Mobile Computing: Synchronizing Computers

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If you read last week's newsletter, you know I recently bought a desktop to use as my primary PC. My notebook, which used to play that role, is now my backup computer as well as my travel PC.

The key to making this strategy work is the ability to easily synchronize files between the two PCs. The last thing I want is to be traveling with my notebook and realize there are files or e-mails I need on my desktop back home.

With that in mind, I tested Microsoft's FolderShare, a service that automatically synchronizes selected folders between multiple PCs. I've been delighted by how easy to use FolderShare is. Plus, it's free, and a Microsoft spokesperson said there are no current plans to charge a fee.

Here's a quick overview of FolderShare and how it works, so you can determine if it's right for you.

The Back Story

FolderShare is an online file-sharing service originally developed by a small company, ByteTaxi, in Austin, Texas. Microsoft acquired FolderShare in November 2005 to incorporate into Windows Live, its offering of Web-based tools.

FolderShare is designed to securely keep files synchronized between two or more computers via a real-time synchronization utility. You can also use FolderShare to share files with others. And you can remotely download your files from any computer using a Web browser.

Working in a peer-to-peer fashion, FolderShare doesn't permanently store any of your fines on a central server. As a result, both computers must be online at the same time in order to sync your files.

"Peer-to-peer" is a term that makes many people nervous, as some peer-to-peer services have been notorious hangouts for spyware, identity thieves, and other security risks. But FolderShare encrypts all files and messages exchanged to ensure user privacy, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. All communication via FolderShare is authenticated with RSA and encrypted with Advanced Encryption Standard via Secure Socket Layer.

The Experience

I found FolderShare to be easy to use. It instantly synchronized my designated files between my Internet-connected laptop and desktop PCs. I've experienced no problems with it whatsoever.

To begin, you download the FolderShare Satellite software onto each computer you want to synchronize. During installation, you create a FolderShare account with a user ID and password. After installation, click the FolderShare icon in the system tray, log in to your FolderShare account, and select each folder that you want to sync (one at a time).

Once FolderShare is installed on both your Internet-connected computers, any change made to a file in a FolderShare folder on one PC is automatically synced on the other. The changes happen in the background. If you make changes to a file while one computer is offline, the changes are synced as soon as the second computer has been reconnected to the Internet.

FolderShare will mirror selected folders from one computer onto one or more secondary computers, including your My Documents folder. There's no need to set up identical file structures between the computers you want to synchronize.

FolderShare has some limitations. Files larger than 2GB in size can't be synced, according to Microsoft. Also, you can create up to ten folders with up to 10,000 files each. While that's an extremely generous limit that few people would exceed, it's not unlimited.

Also, it's cumbersome to synchronize Microsoft Outlook between computers, though it is possible. File conflicts can occur if you have Outlook open on more than one synced computer at a time, and FolderShare can't merge existing Outlook data from different computers. One PC must be designated the "master" Outlook source.

As a workaround, I use Migo software on a USB thumb drive. Migo creates a profile of my desktop PC, which includes my Outlook data, among other things. The profile is stored on the USB drive. The net effect: After Migo synchronizes my profile on the USB drive, I can then access the data within that profile easily just by plugging the drive into my notebook's USB port. It's an easy, simple way to carry your most recent Outlook e-mail and other items from one computer to another, and back again.

Is FolderShare for You?

If you need to use multiple computers, FolderShare can make life a lot easier. For instance, the service can give you fast, easy access to files you created on your office PC from your home PC. There's no need to sign up for remote-access services, many of which charge monthly fees. You don't have to remember to copy files from one PC to another, as long as you've previously set up your My Documents or other folder containing the files you want to be synced. And having files automatically stored on two or more PCs provides you with a default backup. Should one PC's hard drive crash, you've still got your important files on a second PC.

In short: Because FolderShare is so easy to use, unobtrusive, and free, I can't see why you wouldn't want to use it.

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