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Using Offline Files in Vista

By Joseph Moran

If you work in an office environment there's a good chance that many — or maybe even all — of the files and folders you regularly use are stored not on your computer's hard drive but on a shared network folder. If so, access to that information depends on having a functioning network connection, which is something you can't always count on, especially if you're a mobile worker.

The Offline Files feature found in some versions of Windows Vista ensures that copies of important data are automatically transferred to your computer so they remain available even when the network is not. Moreover, you can modify those files while offline, and they'll be automatically synchronized with their original versions when the network connection resumes.

Offline Files is available in the corporate flavors of Vista (Business and Enterprise) as well as Vista Ultimate Edition but not in the Home Basic or Premium versions. Because it's ostensibly a business feature, Microsoft saw fit not to include offline files in the home versions of Vista.

To use offline files in one of the compatible Vista versions, begin typing "offline files" into the Start menu's search box and launch the utility when it appears. Then, click Enable Offline Files from the Offline Files configuration dialog. On some systems it may already be turned on. Leave this window open for now, because we'll return to it later.

Now you can choose what you want to have offline access to. You can select either individual files, multiple files at once, or an entire folder — just right-click on the items you've selected and choose Always Available Offline. Vista will begin copying the files to your computer from the network, which may take some time, depending on how much data must be transferred. Clicking Close (not Cancel) will dismiss the status window but keep the transfer process going.

When the transfer is complete, you can temporarily disable your network connection to verify the files or folders selected are still available. As long as you have a network connection, you'll always be working with the network copies of your files. When it's not available, however, Offline Files kicks in and switches you over to the local copies.

Note that the files will continue to appear to be on a network drive. You can also check online/offline status by highlighting a file or folder and referring to the details pane at the bottom of the window. Regardless of whether you're connected, any file or folder configured for offline access will display a green symbol as part of its icon.

When Synching Manually Makes More Sense

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As soon as the network connection is restored, Vista will synchronize offline files with their network-based originals so that if either version has changed, the other will be brought up to date. This is done automatically, but there are situations when you'll want to manually sync your offline files.

For example, Vista will sync files periodically, but not continuously (i.e., each time a file changes). Therefore, it's a good idea to manually synchronize files before you disconnect from the network so offline files are still up to date. Also, if a network-based file changes while you're disconnected (e.g., someone else modifies it), it will cause a sync conflict that you'll need to resolve by deciding which version of the file to keep.

You can do all of these tasks through Vista's Sync Center, accessible via a tray icon from the Start menu or the dialog box used earlier to enable offline files. To perform a manual sync, just right-click Offline Files in Sync Center and click the Sync button. You can also use the Schedule button to force synchronization at defined intervals or after specific system events.

There are several other configuration options you can take advantage of through the configuration dialog we first used to enable offline files. From the General tab, the View Your Offline Files button will let you see all of the files configured for offline access, regardless of location. The Encryption tab will let you encrypt offline files, which will protect them if your notebook is lost or stolen. The Network tab lets you use offline files when you've got a network connection, but it's slower than normal, like when you're on the road accessing the office network through the Internet.

XP (Professional, only) also has an offline files feature. It works much like Vista's, although some of the configuration steps are different. For details on how to use offline files in XP Professional, see Microsoft Knowledge Base article "How to use offline files in Windows XP."

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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