How to Sync Your Data Across Multiple Devices

Keep your docs, email, calendar, and contact info updated wherever you are

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True mobility in the digital age means having access to the critical information you need regardless of where you are or what device you're using -- whether it be your office desktop PC or your personal laptop or a smartphone or PDA. Besides having mobile Internet access, if you work on more than one device, you need some sort of syncing solution or strategy to make sure you always have the most recent files available.

Here are some ways to keep your email, documents, address book, and files updated wherever you go.

Web Apps and Desktop Software for File Synchronization

With file syncing software, you can be working on a document on one computer and then moments later log onto another device (laptop or smartphone, for example) and continue working on that document where you left off. That's right -- no more emailing yourself or having to manually copy files over a network. There are two types of file syncing software:

Cloud-based syncing services: Web apps like Dropbox, Apple's iCloud, and Microsoft's Live Mesh synchronize folder(s) between your devices while also saving a copy of the shared folder online. Changes made to files in that folder from one device automatically get updated on the others. You can also enable file sharing, use a mobile phone to access the files, and -- on some apps -- open the files on the website.

Desktop applications: If you're not comfortable with your files being stored online, you can also install software that will synchronize files locally or over a private network. Shareware and freeware file syncing applications include GoodSync, Microsoft's SyncToy, and SyncBack. Besides offering more robust options for file syncing (keeping multiple versions of replaced files, setting a schedule for syncing, compressing or encrypting files, etc.) these programs also typically allow you to sync with external drives, FTP sites, and servers.

Take a closer look these and other syncing apps in this roundup of the Best File Syncing Apps

Using Portable Devices to Sync Files

Another option to keep your latest files with you at all times is to use an external device such as a portable hard drive or a USB flash drive (some people even use their iPods). You can either work with files directly off of the portable device or use software to sync between the computer and the external drive.

Sometimes copying files to and from an external drive may be your only option if you want to sync your home PC with an office computer and your company's IT department doesn't allow installation of non-approved software (they also might not allow external devices to be plugged, though, so it's best to check with them for your options).

Keeping Emails, Calendar Events, and Contacts in Sync

Account setup in email programs: If your web or email host allows you to choose between POP and IMAP protocols for accessing your email, IMAP is the easiest for multi-computer access: it keeps a copy of all emails on the server until you delete them, so you can access the same emails from different devices. If, however, you do use POP -- which downloads your emails directly to your computer -- most email programs have a setting (usually in the account options) where you can leave a copy of messages on the server until you delete them -- so you can get the same benefits as IMAP, but you do have to find and select this setting in your email program.

Web-based email, contacts, and calendars are probably the easiest way to keep your data updated across multiple devices -- since the information is stored remotely on the server, you just need a browser to work with one consistent inbox/outbox, calendar, and contacts list. The downside is that if you don't have an Internet connection, you can't access your email on some of these services. Popular systems include Gmail, Yahoo!, and even the Microsoft Exchange version of webmail, Outlook Web Access/Outlook Web App.

Syncing with desktop programs: Both Google and Yahoo! offer synchronization with Outlook calendar (via Google Calendar Sync and Yahoo! Autosync, which also works with Palm Desktop). Yahoo! one-ups Google with its syncing of contacts and notepad information in addition to calendar syncing. For Mac users, Google offers Google Sync Service for iCal, Address Book, and Mail applications.

Special Solutions

Syncing Outlook files: If you need to synchronize an entire .pst file between two or more computers, you'll need a third-party solution, such as one of those found in Slipstick Systems' directory of Outlook sync tools.

Mobile devices: Many smartphones and PDAs have their own syncing software. Windows Mobile device users, for example, have Windows Mobile Device Center (or ActiveSync on XP) to keep files, email, contacts, and calendar items in sync over a Bluetooth or USB connection with their computer. BlackBerry comes with its own sync manager application. The aforementioned MobileMe service syncs iPhones with Macs and PCs. And there are also third-party apps for Exchange connectivity and other syncing needs for all the mobile platforms.