Keep everything in sync with Windows Vista's Sync Center

Microsoft has endowed Windows Vista with a new tool called Sync Center which is designed to work as a centralized location for all of your synchronization operations.

If you have files stored on two computers or on a computer and mobile devices that you need to keep synchronized, then you know how frustrating it can be to have to use several different software packages with different user interfaces for each of your synchronization operations. Fortunately, Microsoft realizes that there is a much stronger emphasis on synchronization. They've endowed Windows Vista with a new tool called Sync Center which is designed to work as a centralized location for all of your synchronization operations.

A little sync background

You may not realize it, but Microsoft actually has a lot experience in the syncing business—going all the way back to Windows 95. In that operating system, Microsoft introduced an elementary, but effective, synchronization tool called Briefcase, which was represented by an icon that lived on the desktop.

Back then, the most common way of using Briefcase was via a floppy disk. In this scenario, you'd drag and drop the files that you wanted to keep synchronized onto the Briefcase icon. You'd then drag and drop the Briefcase icon onto the floppy disk icon in My Computer. You could then take the floppy disk to another computer and then edit the files in the Briefcase folder on the floppy disk. When you later brought the floppy disk back to the original source computer, you'd double-click the Briefcase icon on the desktop and select the Update All command and Briefcase would synchronize the copies on the floppy disk with original files.

When we got to Windows XP, Briefcase was replaced by the more sophisticated Offline Files tool. Of course, by this time networks were more common and Offline Files was designed to use Ethernet rather than a floppy disk as the medium for synchronization.

Within the last year, August 2005 to be exact, Microsoft released a much more powerful synchronization tool called SyncToy. The nicest thing about SyncToy is that while it offers all kinds of sophisticated methods of synchronizing files, its user interface is extremely clean, making this tool very easy to use.

Centralized synchronization

Building on all their past synchronization efforts, while recognizing the plethora of external devices that can now be connected to a computer for the purposes of synchronizing data, Microsoft developed Sync Center for Windows Vista. Sync Center isn't really a synchronization application per se, but it is designed to work hand in hand with the synchronization applications that come with various devices. Because of that, you'll still install the native synchronization application that comes with your device. When you do, Sync Center will establish a behind-the-scenes working relationship with the application to allow you to initiate synchronization operations from within the Sync Center interface. In addition, Sync Center will provide an iconic representation of the device, display a progress bar, report on the results, and alert you to any conflicts that may arise.

An example: Offline Files

To illustrate how Sync Center works as a centralized interface, let's take a look at how Offline Files works in Windows Vista. Using Windows Vista's Offline Files interface, I set up a connection to a folder on another computer. As soon as I did, Offline Files began synchronizing the files and gave me the option to switch to Sync Center to monitor the operation. Upon doing so, the View Sync Partnerships page appeared and I saw connection and its progress, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

SyncCenter provides a front end to Offline Files and displays a progress bar so you can monitor the synch operation.

When the synchronization operation was complete, I selected View Sync Results in the Tasks pane. Figure B shows the result.

Figure B

Sync Center displays the results of the sync operation.

On a subsequent synchronization operation, Sync Center reported a problem on the View Sync Conflicts page, as shown in Figure C. I was also prompted to get more details and fix the problem by clicking Resolve.

Figure C

When a conflict arises, you can get more information on SyncCenter's View Sync Conflicts page.

After clicking Resolve, I saw the Resolve Conflict dialog box which explained the conflict and provided me with two ways to fix the problem, as shown in Figure

Figure D

The Resolve Conflict dialog box provided two ways to solve the problem.

Of course, the Sync Center provides you with the ability to schedule your synchronization operations. As you can see in Figure E, the wizard that walks you through the scheduling operation will prompt you to choose a specific time or an event or action for initiating the synchronization operation.

Figure E

The SyncCenter allows you to schedule your sync operation.

Syncing other devices

When you install a mobile device that can synchronize its files with your computer, you'll see it on the Set Up New Sync Partnerships page.

The current documentation mentions that mobile devices must be Sync Center-compatible in order for them to appear on the Set Up New Sync Partnerships page.

I can only speculate that Microsoft is aiding mobile device developers in updating the software for their most current devices. Furthermore, it's a safe bet that you will soon find Sync Center Compatible logos on new mobile devices.

Windows Vista's Sync Center is designed to provide you with a one-stop-shop for all of your synchronization needs. If you have comments or information to share about Windows Vista's Sync Center, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear.

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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