you want it to check the contents of files (if they're the same run length) as a criterion for change.
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Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!