As more and more households acquire two or more PCs, an interesting new problem that was once solely the province of companies is cropping up in homes. That problem is data synchronization: How do you synchronize email, personal information manager (PIM) data, and other information between two or more PCs, Apple Computer Macintoshes, and other devices, such as Palm OS and Pocket PC handhelds?

For many people, the answer is simple: Set up a home network. You can quickly move data over wired or wireless connections, although this process is often a manual affair and you have to know where your data is stored (in applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, this information is often hidden). Others, however, need a third-party application or service. Let's look at a few solutions I've tried during the past few months.

The Freebie Approach
If you have a Pocket PC or Palm OS device, you already have software (ActiveSync and Palm Desktop, respectively) that lets you synchronize email and PIM data between your PC and the handheld device. You can also install this software on a second PC and use the second PC to synchronize data, effectively moving that data to the new computer. This backup approach isn't perfect for many reasons--Palm devices, especially, feature small amounts of RAM, and many scheduled meetings I've synced this way have been truncated--but it's free and it works. Users who don't own handheld devices must understand where applications store their data or find some other way to move the data. For example, Outlook stores its data files (.pst files) in a hidden folder (Windows XP systems store Outlook data in C:\documents and settings\\local settings\application data\microsoft\outlook). But using Outlook's "Import and Export" feature to move data from machine to machine is preferable, especially if you use Office Outlook 2003, the latest version.

I could say a lot more about using free synchronization tools, but much of the information is specific to certain applications and scenarios. Drop me a note at thurrott@connectedhomemag.com if you'd like more specific instructions.

MSN 8.x
Microsoft MSN 8 (and the upcoming MSN 8.5) offers an interesting way to synchronize PIM data between PCs and portable devices. The company gives MSN subscribers a special version of Pumatech's Intellisync, Intellisync for MSN, that lets you move appointments, contacts, tasks, and notes between MSN, Outlook, and a Palm or Pocket PC device. You can determine how data is moved among the various applications and devices (one-way sync in either direction or two-way sync) with full conflict resolution. You can also use the service to move Outlook data from one machine to another: First, sync with MSN on the first PC, then sync with MSN on the second PC. Voila! Instant PIM backup. Intellisync for MSN is free, but you have to be an MSN subscriber (starting at $21 a month).

Intellisync Desktop
If you don't use MSN, Pumatech sells a full-featured package called Intellisync Desktop (about $70) that provides synchronization among PCs, Pocket PCs, and Palm OS devices. This version supports multiple PC applications, including Outlook, Outlook Express, and ACT!, and offers advanced functionality such as full-featured field mapping and custom filters. IntelliSync Desktop also supports a LiveUpdate feature that ensures the product is always up-to-date.

PC-to-PC Data Transfer
For moving data between Windows and the Mac, I recommend Detto Technologies' Move2Mac ($50), which I discussed in the December 12, 2002, issue of Connected Home EXPRESS ( http://www.connectedhomemag.com/homeoffice/articles/index.cfm?articleid=27565 ). However, Detto also makes an intriguing product for PC-to-PC data transfer called IntelliMover (also $50). IntelliMover helps you transfer an unbelievable amount of data, including all your My Documents files; helps you transfer data from numerous applications such as Microsoft Word, Outlook Express, Netscape Navigator, and Corel's WordPerfect; and includes various system personalization features such as desktop settings and background images. IntelliMover works on a home network, but it also comes with a USB cable to handle the data transfer if your PCs are flying solo.

Mac OS X: iSync and .Mac
Finally, Mac users have a nice (and free) data synchronization solution called Apple iSync, although the application works better if they subscribe to .Mac, Apple Computer's $100-a-year online service. iSync lets you synchronize email, contact, and Apple iCal calendar data among your Mac, Apple iPod, most Palm OS-based devices, certain Bluetooth-capable cell phones, and the .Mac service. If you don't subscribe to .Mac, you're limited to syncing between the Mac and the devices. If you do use .Mac, you can also add multiple Macs to the equation. I use iSync and .Mac to sync my Apple iMac with my Apple iBook, so I'm always up-to-date on the road. The application works well, but its Palm support is iffy and manual, not automatic like the other services. I hope Apple will improve the Palm OS support over time.

I'm curious about how you move data between PCs and devices and whether you have any questions about this process. Please let me know.