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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure H:

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

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.