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SyncToy – File Synchronization from Microsoft

by Alan German

OK, so everyone knows that I'm a sucker for file synchronization utilities. So, when I found out that Microsoft was giving one away, I could resist taking a look. SyncToy follows in the fine tradition of PowerToys where useful utility programs developed by Microsoft’s in-house programmers are made available outside of the Windows' operating system. While SyncToy is dedicated to the specific task of file transfer between two directories, it does offer a useful range of intelligent transfer options.

In most synchronization programs, one directory is typically named as the source and appears on the left of the program's main window. The second directory is named as the target and, as you might have guessed, is shown on the window's right side. SyncToy uses a somewhat different screen format and terminology. There are designated left and right folders but, depending on the transfer option selected, either of these can be the source or the target for any given file.

One option is to synchronize the two directories such that any new or updated files in one directory are copied to the other directory (i.e. file transfer occurs both ways). Similarly, renaming or deletion operations that have been conducted in one directory are repeated in the other. Thus, this option gives the best of both worlds - all the most recent changes made to either directory are made to the other, and the files in the two directories end up being identical.

Another file transfer option is Echo, which copies new and updated files from the left folder (source) to the right folder (target), and repeats any renaming and deletion of any files in the right folder that have occurred in the left folder. This option essentially mirrors the source directory to the target, and hence is very useful for file backup operations.

The other options make your head spin! They're probably easier to follow if you think solely about the file directories being the left and right folders. The Subscribe option copies any updated files from right to left but only if the file name already exists on the left. No renaming or file deletion operations are conducted with this option. The Contribute option copies new and updated files from left to right. Renames on the left are repeated on the right. No deletions are repeated. In Combine, new and updated files are copied both ways, but nothing happens to renamed and deleted files. So, pick your poison. There has to be an option for everyone here - somewhere!

The good news is that SyncToy lets you assign multiple “folder-pairs” and each folder-pair can have different synchronization options assigned to it. And, not only can you choose one of the file transfer methods, you can also specify which files should be included, how the file comparison should be conducted, if sub-directories are to be included, and if deleted files should be sent to the recycle bin.

Running SyncToy involves selecting a folder-pair from a pre-defined list. A Preview option runs the selected file transfer method and displays the results without making any changes to either directory. As noted earlier, the file display differs from most other synchronization programs. There is no two-panel display, with full listings of both directories, and the various changes identified with colours and arrows. SyncToy’s display is pretty basic, with just a simple list of the files to be transferred, and each change, based on the prescribed options, having an action (e.g. New, Delete) associated with specific source and target folders, occupying a single line. There is a check box for each file listed that can be left as “Active” or turned off to prevent the transfer or deletion from taking place. Pressing the Run button processes all of the active file transfers.

Depending on your intentions, and the options you have set, some care may be needed before committing to the previewed file transfers and deletions. For example when using the Synchronize function, files deleted in the right folder will be flagged for deletion in the left folder, rather than the still-available files in the left folder being copied to replace the deleted files in the right folder. Similarly, an updated file in the right folder will be set to overwrite the equivalent file in the left folder. Synchronize effectively looks at the newest action conducted on a file as the basis for its proposed action If you are trying to keep the right folder as a backup of the left folder, you should select Echo rather than Synchronize.

As a partial safeguard, both delete and overwrite entries are displayed in red, to highlight these pending file operations. Nevertheless, at least initially, it would be prudent to check each line of the file transfer preview display to ensure that the proposed action to be taken on the source and target directories is indeed that desired. In addition, there is an excellent set of help files that describe all of the program’s operations, complete with exemplary screenshots. So, before you commit your data to SyncToy’s actions, the help menu is certainly worth a visit.

The program provides options to change the file-synchronization method, and the other options that have been chosen, for any folder-pair that has been selected on the main screen. It also allows scheduling of a file synchronization task, and the ability to run a selected group of folder-pairs or all of the available folder-pairs in a single file-transfer session.

One minor downside of this program is that a comparison produces small hidden files – both named
SyncToyDirectoryId.txt – in the two directories being included in the comparison. The program’s operation hints at the existence of such files by indicating that it is retrieving prior comparison data. However, it isn’t clear to me why any such information needs to be stored. It shouldn’t take an age to conduct a real-time directory comparison of whatever changes have been made recently. Still, for most users, these files will remain hidden and - being out of sight, out of mind - will not constitute any problem.

This review is based on an older release (Version of SyncToy that runs under Windows 2000. Nowadays, Microsoft is positioning Version 1.2 of the program (SyncToy for Windows XP) as an adjunct for digital photographers (see:

Bottom Line:

SyncToy for Windows XP (Freeware)
Version 1.2
Microsoft Corporation

Originally published: December, 2006

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