A Preview of Windows Vista’s Sync Center

As a freelance technical writer, I find myself traveling a lot to various training classes, trade shows, etc. Although I can honestly say that I enjoy life on the road, there is one particular aspect of traveling that has always frustrated me. Because of various editorial deadlines, I usually end up taking my laptop with me whenever I travel so that I can get some work done while I am on the road. The problem is that when I am not traveling, my laptop stays in the closet. When I am at home, I do all of my work on a desktop machine. I store my articles on a file server, and all of my e-mail resides on an Exchange Server. Since I don’t have a VPN set up to my home network, I have to copy any files that I think I might need to my laptop before leaving for a trip. I tend to get a little paranoid, so this usually means that I end up copying everything that I have ever written, all of my business records, and who knows what else.

It’s nice to have access to all of my files while I am on the road, but I have to remember exactly what I worked on while I was on the road so that I can copy any new or modified files to my file server when I get home. Inevitable, I always seem to forget this part of the process, and have lost several articles as a result.

The good news is that Windows Vista has a new feature called the Sync Center that can make this problem go away. The reason why Microsoft created the Sync Center is because users often store data in multiple locations. For example, I already mentioned that I have data stored on a file server and on my laptop. However, I also have data stored on my Pocket PC based cell phone and on my Creative Zen Vision. As you can see, I have data scattered among multiple devices and until now there has not been an easy way of keeping this data synchronized so that there is a consistent experience from device to device. This is where the Sync Center comes in. It allows you to manage the synchronization relationships between a group of PCs, a PC and a server, or even a PC and a mobile device (such as a PDA). The Sync Center allows you to define synchronization relationships, schedule synchronizations, perform manual syncs, abort a sync, or view the current synchronization status.

There are way too many different ways that the Sync Center can be used to cover all of them in a single article. That being the case, I am going to focus the rest of this article on the situation that I described earlier in which data needs to be synchronized between a desktop PC and a laptop.

Preparing to Synchronize

Before you can actually synchronize your files, you must meet a couple of prerequisites. For starters, both computers must be running Windows Vista. You cannot mix Windows Vista and Windows XP for Sync Center based synchronizations. Although it probably sounds obvious, another prerequisite is that both machines must be connected to the network, and you must be able to log into both machines.

That pretty much does it for the prerequisites, but it may behoove you to do some planning prior to synchronizing the machines. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of different ways that you can use the Sync Center to establish and manage synchronization relationships, but I am focusing on one specific task; synchronizing data between a desktop and a laptop. For the remainder of this article, I will refer to the desktop as the source machine and the laptop as the destination machine.

With that in mind, I recommend taking a look at the data that is stored on your source machine. The first thing that you must consider is whether all of your data needs to be synchronized or if some of it should remain solely on the source machine. For example, I have a bunch of digital photographs, music, and home movies stored on my source computer. I typically like to take some of these along with me when I travel, but they do take up a lot of space on my hard drive. Someone else in my shoes would probably want to leave the movies, music, and photos behind so that they could ensure that they have plenty of free disk space on their laptop. My point is that you probably have at least some data stored on your source machine that you do not want to replicate to your destination machine. It is important to make note of what data you do not want to replicate, and the location of that data.

The next thing that you will want to pay attention to is where the data that you do want to replicate is stored. Is it all in one folder, or is it scattered all over your hard drive in various folders? The reason why this is important is because synchronization is folder based. You must tell Windows Vista which folders you want to synchronize, and then anything in that folder will be kept in sync.

This is an important consideration for a couple of reasons. First, if your data is scattered all over your hard drive, it is going to be more difficult to establish the necessary synchronization relationship than if your data was all in one place (or even two or three places). Second, since everything in a synchronized folder is going to be replicated, you will have to move any data that you do not want replicated out of folders that you plan on synchronizing in order to prevent that data from being replicated.

The situation that I described earlier with wanting to keep my laptop and my desktop synchronized would involve using what’s known as a two way sync. This means that any time a change is made within a designated folder on either machine, the change will be synchronized. As such, you should take a look at the way that the files are arranged on both machines to insure that they are arranged the same way. If you have folders in different locations on the two machines, then you will end up with two different copies of the information on each machine.

Before I move on, you may wonder what would happen if both copies of the same file were changed while the two machines were apart. When the two machines attempt to synchronize, Windows would realize that both copies of the file have been updated. As such, the Sync Center would ask you to choose which file should be considered to be the master.

The process of actually establishing a sync relationship is fairly simple. To do so, go into your Documents folder. You can synchronize your Documents folder or any subfolder. You will notice that the folder’s toolbar contains a link labeled Sync With Other PCs. Click this link and you will see an introduction to PC to PC synchronizations. Click the Next button and you will be prompted for the name of the computer that you want to synchronize with. Enter the name of the PC (or its IP address), and click the Add button followed by the OK button. Your PC will now synchronize with the target PC.


As you can see, the Sync Center should greatly simplify life for road warriors who lack the ability to connect to the corporate network while on the go. The Sync Center is also useful however for keeping other types of devices, such as PDAs synchronized with desktop computers.

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