Like most users of Pocket PCs and other mobile devices that run Windows CE, I have a love-hate relationship with Microsoft ActiveSync—the program you use to install software on these devices and synchronize them with a desktop PC. When ActiveSync works, it's unobtrusive to the point of being almost invisible. When it doesn't work, it makes life miserable. For example, if ActiveSync can't communicate with your mobile device, you might have to soft-reset the device or completely reboot the desktop PC. In extreme cases, ActiveSync can refuse to work altogether.

In my personal experience, such problems are rare. However, I learned that other Windows & .NET Magazine authors were having ActiveSync problems on a regular basis. I asked for reader input in the Mobile & Wireless UPDATE email newsletter. Dozens of readers wrote to describe problems that, in a few cases, made their Pocket PCs completely unusable. Fortunately, I also discovered that you can fix most ActiveSync bugs.

ActiveSync's Origins
Before I jump into ActiveSync's problems and how to fix them, let's review the software's beginnings. ActiveSync began as Handheld PC (H/PC) Explorer for the original clamshell-cased Windows CE 1.0 devices. Microsoft changed the name to Windows CE Services for Windows CE 2.0 with the introduction of the color H/PCs and the early, monochrome Palm-sized PCs. Microsoft renamed the product to ActiveSync for Windows CE 3.0 when the company introduced the first Pocket PCs. The earlier Windows CE Services name, however, lives on in the name of the programs that ActiveSync executes when you launch the synchronization software.

Many of ActiveSync's most intractable problems relate to the connection between the host PC and the mobile device. H/PC Explorer used a serial port to establish the connection, which limited its functionality. Windows CE Services switched to using RAS, which is more flexible but complicated—RAS configuration problems accounted for half of all Windows CE 2.0 support calls. When Microsoft introduced ActiveSync 3.0, the company automated the process of setting up Windows CE communications.

ActiveSync 3.5
Microsoft released ActiveSync 3.5, the latest version of the Windows CE connection software, with the introduction of Pocket PC 2002 devices in fall 2001. Although server synchronization with Microsoft Mobile Information Server is the only major new feature in this release, ActiveSync 3.5 includes a slew of bug fixes, better remote connectivity, and support for infrared (IR) synchronization on Windows 2000 systems. (A complete list of what's new in ActiveSync 3.5 is available at http://www.microsoft.com/mobile/pocketpc/downloads/activesync/as-new35.asp.) Most significant, ActiveSync 3.5 greatly improves the reliability of USB connections. Users who have had intermittent problems using earlier versions of ActiveSync can probably resolve connectivity problems by installing the new version.

ActiveSync 3.5 is compatible with Windows XP, Win2K, Windows NT 4.0 (Service Pack 6—SP6—or later), Windows Me, and Windows 98, and requires Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 4.1 or later and 12MB to 65MB of hard disk space, depending on the user's system configuration. The software is available for free at http://www.microsoft.com/mobile/pocketpc/downloads/activesync35.asp. The download consists of a 3.8MB self-extracting package (msasync.exe) that you can distribute to users by using any standard software-delivery tool.

To determine what version you have installed, double-click the ActiveSync icon in the system tray and select Help, About Microsoft ActiveSync to display the About Microsoft ActiveSync dialog box, which Figure 1 shows. The latest English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Portuguese (Brazilian) build is 12007, and the latest Japanese build is 12111.

Pocket PC ROMs
Certain ActiveSync problems might require reflashing a Pocket PC device's ROM. Specifically, Compaq iPAQ devices with pre­ROM 1.87 versions benefit significantly from a ROM update. To determine your device's ROM version, tap Settings, select the System tab, tap Asset Viewer, then select Version from the resulting list, as Figure 2, page 30, shows.

You can find iPAQ downloads (including ROM upgrades) at http://www.compaq.com/support/files/handhelds/us. In addition to the ROM fix, you might want to download a patch for first-time serial connection to Win2K or NT desktops, Bluetooth support, or a driver for various network cards (wired and wireless). Unfortunately, no central Pocket PC ROM upgrade location exists—if your organization uses devices by vendors other than Compaq, you'll need to check with the vendor to determine where to obtain the latest ROM version.

Rebooting ActiveSync
Microsoft provides at http://download.microsoft.com/download/pocketpc/utility/1.00/wce/en-us/asreboot.exe a little-known utility program called asreboot.exe that stops and restarts ActiveSync. The utility is intended to suspend ActiveSync operation while a Pocket PC device copies files for a Microsoft Money for Pocket PC bug fix. The utility uses the Killnt command to terminate the wcesmgr.exe and wcescomm.exe processes. Alternatively, you can use Task Manager to kill these same processes and stop ActiveSync.

The wcescomm.exe process is likely the culprit when ActiveSync refuses to connect to a mobile device. So if you encounter this problem, before you reboot the host PC, disconnect the mobile device, close the ActiveSync window, use asreboot.exe or Task Manager to terminate wcescomm.exe (a soft reset on the mobile device might also help), restart ActiveSync, then try connecting the device again.

Other ActiveSync Bugs
Several Microsoft articles address ActiveSync bugs (you can access these articles at http://support.microsoft.com):

  • "BUG: ActiveSync Reports Unresolved Items When Device Resources Are Low" (295001) explains that ActiveSync might report unresolved items and create a 0-byte version of a synchronized file when device resources are low. To work around this problem, free up resources by deleting files, closing programs, and adjusting the amount of memory used for storage versus programs on the device (tap Start, Settings, Control Panel, Memory). I also recommend that you close all programs, then perform a soft reset to help eliminate memory fragmentation problems.
  • "Money for the Pocket PC: Unresolved Items Remain After Synchronization" (266119) addresses problems synchronizing Money for Pocket PC and explains which account types you can synchronize.
  • "An ActiveSync Restoration from a Backup Does Not Restore the POP3/IMAP4 Tables" (310903) discusses problems restoring backed-up email from IMAP and POP3 accounts.
  • "ActiveSync: 'Unable to Connect to Mobile Device' Error Message When You Try to Use the Windows CE Inbox Transfer Option" (316421) explains that Windows CE Inbox transfer doesn't work on devices that support synchronization of email subfolders.
  • "Messages Are Truncated or Do Not Completely Synchronize" (303895) addresses a problem synchronizing messages with attached Microsoft Word documents that contain embedded tables. To resolve this problem, copy msconv97.dll and mswrd832.cnv files (dated 09-Nov-00 or later) to the \Program Files\Microsoft ActiveSync folder on the host PC.
  • "BUG: The Names of the Meeting Notes and Phone Memo Templates Are Reversed" (324107) explains that Meeting Notes and Phone Memo template names are reversed on the Chinese Traditional (CHT) version of Pocket PC 2002. The article provides a workaround.
  • "PRB: IrDA File Transfer Fails from Pocket PC 2002 to Windows 98 Second Edition" (325753) explains that ActiveSync 3.5 is required to use an IR connection to beam files from a Pocket PC 2002 device to a PC running Win98 Second Edition (Win98SE).
  • "Cannot Synchronize Handheld Devices with Outlook Secondary Folders, Custom Fields, and Forms" (281578) explains that only Pocket PC 2002 devices can synchronize folders, custom fields, or forms.
  • "ActiveSync Generates a 'Synchronization Error' Error Message if the Repl.dat File Is Missing" (281598) explains that an error occurs if repl.dat is missing from the partnership name folder. As a workaround, you can delete the partnership and create a new one.

Microsoft Responds
To clarify some of the points I mentioned previously, I interviewed Product Manager for Microsoft Mobile Devices Kevin Lee. He confirmed that ActiveSync 3.5 includes better communication drivers and noted that Compaq updated the iPAQ's USB drivers in ROM 1.87. Lee told me that this kind of driver update is specific to each hardware device and added, "Because drivers are specific to a hardware platform, there is no central Microsoft repository for OEM-specific drivers. This helps ensure that we aren't listing out-of-date or incorrect device drivers."

Although ActiveSync offers options for synchronizing devices, you can use these connections only after establishing a partnership by using a serial port, USB, or IR connection (Windows CE 3.5 only). I asked Lee whether Microsoft might relax this requirement in future versions. "You can establish a partnership using IR on Pocket PC 2002 devices with ActiveSync 3.5," he said. "We are considering a lot of different 'first sync' connectivity options moving forward, but have not committed to any specific plans .... We continue to invest heavily in improving support for all sorts of wireless scenarios."

My special thanks to reader Renee Osberg, who first alerted me to the benefits of combining ActiveSync 3.5 with a ROM update on the iPAQ. Thanks Renee!