Sync It, Sync It Good, Part 2

In Part 1 of "Sync It, Sync It Good" (see the URL below), I discussed some of the strategies you can use to synchronize data personal settings and other information between two or more PCs. This scenario is increasingly important as more people add to, rather than replace, existing PCs. Thanks to increasingly powerful PCs, a 2- or 3-year-old PC is no longer the barely usable piece of junk it would have been a decade ago; now, old PCs are often just as useful as new ones, especially if high-powered 3-D games aren't your thing. Data synchronization is even more important for people who purchase notebook computers. Nothing compares with being stuck 3000 miles from home and realizing you don't have the latest version of a file or the updated version of your contacts list that includes your brother's new phone number.

I recently visited Germany, in part for work and in part for play: I was scheduled to speak at an IT show called Windows-Forum 2003 and decided to take a week off and visit the country with my wife. I had no easy way to email or call someone back at home for information, so data synchronization really came into focus. If I had left the house without the right data, life could have become difficult.

Unfortunately, my data-synchronization techniques are haphazard and not easily reproducible. What I really need is an advanced version of Apple Computer's iSync, one that runs on both Windows and Macintosh and lets me synchronize data through a Web-based service so that I can get remote access to that data even when I don't have my PC. Alas, such a service doesn't yet exist, at least not to my knowledge. However, I was interested to see how other people handled this problem and turned for advice to the excellent feedback I received from the first installment of "Sync It, Sync It Good."

Reader Craig Vogel correctly noted that data replication often encompasses two tasks: backup and sharing. Backing up data is pretty obvious, and most people will use whatever backup tools and media they have handy to perform this task. Vogel specifically addressed calendar sharing, a topic we've touched on here in Connected Home EXPRESS, but I think we can safely widen this category to include any easily accessible, read-only data access. For example, I push all my most recent contacts and schedule information to a PDA before I travel, but I don't edit any of that information while I'm on the road--it's for quick-access viewing only. Don't have a PDA? No problem: Just print your information. I do that as well, and it still works great. Sometimes, sharing means just that: You want to share schedules or other information with people in a read-only format. For example, I might want my wife to have read-only access to my calendar, but I certainly don't want her to edit it (although, frankly, I'd probably be more organized if she could). Programs such as Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Calendar, and Apple's iCal let you do this, and MSN users can push schedules to remote servers or PDAs.

A few readers mentioned manual ways to copy data between two or more PCs, and I suspect that's how most people synchronize data. If you understand where your data is stored, you can copy it fairly easily. However, some data is curiously difficult to find, such as Outlook Express email or Outlook .pst files, which store email, calendar, contacts, and other information. Most Windows versions store these data files in hidden folders. However, if you're interested in synchronizing this data between two or more computers, you can configure both Outlook (in Tools, Options, Mail Setup, Data Files) and Outlook Express (in Tools, Options, Maintenance, Store Folder) to store data in other, more easily accessed locations. (MSN users have this ability automatically by installing MSN on two or more systems, and .Mac subscribers can back up and share personal information manager--PIM--data.) One reader even noted that he uses VBScript to automate the process of moving data between two PCs, but this solution isn't easy for the faint of heart or technically disinclined.

For backup, most Windows versions (and Macs with .Mac) come with acceptable software backup applications, but I prefer applications such as Roxio's Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 for backing up to optical media. My documents, email, and data files take up so much space that I have to use several recordable DVDs to make a full backup, so I also back up crucial data to other machines on the network when possible. I travel a lot, so my most important data comes with me on a notebook computer when I'm on the road. In a simplistic way, the notebook gives me both access to the data I need and the physical separation that I need for backups. If I'm backing up to CD-ROM or DVD, I don't want to leave my backups in the same room as the original PC. If disaster (e.g., fire, theft) strikes, I could lose my backup data and the PC. So offsite backups are key, perhaps at work or at a friend's or family member's house.

I've mentioned MSN and .Mac for online synchronization, but reader Stas Novikov notes that Yahoo! offers the same service--without a fee. True enough, Yahoo! Calendar, Address Book, and Notepad are still free. These features sync with Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm OS handheld devices, Lotus Organizer, and ACT!. The Yahoo! service handles duplicates, conflicts, and auto field mapping, thanks to a special version of IntelliSync for Yahoo!. You can also find pay services that offer online disk space for backup, but I think local backups to other hard disks, PCs, and optical disks (or even Zip disks if your needs are smaller) are more viable for most people.

I've touched only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to synchronizing data. Thanks to everyone who wrote; please keep those suggestions coming!

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.