I, like many people, carry a flash drive with me at all times. This allows me to work on files, primarily for a class teach at Metropolitan State University, wherever I am on any computer I can find. When I’m at home, though, I prefer to not hunt for my keychain (where my flash drive is located) and I like to make changes to my files on the hard drive of the computer that I’m using. Windows Live Sync does a great job keeping all of my computer hard drives synchronized, but then I’m still left with the task of keeping the flash drive that I carry mirrored to my computers as well.
I posted before about a Microsoft tool called SyncToy. It worked great with WindowsXP at managing the files I had on my flash drive and replicating additions/changes/deletions between my laptop and flash drive. Sadly, though, once I installed the Windows 7 Beta on my laptop I started to have issues with SyncToy.
Files that were identical on my hard drive and flash drive were copied back and forth as if they were different (usually due to an issue with the time zone offset it seemed). Other times it just seemed that certain files were overlooked in the synchronization process. These issues did not disappear when I installed the final release of Windows 7 in October so I started to look for alternatives. I see now that SyncToy was upgraded to version 2.1 in November, but I’m not willing to risk the integrity of my data given my recent experience with the product so I set off to find a product that did what I needed.
The program that does everything I need it to do (and then some) is SyncBackSE from 2BbrightSparks. Unlike SyncToy it is not free, but it is well worth the $30 for a task that is so vital to me. There is a free version of SyncBack but I found that it doesn’t manage deletions well. When a file was deleted on my flash drive, for example, the free version of SyncBack would identify that the file was on the hard drive and not the flash drive and it would copy the file back to the flash drive to keep the two identical. SyncBackSE version instead will note that the file was deleted on one side and then delete it on the other side of the folder pair. That is exactly the behavior I was looking for. SyncBackSE offers a host of other settings to fine tune the file management process to be exactly what you want it to be depending on your needs (see screenshot).
In short, I use a combination of Windows Live Sync (to keep files mirrorred between three different computers) and SyncBackSE (to manage files between one of those machines and my flash drive — changes that are then passed to the other computers through Windows Live Sync). It is great to once again have complete confidence that changes I make to files will be available everywhere each time I make them.
I posted previously about SyncToy, a great tool that I use to keep files up-to-date between my USB flash drive and my laptop computer. A limitation of SyncToy, however, was that it didn’t work too well sharing the same folder with two separate destinations. I tried, for example, to maintain the same files on my laptop computer, USB drive, and desktop computer and SyncToy didn’t handle that very well so I have since gone to using SyncToy only to maintain my files between my laptop and USB drive and I occasionally copy folders from my laptop to my desktop over my home network.
This means that if I want to edit a file on my desktop computer I need to jump through some hoops for several reasons:
The version on the desktop computer is out of date.
If the file is relatively new, I may not have copied it to the desktop yet (since I only copy files from the laptop when it occurs to me to do so).
Once I have created or edited a file on the desktop, I have to remember to manually copy it to my laptop since that is my “primary” storage location, especially if I made changes to an existing file.
Throughout this process, it is very easy to end up with two versions of a file that are different even though they have the same name.
I was at a class last week where the instructor spent a few minutes talking about Microsoft Groove, an application that is part of the Microsoft Office family of products that allows sharing/synching of files between computers and users. This sounded like what I needed, but I balked at spending the $115+ to buy Groove as a stand-alone product. And I really didn’t feel like buying Microsoft Office Ultimate since I already own Microsoft Office Professional Plus and the only things I would gain appear to be Groove and OneNote.
After digging around online for a while for a different solution and nearly biting the bullet and purchasing Groove, I remembered an article I read a few years ago by Walt Mossberg that discussed some tools that could sync files between computers over the internet. I was reminded when I found the article (which also mentions Groove, as it turns out) that I had tried BeInSync at that time and I didn’t have much luck with it so I quickly deleted it. I decided to take a look at Foldershare, the other product Mossberg mentioned in the article and was surprised to wind up at a Microsoft site instead. It turns out that Foldershare has become Windows Live Sync and after using this product for just a few days I can already say that it is the answer to my dreams.
A tiny download is all that is needed for each computer (running Windows or Mac OS X) that you want to sync and most configuration takes place through the Live Sync website. That is where you identify the “source folder” on the first computer and the destination folder on the second (and any subsequent) computers. Once that is done, the computers copy files to each other in a peer-to-peer fashion and any file additions/deletions/edits are automatically mirrored to the other machine(s) through your network or the internet when the machines are online.
If a machine is offline (like if you are traveling with your laptop) any changes you make to files in your shared
folders will be made to the other locations when your computer goes online the next time. Best of all, this activity takes place in the background so you really don’t know that it is happening unless you click on the icon in the status bar of your computer. If you are really curious, you can click on the icon and be taken to any of the shared folders on your PC, the live sync website, or you may view the status of files including those that have recently been changed/shared.
In addition to synchronizing files, a byproduct of using Windows Live Sync is that you now have backups of (likely) your most important and often used files. Once you have the folders up and running on more than one computer, there are copies of all of the files in those folders on each machine so you have effectively backed up your data without even thinking about it.
In short, Windows Live Sync, does exactly what I need it to do without much interaction from me once it was set up (and that was very easy as well). Interestingly, Microsoft offers a similar application called Live Mesh that might be worth a look, but I’m going to hold off investigating that for now since Live Sync is 100% aligned with my needs and Live Mesh is currently in Beta so it could be buggy.
USB flash drives (also called jumpdrives or thumb drives) are great devices, but if you edit documents on your flash drive that you also use on your hard drive, how do you keep track of which file is the more current version? And once you figure that out, how do you copy the “current versions” from your flash drive to your computer and vice versa?
Enter SyncToy, now in version 2.0, by Microsoft. SyncToy is available as a free download for Windows and once you set up the relationship between your flash drive and a folder (or set of folders) on your computer it is a simple matter of inserting the flash drive into a USB port and clicking a button each time you want synchronize your files.
Furthermore, SyncToy isn’t useful only when managing files between a computer and a flash drive. Maybe you copied an Excel file from your PC to your laptop so you could take it on the road, but now you have two versions of the same file in two locations. Without a tool like SyncToy it would be very easy to miss copying the edited files to back to your main data storage location or you might accidentally copy an older version of a file over the top of a more recent version.
I use SyncToy extensively because I use four different computers to create/edit my documents for a class that I teach. On 3 of the computers I store new/edited files on my flash drive with the hard drive on my laptop being my main storage location. In the 2+ years I have used SyncToy (starting with version 1.4) it has never caused me any trouble and it has made my life significantly easier. It is one of those programs that is “just there” and it “just works” — something that can not be said often enough about other applications unfortunately.