Like most notebook users, I soon discovered that portability comes at a cost: keeping your data synchronised can be a chore. Often, you need the same set of documents, spreadsheets and other files on both your notebook and desktop, but end up not knowing where the latest version resides.
Checking file dates and content manually is for the birds. Luckily, Windows XP Professional comes with a feature that takes some of the drudgery out of data management: Offline Files.
As the name implies, these are special folders that are designed to be used when you are not connected to a network. The Offline Files feature is easy to set up and to use, but it is worth delving a bit deeper into some hidden features to make the most of it.
Let’s start with setting up the computer to use Offline Files: open up My Computer (or any folder), and click on the Tools menu, and select the Folder Options item. In the dialogue that pops up, select the Offline Files tab (see FIGURE 1).
On the Offline Files page, tick the Enable Offline Files box — and pay attention to what the options below that one do, because their description omits an important point. If you don’t select both Synchronize all offline files when logging on and Synchronize all offline files when logging off, you will get the complete version of the file, but it might not be the latest one. Microsoft calls this “quick synchronisation”, because it’s faster and less thorough than full synchronisation, but it might not be what you want.
Next, decide whether or not you want Windows XP to remind you to synchronise your data when working offline, and how often it should do so. If you enable this, you’ll see a balloon pop up at the selected interval, in the Systray. Clicking on it starts up the Offline Files Status dialogue, from where you can start up synchronisation and change the settings above.
Be careful with the Encrypt offline files to secure data option if you have applications that need to access the files and which don’t understand Windows encryption. Otherwise, it’s a useful method to keep data on network shares inaccessible to other users. Leave the slider with the disk space allocated for automatically cached network files at its default setting for now. Take a look at the Delete Files and View Files buttons: the former lets you delete local copies of the offline files, and the latter lets you check which files are stored in the Offline Files folder.
The Advanced button sets the Offline Folders behaviour when the network connection is lost — you can have Windows tell you, and start up Offline Files, or not start it up at all. It sounds like an odd feature, but there is an Exception List into which you can enter the computer(s) that you wish to exempt from the default Offline Folders behaviour. In other words, this lets you fine-tune which systems you want Offline Files to synchronise with.
Next, you need to create a folder on a network share, right-click on it, and select Make available offline. That’s it: you can now start storing files on the network folder, work with them on another computer, and let Windows XP synchronise the two copies for you automatically. Advanced Windows XP administrators who want to fine-tune Offline Folders can do so by firing up the Microsoft Management Console (MMC, Start-Run-mmc), and loading the Group Policy stand-alone snap-in. Click OK to accept all the defaults such as keeping the Local Computer Policy name, until you see the Console Root window.
Drill down in the Local Computer Policy tree: Computer Configuration-Administrative Templates-Network, and select Offline Files. In the right-hand side pane, you will find a plethora of options relating to Offline Files, including all the above-mentioned ones (see FIGURE 2).
The more useful ones include Subfolders always available offline, which can be used to exclude subfolders from synchronisation, and Configure slow link speed, which tells Offline Files the speed threshold at which a network connection is deemed to be slow. The default value is 64Kbps, but you might want to increase this value to have Offline Files automatically adjust its behaviour to prevent excessive synchronisations traffic that might otherwise swamp the link.
Please note that Offline Files requires a Windows network and you will need Administrator privileges to set it up completely.