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Synchronize files between PCs, removable devices with Microsoft freeware tool

Synchronizing files between computers and removable devices is harder than ever. Microsoft's freeware tool, SyncToy, keeps files in sync between any two folders, whether local drives or across the network.

Once upon a time, files lived either on your computer's hard drive or on a floppy disk. Now 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. . .the list goes on and on.

Synchronizing files between computers and removable devices has become exponentially more difficult. The Briefcase function in Windows covered some of this territory, but it's gone largely unused: Many people don't even know it exists, and those who do find it, well, let's just say unintuitive.

Back in 2006, Microsoft came to the rescue with a freeware tool called SyncToy. Written using the .NET Framework 2.0, and available for Windows XP, Windows 2003 and now Windows Vista, SyncToy lets you keep files in sync between any two folders, whether local drives or across the network.

SyncToy lets the user set up pairs of folders and define whatever synchronization actions to perform between each pair. The program refers to the two folders as the left and right folders, as per their position 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 also done so on the other. Most people will want to use this option. By default any 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 echoed on 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. Other copying options include being able to include or exclude specific subfolders, and whether or not to check the contents of files (if they're the same runlength) as a criterion for change.

Earlier versions (1.0 and 1.1) of SyncToy were not compatible with Windows Vista, and they suffered from other deficiencies, such as support for UNC paths instead of only lettered drives.

Clearly the single biggest fix has been the addition of support for Vista. Users of the earlier versions of the program should uninstall it and upgrade to the newest version, regardless of which OS they're running. The overall improvements to the program are more than worth it.

About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the  Windows Insight, (formerly the Windows Power Users Newsletter), a blog site devoted to hints, tips, tricks and news for users and administrators of Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Vista. He has more than 12 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to SearchWinComputing.com and SearchSQLServer.com.

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