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How do I synchronize Outlook 2003 between a desktop PC and laptop?


How do I synchronize Outlook 2003 between a desktop PC and laptop?

For all its faults, Outlook in its various flavors has many strengths as well.

And then there are those features that are either strengths or faults, depending on who you talk to.

I’ve synchronized Outlook 2003 (and predecessors) between machines much like what I think you’re asking about, and I did it by using one of those slightly controversial features that made what I was doing very easy.

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The “trick”, if you want to call it that, is to note that when using PST files (i.e. you’re not running on an Exchange server) everything except account settings and program options is kept in Outlook’s PST file. That means all your email, all your contacts, all your notes and appointments, everything.

Everything you might want to synchronize.

Now “synchronize” typically implies a two-way update. New messages on each side are copied to the other on a synchronization operation. I’ll be upfront and tell you that this is not that. But if you want to move from computer to computer, as I did taking my work home with me, having everything in a single PST file made it very easy.

“You now have everything from one machine on the other.”

I just copied the PST.

This takes a little setting up.

First, you need to configure Outlook on your two machines appropriately. Whatever email accounts you want to access on each needs to be configured on each, and so forth. Then, on each machine, you need to locate your PST file.

After that it’s conceptually simple.

Use Outlook on one machine. Shut it down. Copy the PST file to the other machine, overwriting the PST file that’s already there. Fire up Outlook on the second machine. You now have everything from one machine on the other. When you need to move back, simply reverse the process.

Note that this approach requires you have only one copy of Outlook running at a time, and that your “current” PST has been copied to the machine running that copy.

Essentially as long as your PST travels with you, it continues to remain the single repository of your email (and contacts and calendar, and so on), regardless of which machine you install it on.

And since I know someone will point it out: you certainly could configure Outlook to simply access a PST stored on an external hard drive, and not even have to worry about copying the file. Home, and your current email, is where the hard drive is.

The downsides are twofold: Outlook’s single, proprietary file format, and what happens when you mistakenly download email without first copying over the “current” PST.

Many people consider the PST file a serious drawback of Outlook. It’s a proprietary format and while damaged PSTs are most often recoverable, it’s still possible for the file to become corrupt and lose data. Personally, I think the convenience of the single container outweighs that, and my own experience with PSTs is that Outlook’s pretty good at not screwing them up these days.

If your current email (and the “current” PST) is on machine A, and you move to machine B without copying the PST over, when you download email on B you download it into the “old” PST. You’re now faced with a situation where you have some email in the PST on machine A, and some in the PST on machine B. The only way to deal with this that I’m aware of (and I’ve done this by mistake), is to pick the one with the fewest changes, rename the PST, and then take it to the machine with the “current” PST, use Outlook’s File, Open command to open it along side the current PST. Then you can copy the messages from one to the other manually.

Now, what I haven’t mentioned are any tools that will magically merge two PST files into a single one. Such a tool could be used not only to recover from the last scenario, but in fact to manage the whole synchronization process. I’m sure that readers who have experience with such a tool will post it in the comments, though I can say that it’s not something that’s part of Outlook natively.

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14 comments on “How do I synchronize Outlook 2003 between a desktop PC and laptop?”

  1. There is a wonderful little plugin tool from Microsoft itself called “SyncToy”. It comes with other PC management tools from the Microsoft Powertoys scala. This could easily be used as synchronization tool for your pst-files or any other data whatsoever. All you need to do is select any folder pair you want to synchronize (or update, other options are possible) and then run it), as you carry your data on some portable media device this is in my opinion one of the most straightforward options, along with the one Calgoo suggests.

  2. I have tried moving the pst file from one computer to another. However when I go to the other computer and download mail, Outlook does not seem to remember the latest mail downloaded on the first computer and downloads it again. I am not on Outlook 2003 but 2007, if that makes a difference. Thanks.

  3. Outlook 2007 is causing the same for me as Rodolfo mentioned — .pst copy works, but all messages come in again — quite aggravating after the upgrade from OL2000, which managed quite nicely to identify new messages vs old while allowing me to keep copies on the server.

    Any thoughts, Leo?

  4. Just a note to say thanks for the advice; it confirmed what I suspected… My need is to read off-line on my laptop e-mails that I gathered on my desktop PC the previous evening (basically no e-mail access at work). I’m not brave enough yet to try setting up replies on the laptop and then copying the .pst back onto the desktop. However, I’ll try it on a development PC first to establish confidence.

  5. I’m running Outlook Express 6. The files are *.dbx files and the inbox, sent, etc files are separate .dbx files – but the issue is the same. If i’ve used email while travelling and opened email on my desktop at home before synchronising then getting all the emails together is a problem. I use synctoy for many other files/folders but combining the two .dbx files into one is something it can’t do. Does anyone have a solution other than the tedious one of doing the sync message by message?

  6. You talk about sync between laptop and desktop – copy the PST, ‘deceptively simple’ – unfortunately, there are other files you need to copy in order to keep the mail download sync’d as well. That’s what I’m looking for. There are several external files that outlook maintains to keep track of where you are in your email download. If you don’t sync those emails, then when you bring your laptop PST to the desktop, ALL the old emails are downloaded – now you have a duplicate of EVERYTHING… very painful. How do you fix that without deleting all the emails from your email server (a solution, but not what I want to do…)

  7. CoffeeGuru, I also use SYNCING.NET. Been about 6 months now. I love it! I have an office laptop (7), home/travel laptop (XP)and a notebook (7). My Outlook, everything in my Outlook, is always identical on all of them. I primarliy use my intenet connection to keep them synced. I also sync several documents and training videos under My Documents. Not a problem at all. It took a little while for the first sync during set up. But the setup itself was quite simple. And the program…I don’t even do anything. It just syncs when I turn on a machine. I’ve gotten very, very attached to the thing, especially when I’m on the road. good program, well worth the money.

  8. if lucky enough to have a pop server that lets you leave email on the server for N days then just make sure u log on to both within N days
    Option->Mail setup->email accounts->
    More settings->advanced tab
    (Remove server after N days)

  9. That can be done indirectly.
    Configure both outlook express and microsoft outlook on the same machine , use outlook express to synchronize the messages , then export to microsoft outlook .

  10. Software based Outlook Sync can simplify the process of cable based sync. For seamless, Over-the-Air sync of Outlook with any Smart phone or Tablet, you need ActiveSync enabled Email system, known as Exchange Mail.
    One option is Google Apps for Businesses although it requires modification to your domain and server settings.
    A simpler one is triosync active sync mail. It is easy to setup and doesn’t require any modification to your email account or domain settings


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