How-to: Synchronise your document folders between XP and Vista, using offline files.

Difficulty: 4

Sync centerI am currently working on two machines, one running Windows XP and the other Vista. I want to share documents between these machines, and I also want any changes I make on either one of the machines, to instantly appear on the other. I have chosen to use my Windows XP machine as my main computer because I like the way it is set up. My XP machine has my entire document collection organised neatly. What I want to do is get to these documents from my Vista machine without manually needing to copy them across or constantly mapping network drives. I want to be able to access my documents by opening “My Documents” on my XP machine, and “Documents” on my Vista machine, with both of these folders pointing to the same location.

This article will show you how to synchronise your “My Documents” folder from your Windows XP computer to your “Documents” folder in Windows Vista. Synchronising your “My Documents” is particularly useful if you have a desktop and a laptop. You can take your documents from your desktop with you on the road with your laptop. This is also suitable if you have multiple computers in your home and would like the documents to be the same on all machines, so you are not fighting with your family over which computer you need to use as all the computers will have your documents.

There are many ways in which you can synchronise two folders between machines in Windows XP and Vista. You could use the Microsoft SyncToy or other file browsers with sync functionality. They will all do the job but I have not yet found a setup that works as well as offline files. The advantage of using offline files is that it is automatic. The documents will show up instantly on both machines (as long as there is a network connection) even though the syncing only occurs when scheduled and as the machines are booted up and shut down. With Vistas new sync center, there is a push towards using offline files, and while this in not what it was designed for, it works very well.

The synchronisation works both ways so you can update documents on any of the machines hooked up to this system and they will all show the same documents, as they are all pointing to the same location. The same goes that if you delete a document from one machine, the document will be removed from the others.

It is recommended that you will have the server/desktop machine on all the time. This does drain minimal power but in my case, my computer completes set tasks overnight (such as virus scanning) so I would not benefit from turning it off. There are also varied views as to if it is better to leave a computer on all the time to protect it from the shock of turning on and off. I have always left my computers on unless there is a storm brewing. Using offline files will still work if you do turn your machines off overnight. The syncing will take place automatically when you have them both on.

This article contains a whole lot of other tips you can use along the way such as mapping network drives and scheduling sync center. This procedure is also a great way to automatically backup your documents in the case that one of your computers fails in some way. You can fix the machine at fault and then copy the files back to it.

There are multiple sections to this article to get the final result, not all steps are necessary, but you will get better results if you follow them all. 

If you would like to connect two Windows XP computers “My Documents” folders, please check out my article “Windows XP: Synchronise two computers “My Documents” using offline files.”

(Update: 29/8/2007) I had to reinstall Vista, so I had a look at what I had to back up. Using this method, as all the data was already on the XP machine, all I had to backup was my email. This made the process extremely quick and easy. Once Vista was reinstalled, a restore of email and reconnecting the folders as explained below was all that was required. 3 months on, I stand by this method as being by far the best.

Defining our folders:

Windows XP and Windows Vistas user folders have a different structure, though there are many similarities. The table below shows which folders we will be able to view through Vista. The Vista Unrelated folders don’t have a corresponding Windows XP folder so we will not touch them in this article.

Xp vs vista

Where as Windows XP has all the “My” folders within “My Documents” folder, and Vista stores each folder individually under the users name (ie C:\users\Chris), we are still able to link each XP folder to a corresponding Vista folder.

If you store your music or movies in another folder on your XP machine, that is fine, we just need to ensure that we share these folders so they can be viewed from the Vista machine.

When you delete files, they still go into the recycle bin and can be restored unlike other methods which can bypass the recycle bin.

An ideal solution?:

After setting this up, it is working really well for me and is clearly the best solution for my needs. While the pros greatly out weigh the cons, it is important that I share all the negative effects as you are getting into some pretty complicated stuff.

FavslashmonWith the folders in your Vista start menu, you may see your computer name. The picture on the right shows this. Working with security settings, you may be able to rename them to friendly names later. I have not been successful in changing them, and I have looked through the registry. Saying that, it is worth knowing that they aren’t local if you make similar changes in future.

Thumbnails of pictures and videos can take a while to generate if you have a lot of files as they are being generated over the network. Once the thumbnails are created everything runs smoothly as a local copy is saved.

If you use offline files, you are using an equal amount of storage space on both machines. This would be the same with other sync methods, you have the advantage that your data is backed up and available to you instantly.

You need to be very patient while working through this article as you are transferring lots of data around. If you press cancel, or stop the computer from making the changes it needs to make, it can be frustrating to get things going again as they were originally. With Vistas “restore previous versions”, it can be recovered or we can set our folders back to their default location in the folder options.

If you change your username after this is set up, Vista will get in a bit of a tangle and will show you blank shortcuts which don’t work. Ensure you create new users instead of changing older users after this stage. If you have changed your username and seen the blank shortcuts, change your username back and Vista will recover.

In a desktop/desktop situation, we will generally be working online which is quite a bit slower than storing data to the local hard drive. If you have a decent network, you should be fine. As our network is quicker than the internet connection, you will not have any speed loss. If you are loading data form an external hard drive and copying to a network location, you are limited to the speed of the network. The way around this is to plug the hard drive into the Host computer.

That’s about it. Move ahead with caution if you have not been too scared. It does work, and works well.

What you need:

  • Computer running windows XP
  • Computer running Windows Vista
  • A network connection between them, configured for file sharing.

Sharing your “My Documents Folder” on the Windows XP computer

By default, your “My Documents” folder is located on your C drive. The path to this is “C:\Documents and Settings\”Username”\My Documents”. In order for other machines to see this drive we must first share it so that the folder is available to the other computers to see it.

exclimationWe are removing much of the security from your documents. If security is an issue for you, please investigate further. Please ensure that you have backups of all your data before proceeding. I see this as low risk of something failing, even lesser of documents disappearing but you can never be too careful.

Please do the following on the host machine.

startClick “Start”


DocpropRight Click “My Documents” and select “Properties”







Docprop2Select the “Sharing” tab

Tick “Share this folder on the network”

Enter a Share name – Both “My Documents” or “Documents” are fine.

Tick “Allow network users to change my files”

Click OK




The “My Documents” folder should now have a hand under it to indicate that it is shared. If you go into “My Network Places”, you should see the “My Documents” folder. It will show up as “My Documents on Computerdescription(Computername)”. Please take note of your computer name.

If you have a music, pictures or movies folder located in another location on your computer, share these the same way. You don’t need to worry about the “My Pictures” folder as it is part of the “My Documents” folder you have already shared.

This concludes the steps on your Windows XP computer.

Ensure we have enough space in the Offline Files cache:

(update: 29/8/2007) This next step is completely optional if you will always have access to your XP computer via the network. If you have a laptop which you move around with you, you will want to ensure you have offline files configured.

We need to have as much free space for our offline files cache as we have data in our “My Documents” as well as music and the like. This should be OK as we can expect our Vista hard drive to be larger than the one on our XP computer.

Offline files iconGo to your “Control Panel” in Vista and open up the offline files icon.



Cp offline filesFind out how much data you want to store as offline files and then give yourself plenty of headroom over this.

As you can see, I am using 121GB for my offline files which includes my documents, pictures and music. There is still plenty of free space.

Select change limits and make sure you have enough space for your offline files.

If you don’t, sync center will report errors and say your cache is full. You can then come in here and increase the size without needing to set everything up again. Sync center will pick up where it left off.

Finding your documents in Vista:


Open up “Computer” and select “Network”



Select your XP computer


My documentsYou should see the folders you have previously shared in XP.


MydocpropRight click on the shared folders and select “Properties”. 

We are now going to set the files to be available offline. This does two things, gives us a backup of our files from our XP machine, and allows us to access files if the XP machine is not on the network or unavailable.

(update: 29/8/2007) This next step is completely optional if you will always have access to your XP computer via the network. If you have a laptop which you move around with you, you will want to ensure you have offline files configured.

While it is best to do this for your documents, it is up to you if you want to do the same for videos and music. I do it for my music, purely for a backup. As we are going to be running off the network drive most of the time, having offline files turned on or off will not restrict our access to these files whilst both machines are on the network.

I have not done my video files as there is around 80GB of them, meaning I would use up an extra 80GB of the Vista hard drive, as well as still having it in the original location on the XP machine.

Tick “Always available offline”.

Select “Sync Now”

Depending on how large the folder is, this can take quite some time. It’s time for a coffee. Syncing is very fast after the initial sync, generally only a couple of minutes, where the initial sync can take over an hour.

Repeat this step for all the folders you have shared and want to sync this way.

Redirecting Vistas folders to the shared folders:

Once all the folders you want to be available offline are synced, we need to tell Vista to get it’s documents from the XP computer.

Go into “Computer”

DocumentsRight click on “Documents” and select “Properties”


LocationIn the location tab, we can see that the default path is “C:\Users\Chris\Documents”

Click “Move”

Navigate through Network to your XP computer and select the Documents share you created at the start.

Click “Select Folder”

Your computer will now ask you if you want to move your current Vista “Documents” to XPs “My Documents”. This means that the documents from Vista will be transferred into the central XP “My Documents” folder. I press “Yes” here but if you have only rubbish you don’t want, or it is a fresh install of Vista, press “No”. Pressing “Yes” is a much safer bet, even if you have to delete files from in your “Documents” later.

If you have lots of data on your Vista machine, this can take a while as you are transferring files over your network.

Repeat the steps above for each of your folders you want to sync up.

Right click on “Pictures” and select “Properties”. Press “Move” and navigate through the network to your “My Pictures” folder inside “My Documents”.

Do this until you have all the corresponding folders pointed to the network shares. Even if you didn’t make your movies available offline, still do this step.

You should now be able to click on the folders in your “Start Menu” and see that the contents of them are the same as on your XP machine.

We are almost there.

Sync Center:

Open up “Sync Center” from your “Control Panel”.


You should see an “Offline files” section.

If you double click on it, you get a rundown of what you have set to be available offline.

Sync center

Select “Schedule” and set yourself up a few rules for when to sync.

I sync each day at 3AM as I am normally in bed then and my machines are left on. You can set it to sync as you login or logout your computer. You don’t even need to do it daily. Set this to best fit your needs.

And that’s it. You now have all of your data from your XP computer accessible from your Vista computer.

To sync your favorites, please read my article “How-to: Synchronise your IE favorites between Windows XP and Vista” as it is slightly different.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and found it useful. Please check out some of my other articles at Inspect My Gadget.

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22 comments so far »

  1. Mark Ristow said, on November 7, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

    Thanks for this article. I tried to do it myself unsuccessfully between my vista business laptop and my xp home computer. I kept getting all kinds of sync errors when I would make any changes to files. I’ll give it a try again using your steps when I have several hours for the sync to take place.


  2. John Dutton said, on November 9, 2007 @ 3:41 am

    Great article, but Offline Files apparently isn’t available on the Home editions of Vista. So there’s no way to do the synch without buying Microsoft Groove (and buying a license again every year!!!)

    That’s unless you know of another way to automatically synch between an XP desktop and Vista laptop…



  3. Inspect My Gadget said, on November 12, 2007 @ 7:38 am

    Hi John

    There are a few alternatives for getting this to work the other way. You could either do the article in reverse, using the laptop as your main file store. This is ideal if your laptop is your main machine. I don’t have instructions for this but the screen are very similar to the article you are using. You may come across similar problems if your XP is home version.Alternatively you could use synctoy which will sync the folders up. The only drawback with synctoy is that the changes only occur on a
    sync. You cans et a sync to a schedule or manually launch it. For more information check out…


  4. Harold A. Rosene, Jr., M.D. said, on November 22, 2007 @ 4:54 am

    Thank you for an especially thorough, detailed and well written solution to the synchronization problem.

  5. William said, on January 25, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for a very detailed article, but reading the above comment it seems I cannot access offline files with a home edition. Is this true? Please mail me asap.
    I have been looking into doing a “breifcase” an alternative option to this, which does do offline files. The breifcase is much more clunky however, and takes longer. Is there any way that I can see offline files from another computer on the network… Do you think you could maybe do a tutorial of breifcasing from an XP (as the main files host) to a vista (just another on the network)? Thanks.

    It is very dissapointing that you cannot sync. If there was anywhere you wanted to do syncing then it would be at home….

    Thanks again,


  6. Derek said, on January 28, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

    Thanks for a very useful article which I will follow to set up my just purchased Vista laptop and existing XP PC.
    Query: if you can help on offline files which I’ve been trying for auto-backup purposes. I’ve experimented with the XP PC and got it to work keeping My Documents on a network drive (just started to use this). Problem is that although I can see the offline folder on the PC all files are in the one folder accessed from a shortcut – there is no folder structure as in My Documents and I cannot create new files in the folder. Any ideas on how you get the same folder structure (as My Documents) to use in offline files. I’ve trawled the web and can’t find an answer.
    Thanks for your efforts.

  7. Chris Duckworth said, on January 29, 2008 @ 7:45 am

    William & Derek, you might be better off using Synctoy as this is an external utility from Microsoft that does not depend on what versions of OS you are using. Synctoy can be manually launched or scheduled easily. Read more about it here. It’s not quite as neat as using offline files, but it does give you more control and effectively does the same thing.

  8. Will said, on January 29, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    Thanks Chris. Very helpful, should do the job nicely. Must just say this is the most useful site I’ve found for years. Usually I spend months looking for articles like this, and I found it the day I needed it. Thanks again.

  9. justin said, on May 3, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    I have successfully implemented this sync from my vista laptop to my xp desktop, and after an initial copying, I synced once successfully. Now, however, I am getting a lot of ‘access is denied’ messages when trying to sync after being away for a few days? Could it be because they are a bunch of openoffice files and MS is blocking them? Whats the best way to reestablish a connection or get more info about this error?

  10. Chris Duckworth said, on May 5, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    Hey justin, I have come across this before. It normaly happens when the initial sync hasn’t gone to plan. It settles down after a while, but there are a couple of steps to get it going again.
    You will need to reinitialize the cache. If you go into offline files options in “Folder options”, hold down ctrl+shift, then click delete files. This will clear out your offline files.
    While you are disconnected from the network, create a new text file in the folder and make available offline. Ensure the sync goes through without error.
    Next time you connect to the network, the rest of the folder should then sync up again(and should stay that way).

  11. Metapig said, on June 30, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

    Great article thanks.

    I think the problem with leaving your computer on all the time is energy consumption. I think we should all be aware of our own energy consumption and leaving a computer running constantly just for convenience is not good for the environment.

  12. Nathan Reuben said, on July 28, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    Hi i would just like to thank you for a great article, it really helped me.
    Many Thanks!

  13. lindsay said, on September 12, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

    using this method, you end up with something that syncs both ways? Ive just a got a vista desktop and would like it to work with my xp laptop. As yet i have not created any files in My Docs vista, but had thought about transfering them over using the Easy Transfer wizard. Suppose I had done, or have files alrady in My Docs, would your arrangement just ignore the existing files in favour of the ones on the XP machine? I have read elsewhere that Sync Center needs to Vista machines to work properly. Does your method get round that? If I run Sync Center currently, with the default file settings, the sync works fine, but the synced files dont show up anywhere! (other than in Sync Center

  14. Chris Duckworth said, on September 13, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    Hi Lindsay, if you “move”(explained above) the location of the documents in vista, to the share drive, the one location is used, and therefor the same files. If you update files offline on both machines, whichever was saved last takes preference, or you will get sync conflicts. Check out this article for another method which uses synctoy. It will give you control over which files are updated from which direction.

  15. Laer Carroll said, on January 6, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Be aware that when you set up a local network that you have to adjust ALL your firewalls to let your two (or more) computers talk to each other.

    MS Windows will normally set up just those holes in its firewall to let file sharing happen. But Norton Internet Security will block them unless you specifically open up those holes or turn it off entirely.

  16. John Swainston said, on May 8, 2009 @ 4:42 am

    A better alternative for those who don’t have the required Vista versions is to use “robocopy”. This is a tool which used to be included in the addon resource packs for the server editions of Microsofts products.

    Robocopy (robust copy) is a command line tool now included with Vista which allows you to robustly copy files from one point to another. It has dozens of options, one of which is to mirror two directories (/MIR from memory).

    If you have to safely move files between machines I’d definately give it a go. I use it to synch directories between machines over both LAN and WAN links, so it’s ability to retry failures and continue copying a file where it last left off is ideal.

    Just google it for several pages with handy guides on using it.

  17. lindsay said, on May 9, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    read what i could but not clear if this will sync happily between Vista and XP. Hopefully GUI is some modified version that doesnt require using a command tool. Is it better than Sync Toy. I havent tried either yet. I would just like something that would sync my docs between xp and vista, without having to move my locations around as described above. Perhaps its not doable?

  18. Chris Duckworth said, on May 11, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    Hi Lindsay, GUI stands for graphical user interface. It’s the front of a program where you can click on buttons. SyncToy comes with a command line tool and a graphical tool. For synctoy to run on a schedule, the command line option is required.
    Synctoy vs offline files – Offline files are always in sync, Synctoy only syncs files when synctoy is run.
    Offline files is the only way I know of to keep identical copies of files on both computers instantaniously. For offline files to work as described above, you need to change the locations of the files, but it’s not so bad when you only need to change the location of the files on Vista, as it is a built in feature.
    If you don’t need your files to be synced any more than a day, there are a bunch of other syncing programs that are comparable to Synctoy, but many of them don’t include the possibility of scheduling. You could manually run them when you need to sync your files.

  19. puti said, on July 24, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    great, thanks man… keep up the good work

  20. Chad said, on February 11, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    Any luck using sync center with windows 7 & xp. I get the files syncronized, but am unalbe to make changes to them on the windows 7 laptop? Permissions are set to full on each folder location.

  21. lindsay said, on March 1, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    Has anyone ever tried using the program Allway Sync?
    I wonder if it does not do what I want – which is just keep my files on various computers in sync.

  22. peter williams said, on March 1, 2012 @ 5:18 am

    Very useful advice (so much easier to follow than Microsoft’s own help).
    It’s noticeable how many more sync programs around (I am a recent convert to Dropbox).
    Between SYNC and DROPBOX things have got much easier.

    Thanks again

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