Langa Letter: Little-Known Options For Syncing Files In Windows - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: Little-Known Options For Syncing Files In Windows

Do you work on files in more than one location or on more than one PC? Fred Langa offers an overview of tools built right into Windows that can help.

Briefcase's Strengths
Here's how Microsoft describes Briefcase:

Briefcase helps keep your files updated when you use two computers by automatically synchronizing multiple copies of individual files. For example, if you use a desktop computer at home, and a laptop computer on the road, you can use Briefcase to synchronize the files that you work with both at home and on the road. Because Briefcase automatically keeps track of the relationships between multiple copies of a single file, you don't need to remember where each copy of a file is located, or which copy of the file you modified most recently...

...When you reconnect your portable computer to your main computer (or insert a removable disk containing the modified files), Briefcase automatically updates the files on your main computer to the modified versions. You don't need to move modified files out of Briefcase or delete the existing copies on your main computer.

The real power of the Briefcase is that it can work on many files from many locations, and keep everything straight. When you synchronize via Briefcase, it will add or restore only those files that are new or have changed, and will do so to the correct, original locations. You don't have to remember where everything came from; and you don't have to remember what files or folders may or may not have changed.

In concept, Briefcase involves five steps: You

  1. Create the Briefcase folder

  2. Copy into the briefcase whatever files and folders you want to sync between PCs

  3. Copy, transport, or physically move the Briefcase to the second PC (via USB drive, floppy, direct connection, etc.)

  4. Use the files in the Briefcase normally on the second PC--you can edit them, modify them, whatever. When you return the Briefcase to the first PC

  5. Then use the Briefcase's "Update" function to merge the changed files from the Briefcase to their original locations on the first PC.

You can see from this conceptual description that Briefcase is overkill if you're just working on a file or two. In that case, it'd be simpler just to copy the file(s) back and forth as needed from one PC to the other. But when you're dealing with multiple files or folders from multiple locations on a hard drive, it's much, much simpler to let Briefcase keep track of what's changed, and what needs to go where.

The theory may sound confusing, but looking at how it works in the real world may make things clearer:

Setting Up And Using a Briefcase Folder
There are a couple ways to create a Briefcase (and it's OK to create more than one Briefcase on your system, too). The simplest way is to right click anywhere on your desktop, select New, and then choose Briefcase. That's all it takes!

If you prefer, you can put a Briefcase inside a different folder: Navigate normally to the folder where you want the Briefcase, then, on the File menu for that folder, point to New, and then click Briefcase. You're done!

There also are several ways to use a Briefcase. We'll focus on the simplest for now: To use the Briefcase, copy whatever files and/or folders you want into the Briefcase; the Briefcase will automatically remember where everything came from. Once you have the files and folders you want inside the Briefcase, you have to get the Briefcase to the second PC.

If the two PCs are physically connected via network, direct cable connection, or something similar, simply drag the Briefcase directly to the desktop of the second PC.

More commonly, you can use any convenient data-storage medium (USB drive, floppy, etc.) to store and transport the Briefcase: Just drag the Briefcase to the USB drive, floppy, or other storage medium; and then physically bring that storage medium to the second PC.

When you're working at the second PC, you can access and work on the files inside the Briefcase as needed and in the normal manner--the files will open, close, save, etc., just like any file in any other folder. But--in this simplest form of Briefcase use--leave the files inside the Briefcase (i.e., don't remove them; work on them while they're still inside the Briefcase). For clarity, we'll now refer to this Briefcase, containing the files you've edited, changed, or otherwise modified, as the "Modified Briefcase."

Later, return the Modified Briefcase folder to the original PC. Most commonly, this means bringing back the USB drive, floppy, etc., onto which you originally placed the Briefcase. Right-click the Modified Briefcase and select "Update All" from the menu (or select "Update All" from the Modified Briefcase menu in Windows Explorer). The Briefcase software will then compare the Modified Briefcase's contents to the files in the original location, and offer to update, create, or delete files, as needed, to bring the file sets into sync. The Briefcase software will show you what it intends to do before anything happens; and you can manually override its actions, if you wish.

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