If you have users who work from multiple computers and need to synchronize, manage, and store files and folders across these computers to stay updated and organized, you understand the kind of chaos that can ensue if you don’t give those users an easy-to-use, effective sync solution. You probably need to synchronize multiple computers as well, for personal or professional use. A myriad of laptop and PC synchronization solutions exist are available to help you, from the simple to the complex, from the free to the costly. In this buyers’ guide, I take a look at synchronization tools and talk about what you need to consider when you’re considering a solution. When you’re ready to choose a product, this article’s table—which lists some popular synchronization solutions and their features—should be a big help with your research.

How Synchronization Tools Work
Many users first encountered the notion of file synchronization when they started using a PDA and needed to synchronize its data on their PC. But synchronization has become an essential facet of the entire business environment, regardless of hardware type. Although synchronization remains a vital need for mobile users, this buyers’ guide concentrates on laptop and PC synchronization.

Synchronization tools generally use two-way sync, in which the system copies files between at least two locations. One-way sync is actually a form of mirroring, in which the system copies files to a target location but doesn’t copy them back in the opposite direction. With two-way sync, you’ll find the most current version of a file at both locations, no matter where it was last modified.

Synchronization software typically uses algorithms that analyze file attributes, size, and date/time stamps to determine how or if a file has been changed. If the software detects no difference between files, it takes no action. Some software requires an administrator or user to manually resolve conflicts between file changes, which can be annoying if many files or many file changes are involved. Many solutions now typically use rule sets to simplify the conflict-resolution process and reduce the time necessary for an administrator to review the conflicts.

Sync or Swim
It might seem self evident, but it bears stating that ease of use is an essential quality in a synchronization tool— whether it’s for your IT staff or your users. People don’t have the time to learn yet another complicated new tool. If your synchronization tool is difficult to use, it will be more of time waster than a time saver. It’s also helpful if the GUI is simple and offers fast visual information. Sophisticated users might want the option of using the command line—some tools do offer such functionality, although most don’t. Also, consider what types of files (e.g., documents, spreadsheets, database files, Outlook PST files) you and your users need to synchronize— for example, some tools might synchronize Microsoft Excel files but not PST files.

Another feature you might want to consider is the solution’s conflict-resolution process. You want the product to be able to detect conflicts in which a file has been changed on one or more sources. If your solution doesn’t detect conflicts, you might end up losing files during the overwrite process. Is the conflict-resolution screen easy to read and quick to navigate? Or does it require multiple clicks within multiple dialog boxes to resolve a single conflict? If you have a single conflict, a somewhat complicated conflict-resolution screen might not seem problematic, but if you have dozens of conflicts to resolve, you might find yourself (or your users) spending more time than you want resolving conflicts.

If your users are otherwise occupied or don’t want to have to think about synchronization, the ability to schedule synchronization can be helpful. However, you’ll probably also want to have the option of on-demand synchronization.

Your users will thank you if you provide a solution that offers a preview window so that they can review any changes to be made before the changes are executed. You might also want the option to include or exclude certain files during the synchronization process. A solution that offers logging and reporting features might help you keep an eye on the process and troubleshoot any problems. Finally, for those of you who are conscious about security, a sync tool that retains the security encryption of synced files can be useful.

Types of Solutions
The buyers’ guide table on the focuses on third-party tools that are readily available for a relatively inexpensive price. Many of the tools come from software companies that specialize in synchronization tools. You might also want to take a look at the numerous free products that are available. See the Web-exclusive sidebar “Free to Sync” (InstantDoc ID 97335) for more information about such solutions.

Editor’s Note
The Buyer’s Guide presents vendor-submitted information. To find out about future Buyer’s Guide topics or to learn how to include your product in an upcoming Buyer’s Guide, go to www.windowsitpro.com/buyersguide.