SolutionBase: Keep multiple computers in sync with SyncToy

Microsoft created the PowerToy utility set to help give added power to Windows XP. The lastest member of the family, SyncToy, can help keep multiple copies of the same file synchronized. In this article, Greg Shultz shows you how it works.

Chances are that as a Windows user you're familiar with the Microsoft's free PowerToys. Well, Microsoft recently added a new tool called SyncToy to the PowerToys set of handy utilities. As the name implies, SyncToy is a synchronization tool designed to assist you in for maintaining duplicate copies of files that you might keep on a laptop and a desktop or a desktop and a network drive. It's like the Windows Briefcase on steroids! Or to look at it another way, it has all the features that Windows Briefcase should have had from the start.

In this article, I'll take an in-depth look at SyncToy and show you how to use it. As I do, I'll provide you with some tips and tricks to help you get the most out of this little PowerToy.

System requirements

To begin with, you should note that SyncToy works with both Windows XP Professional and Windows XP Home Edition. However, Microsoft strongly suggests that you install all critical and recommended Windows Updates prior to installing SyncToy. In fact, SyncToy requires that you upgrade Windows XP to SP2. In addition to the SP2 requirement, SyncToy requires that you have Microsoft .NET Framework version 1.1 installed.

In the hardware department, the minimum requirements for installing SyncToy are:

  • 1GHz Intel P3 processor or equivalent
  • 256MB RAM, 512MB RAM recommended
  • 20MB free disk space

To determine if you already have the .NET Framework installed, begin by clicking Start button, selecting Control Panel, and then double-clicking the Add or Remove Programs icon. When you see the Add or Remove Programs window, scroll through the Currently Installed Programs list and look for Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1.

If you see it listed, make sure that you also have Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 Hotfix listed. If you don't see the Hotfix listed, follow the instructions below for installing Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 Service Pack 1.

If you don't see Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 in the Currently Installed Programs list, point Internet Explorer to the Windows Update site (, select the Custom button, select the optional software category, and look for Microsoft .NET Framework. When you do so, you'll find two versions of Microsoft .NET Framework--1.1 and 2.0. Since SyncToy specifically requires 1.1, you must download and install it. (If you bypass 1.1 and go straight to 2.0, SyncToy will not install.)

In addition to .NET Framework 1.1, you need to install Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 Service Pack 1. To do so, point Internet Explorer to the Windows Update site (, select the Express button and allow Windows Update to scan your system. Because you have Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 installed, Windows Update will recommend Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 Service Pack 1 in the High Priority Updates section. Just follow the online instructions to download and install it.

Downloading and installing SyncToy

SyncToy is available as a free download from the Microsoft Download Center. However, keep in mind that while Microsoft ensures that SyncToy, or any of the other PowerToys for that matter, will work as described, they stop short of guaranteeing them. Furthermore, they're not officially supported by Microsoft, which means that Microsoft Technical Support will not answer questions on problems with SyncToy. Nevertheless, I've been using this tool quite extensively for some time now and haven't encountered any major problems.

When you arrive at the SyncToy download page, just follow the onscreen instructions for the Genuine Windows Validation procedure and begin the download. Once you've downloaded the Setup.msi file, just double-click the file to launch the SyncToy Setup Wizard. Then, follow along to install SyncToy. When the installation is complete, you'll find the SyncToy shortcut on the All Programs menu.

Getting started with SyncToy

The first time that you run SyncToy, you'll find that it sports a very straight forward interface. As you can see in Figure A, the opening screen prompts you to select a pair of folders that you want to keep in sync. As you can see, for simplicity the folders are designated as the Left Folder and the Right Folder. More about these folders in a moment.

Figure A:

The SyncToy interface is surprisingly user friendly for such a complex tool.

When you click the Create a New Folder Pair button, you'll launch a four page wizard that will walk you though the operation of selecting your folder pair, which can exist on the same computer or on separate computers connected to a network. As you can see in Figure B, you're first asked to specify the Left Folder by clicking the Browse button.

Figure B:

On the first screen of the wizard you're first asked to select the Left Folder.

Once you select the Left Folder and click Next, you'll be prompted to select the Right Folder. As you can see in Figure C, for my example sync operation I've selected the TechRepublic folder on my local drive and a backup folder on a network file server.

Figure C:

This example folder pair consists of a folder on a local drive and a backup folder on the network.

After you've chosen your folder pair, the next page in the wizard, prompts you to choose one of the five synchronization methods, as shown in Figure D. As you can see on first glance, SyncToy provides you with some very interesting synchronization methods. Let's take a closer look at each one before we move on.

Figure D:

SyncToy provides you with your choice of five different synchronization methods.

The synchronization methods

The key to getting most out of the SyncToy is having a good understanding of how the different synchronization methods work and what they accomplish. As you read through each of these descriptions pay attention to how the synchronization method works with the Left and Right folders in relation to which folder is the source and which folder is the destination.


The Synchronize method is probably the most obvious and it will make the two folders in the pair mirror each other. As it does so, it will keep the latest changes made to the files in either folder. More specifically, new and updated files are copied both ways. Renames and deletes on either side are repeated on the other.

This synchronization method is ideal for use with two computers, such as a laptop that you take home with you and the desktop computer in your office. You keep copies of your documents on both, and change often occurs on both computers. You want SyncToy to notice additions, deletions, changes, and renames on both computers, and then accurately bring the folders back in sync.


The Echo method is slightly different than the Synchronize method in that it will make copies of files that are new and changed, except Echo only works left to right. In other words, any new and updated files in the Left Folder are copied to the Right Folder. Renames and deletes on the left are repeated on the right.

This synchronization method is ideal for backup operations as well when you travel with a laptop for extended periods of time. When you want to backup or when you return, you want SyncToy to notice the files you added, changed, deleted, and renamed in the Left folder, and you want SyncToy to recreate those additions, changes, deletions, and renames in the Right folder.


The Subscribe method is designed to check files that exist on both the Left and Right Folders and if any changes have been made, the updated files will be downloaded. Updated files on the right are copied to the left if the file name already exists on the left.

This synchronization method is ideal when you travel with a laptop and only have a few files with you that will be updated. In other words, existing files are updated often but new files are very rarely added. In this case, you want SyncToy to focus on making sure that the files in the left folder are updated with changes made to those same files in the right folder.


The Contribute synchronization method will add changes from the left folder to the right folder. New and updated files are copied left to right. Renames on the left are repeated on the right. The Contribute synchronization method doesn't perform any deletions.

This synchronization method is ideal you have a compact flash, SD, USB thumb drive, or other removable media that you take with you when you travel. Chances are that you'll have to delete some files on the removable drive in order to make room for new or changed files. When you return to your main computer, you only want SyncToy to recognize new, renamed, and changed files, and you want the new files copied to the right folder. You don't want SyncToy to delete any files.


The Combine synchronization method is designed to make sure that files exist in both folders, without renames or deletes. New and updated files are copied both ways. The Combine synchronization method is the same as the Synchronize method except that it doesn't pay attention to renamed and deleted files.

This synchronization method is ideal if you work with two computers and regularly add documents to both computers. You rarely delete or rename files and when you do, you really don't want the deleted or renamed files duplicated on the other computer. Basically, you just want SyncToy to ensure that all files in these folders exist on both the Left and Right folders.

Keeping the Left and Right folders straight

As you decide which synchronization method you want to use, you need to pay attention which folder, the Left Folder or the Right Folder, is configured as the source and which folder is configured as the destination. For example, the Subscribe synchronization method specifically operates by updating the destination/ Left Folder with the newer file in the source/Right Folder. On the other hand, the Echo synchronization method operates by updating the destination/ Right Folder with the newer files in the source/Left Folder.

Don't worry

All these different synchronization methods might make you feel a bit anxious about loosing files. However, you can relax, because SyncToy performs the copy, rename, and delete operations just like Windows Explorer does. Any copied or renamed files can easily be reverted and any deleted files are moved to the Recycle Bin where they can be recovered if necessary.

Continuing with the example

Now that you have a good idea of how SyncToy's synchronization methods work, let's return to our example. As you'll remember, I selected the TechRepublic folder on my local drive and a similarly named backup folder on a network file server. Since I want to perform a backup operation, I've selected the Echo synchronization method and clicked Next.

The next page in the wizard will prompt you to name your folder pair, as shown in Figure E. This named folder pair will save your settings and preferences for future synchronization operations. In addition, SyncToy saves a "snapshot" for each folder, which lists all the files and certain information about them, such as the size, date/time, and optionally the SHA1 hash of the file's contents. All this information is used to make future synchronization operations more efficient.

Figure E:

As the last step in the wizard, you'll be prompted to name your folder pair.

When you click Finish, you you'll see a summary of the synchronization operation on the main SyncToy screen, as shown in Figure F. If you wish, you can change the synchronization method by clicking Change Action. In addition, you can click Change Options and alter any of the options shown on the summary page.

Figure F:

The summary page provides you with an overview of the synchronization operation you've chosen.

However, the nicest feature on the summary page is Preview. When you click the Preview button, you'll see a very comprehensive list of all the files and the types of operations that will be involved in the synchronization operation you've chosen, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G:

The Preview provides a very comprehensive list of all the files and the types of operations that will be involved in the synchronization operation you've chosen

In addition to allowing you to look over every file operation that will occur in the synchronization operation, the Preview screen also provides you with the option to exclude certain file operations, simply by clearing the Active check box. And, if you decide that you want to cancel the operation for any reason, just click the Close button and you'll return to the summary on the main SyncToy screen.

However, if you're satisfied with the changes displayed in the Preview screen, you can launch the operation by clicking the Run button. When you do, SyncToy will keep you apprised of each file operation as it's happening. When SyncToy is done, you'll see the Results screen shown in Figure H.

Figure H:

The Results screen shows you a tally of all the file operations that occurred during the synchronization operation.

A great addition to the PowerToy family

SyncToy is the newest addition to Microsoft PowerToys set and is a very powerful little utility that offers you a number of different types of synchronization methods. As I've shown you in this article the user interface is well designed and provides you with all the control you need to easily and successfully keep multiple computers synchronized.

By 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.