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Keeping Computers in Sync

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about keeping multiple computers in sync, waiting for Microsoft Vista and installing multiple security programs.

I travel among three locations and I currently lug an eight-pound Dell laptop. I would like to change this to having “permanent” PCs (either Windows or Mac) at each of the three locations. What software can I use to keep them in sync?

I recommend a product called FolderShare (www.foldershare.com), which is now owned by Microsoft, or a competing product called BeInSync (www.beinsync.com). Both do the job, though they differ. FolderShare can synchronize selected folders among groups of computers, including mixed groups of Windows and Macintosh computers. For instance, all the files in your My Documents folder on a Dell can be synchronized with all the files in the My Documents folder on an HP, or with all the files in the Documents folder on a Mac. But it doesn’t synchronize contacts and calendar items in Microsoft Outlook. BeInSync doesn’t work with Macs, but it does synchronize Outlook items, in a limited fashion.

I was considering buying a new PC now but was wondering if I need to wait until Microsoft Vista is released. I understand Vista only works on certain PCs. What is your advice?

My advice depends on your needs. PCs preloaded with Vista won’t be available until January, 2007, and possibly later, if Vista’s release date slips again. So if your current machine is essential in your life or work, and is on its last legs, or is seriously failing to meet your needs, you shouldn’t wait. But if you can go another six to nine months with your PC, I’d suggest waiting until you can buy a machine with Vista preloaded.

It is certainly possible to get a computer now that can be upgraded to Vista. But with any major new Windows release, there can be surprises and quirks in the upgrade process. Preloaded factory machines can also exhibit problems with a brand-new operating system, but they are likely to be fewer than what an upgraded PC would experience. A factory-loaded Vista PC may also be cheaper, because you will very likely have to add more memory to a current PC in order to run Vista well.

I have just installed a new security program that has both antivirus and firewall protection. To install it, I had to remove AdAware, Spybot and Microsoft Firewall. My question: Is one program enough, or should you install multiple programs to insure safety?

First of all, two of the programs you removed, AdAware and Spybot, perform a function your new software probably doesn’t — they detect and remove spyware and adware. Antivirus and firewall programs don’t typically do this. So I would re-install them and use them.

However, I don’t recommend using multiple antivirus or firewall programs, and neither does Microsoft or the major security-software vendors. Redundant programs can get in each other’s way and cause conflicts and confusion. The result may be that some malicious software sneaks through or that some innocent files are blocked. So pick one antivirus package and one software firewall and stick with them.

* * *

Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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