Utility SpotlightSyncToy 2.0

Jay Munro

In the March 2007 Utility Spotlight column in TechNet Magazine, I described SyncToy, a free utility that makes it easier to copy and back up files from your computer to the network, external drives, or other computers. Using a "folder pair" concept, as shown in Figure 1, SyncToy lets you define one or more folders to keep in sync.


Figure 2 SyncToy uses a paired-folder architecture, where you specify a left and a right directory (Click the image for a larger view)

While the original SyncToy is a tough act to follow, SyncToy 2.0 steps up to the plate by simplifying some choices and adding some really useful new features. Like its predecessor, SyncToy 2.0 is a free download. Running on the client side, SyncToy is not meant as a full-blown backup solution, but it fills the niche of automating repetitive file copying tasks you'd normally do manually.

SyncToy 2.0 installs quickly on Windows Vista or Windows XP and is available in 32-bit or 64-bit versions. You can upgrade from earlier versions of SyncToy and preserve your existing folder pairs. However, you must synchronize your folders first with the earlier version, then do the upgrade to avoid data loss when you use SyncToy 2.0. Once you upgrade, you should sync all your folders again to be sure SyncToy 2.0 is ready to track changes to your folders later.

Folder-pair creation in SyncToy 2.0 is done with a three-step wizard, where you specify two folders, type of copy or sync action, and a name for the folder pair. When you're done, you can preview and run a sync on one or more folder pairs. A useful new twist is that SyncToy 2.0 lets you go back and change the name of the folder pair.

The user interface is intuitive, with comprehensive help if you need it. If you're new to SyncToy, the basic idea is to copy, rename, or delete files between a pair of folders. You define folder pairs on which you can perform various actions, depending on the options you set. Options include excluding files based on file names or attributes, selecting subfolders, or performing file content checks. The file check option calculates and compares unique hash values for each file. By default, it's turned off for better performance, but if you're syncing files that have the same size and time stamps, you might want to turn this feature on.

In the original SyncToy, you had the choice of five different types of sync actions. SyncToy 2.0 offers three: Synchronize, Echo, and Contribute. At first, this seems like a step backward, but on a closer look, the extra two actions previously available were almost identical to other options. When you select an action in the folder-pair wizard, you get a short description of each action in the UI, so it's easy to choose the type you need. Here's how they work:

Synchronize Copies new and updated files in both directions. If you rename or delete a file in one folder, that action is replicated in the other.

Echo Copies new and updated files and performs deletes and renames only from the left folder to the right.

Contribute Copies new and updated files on the left to the right while ignoring deletions.

A new feature with SyncToy 2.0 is the ability to sync multiple folders to the same destination, which lets you combine or sync files from multiple folders on one or more computers. This can come in handy when using multiple laptops synced with a single network folder. So, no more excuses from the outside sales guys that they couldn't save their files to the network.

If you're using multiple external USB drives, you'll appreciate the dynamic drive assignment on folders. Since Windows assigns drive letters on a first-come, first-served basis, drive letters can get mixed up. If this happens, SyncToy automatically scans through all possible drive letters, to find the folder, and updates the folder-pair information.

SyncToy's setup has been improved as well, and there have been a number of under-the-hood updates to fix or enhance unattended execution, metadata location issues, and error handling. You now can also sync encrypted files to unencrypted folders, a boon for road warrior laptop-to-server tasks.

While SyncToy is well-designed and -tested, it isn't part of Windows and is not supported by Microsoft. However, there is a very active and responsive group of people on the SyncToy forum where you can ask questions, get help from others, and give feedback to the team.

Jay Munro is a writer on the Windows User Assistance team at Microsoft, specializing in Internet Explorer. Previously, he was a project leader with PC Magazine labs.