In-Depth

Keep Data in Line, Most of the Time

For synchronizing data on PocketPCs and Smartphones, ActiveSync 3.8 is easy enough to use, but many users say OS and phone service issues can knock it off balance.

Sometimes, the best utilities are the least glamorous. They do what they do and they do it well. Microsoft's ActiveSync 3.8, the latest version of its data synchronization software for PocketPCs and Smartphones, fits that bill. It seamlessly syncs up files—such as e-mail, contacts and calendar items—between mobile devices and PCs. And it's usually pretty efficient, according to Redmond readers.

"It has been seamless and the client devices are very easy to configure," says Vinit Kohli, director of MIS at Sibcy Cline, a residential real estate company in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Microsoft has done a good job in making it as easy to sync up as possible. Even when people are first learning how to use the software, we hardly spend more than 15 minutes synching up with these devices."

However, as the mobile devices that use ActiveSync have become more elaborate and more capable—sporting state-of-the-art Secure Digital (SD) cards and phone services—ActiveSync has been slow to keep pace. As a result, the synching process can sometimes be a bit sub-par.

"It can be a bit buggy, especially where the phone service is concerned," Kohli admits. For example, Kohli does his synchronization primarily through a wireless connection. He uses ActiveSync to sync up his e-mail, contacts and calendars on his Sprint Audiovox 6600 PocketPC phone with the data on his corporate Exchange server.

Vinit Kohli, Director of MIS, Sibcy Cline Inc. "Even when people are first learning how to use the software, we hardly spend more than 15 minutes synching up with these devices."

Vinit Kohli ,
Director of MIS, Sibcy Cline Inc.

"I have a lot of issues with the Sprint phone service conflicting with Active-Sync," he says. If the phone service kicks in when ActiveSync is running, the entire device freezes up and locks him out. "The only way to get the device back up and running is to pull out the battery and reboot. It's crazy." Misery must love company, because Kohli isn't alone in facing this issue. "I was in a Microsoft seminar last month with five other PocketPC users, with service from different carriers, Cingular, Sprint and others," he says. "They all said the same thing. If the phone service kicks in, ActiveSync freezes up and locks up the device."

That problem is most likely due to ActiveSync 3.8's inability to broker between services and its less-than-robust error handling capabilities. In fact, when Microsoft rolled out Windows Mobile 5.0 software in May, it also announced ActiveSync 4.0 that it billed as having "more robust error handling features."

Until the new version is widely available, however, users will continue having problems. Wesley Bielinski, network administrator for the American Board of Medical Specialties in Evanston, Ill., uses it to synchronize data between multiple handheld and desktop devices. He syncs his e-mail, contacts and calendars on an HP 4150 and an HP 6315 with Outlook on his PCs at work and at home. Sometimes, he says, ActiveSync syncs up all his files in two minutes. Other times, it takes up to 15 minutes and hangs up. Seldom, if ever, can he pinpoint a reason for the difference.

"There are a lot of quirks that are very annoying. Just yesterday, it was synching a favorite and two files. It just froze on them," Bielinski says. "It couldn't tell me which file was having a problem, so I ended up having to remove all the files, sync it, put the files back on and then sync it again. I should be able to just pop it in and forget it, but I can't. It requires some babysitting and I wish it were more reliable."

Microsoft ActiveSync 3.8

Free
Microsoft Corp.
800-426-9400
www.microsoft.com

Start Me Up
ActiveSync's inability to gracefully handle errors is compounded by the inability of most PocketPC and Smartphone devices to do a soft restart. "There is no way to end the task or stop the process," Kohli says. "Basically, you just have a hard restart, and that [means] pulling out the battery."
Kurt Hudson, president of HudLogic, a Flagstaff, Ariz., consultancy, believes the problem lies more with the device and the PocketPC operating system. "When you're sold one of these devices, they tell you that it's just like a little laptop. The big difference is its ability to do error handling. Basically, every time you get an error, you have to restart."

Hudson says he can restart by pushing his pen stylus into the restart button on his PocketPC, but it certainly isn't foolproof. "You have to be careful," he says. "A quick hit will restart, whereas if you hold it for two seconds, it flushes the memory and everything, so you lose your contacts and all that. It's not very elegant."

Still, Hudson is generally happy with ActiveSync. It has saved him a lot of time when synchronizing a Flash application between his PocketPC and desktop system. "It's actually easier for transferring files than moving my memory stick back and forth," he says.

Wireless—More or Less
Version 3.8 of ActiveSync didn't provide anything all that different from the previous version, as far as Bielinski can tell, but now he has more trouble with wireless synchronization. "I can get it to sync up wirelessly once in a while, but now I tend to just stick it in the cradle and do it that way," he says. "It's easier and at least it also charges up the battery."

That could be due to the new security features Microsoft added to version 3.8. As a precaution, it turned off the ability to sync up via Wi-Fi or LAN by default. Users can reactivate that feature by checking off a menu item, but the change isn't very intuitive for users accustomed to the old way of synching. Even after Bielinski made sure he had the settings properly configured, he still couldn't get it to work with a wireless connection, he says. "It's just hit or miss."

Others agree that for the most part, the differences between version 3.71 and 3.8 seem negligible. "I upgraded when 3.8 came out," says Hudson, who has been using ActiveSync with his PocketPC for the past six months. "Usually, I upgrade because I'm looking to have certain bugs fixed, but that wasn't the case here. I don't see much of a difference between the two versions."

Hudson's PocketPC has wireless networking and unlimited Internet service from T-Mobile. It usually doesn't hang up during the synching process. "It doesn't even take five minutes, although I sync directly connected from my cradle of the PocketPC—not wireless—so that may be why I don't have problems."

Where Hudson does have problems is getting everything—his Bluetooth connection, GPS software and ActiveSync—to work together. "I don't think ActiveSync is the problem there," he says. "Once the software kicks in, it seems to work. It's when I'm trying to get the communication between the phone and the other mechanisms like my GPS. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and I can't tell why."

Bielinski has the same issues. "I use ActiveSync with my Bluetooth headset and GPS unit simultaneously. It took me a long time to figure out how to get them all to work together," he says. "The trick is you have to start them up in a certain order, otherwise it doesn't work. You have to get the headset first, and then be in the Bluetooth manager. Then turn on the GPS unit and immediately click on the connection. Otherwise, it will automatically connect itself and it won't work. It's a whole process."

ActiveSync Wish List
For the most part, users are happy with the features and functions that ActiveSync 3.8 provides. If they had their way, though, here's what they would like to see in the next version of Microsoft's mobile synchronization software:

1. Support for more applications. The ability to synchronize e-mail, contacts and calendars within Outlook and Exchange is easy and seamless, but most users would like to see that extended to Excel, Word and other applications. "It shouldn't be something you have to hunt for," Kohli says.

2. Support for multiple devices. "It would be nice if there were a way to keep everything synched," says Bielinski. Currently, it's difficult for him to use ActiveSync to synchronize the data on his two PDAs and two PCs. "If you want to add something like synching with an Internet calendar like Yahoo or something [similar], you're out of luck. I'd like to see it be able to work with multiple devices."

3. SD card synchronization. Although ActiveSync lets users synchronize files by placing them within a certain synchronization folder, it currently doesn't sync up the whole SD card. "That would be a nice feature," says Kohli.

4. Better error handling. When ActiveSync encounters an error—from phone service interference or whatever—it should provide a less-intrusive way to stop and restart the session. "Removing the battery is not a good way," Kohli explains.

5. Remote info wiping. In the event that a mobile device is lost or stolen, Windows Mobile 5.0 can remotely wipe the data from that device the next time it connects to the network. "That would be a nice feature to have in ActiveSync as well," Bielinski says.

— J.C.

Other File Types
Most users say they're happy with ActiveSync's ability to sync up with Outlook and Exchange. As they use their devices for different purposes and put more items on SD cards, they would like to be able to sync up other file types, such as Excel, Word and even photos.

"Once we start adopting more CRM-type applications, I think ActiveSync is going to become more critical," Kohli says. "At that point, I'd like to see more support for synching Word and Excel documents. Right now, I have this 512MB SD card, so I have plenty of space to put my Word documents. It would be great if it could sync up everything on the SD card—if not the whole document, then at least just the changes."

ActiveSync does indeed let users synchronize Word and Excel documents, Hudson says. "You just have to place the document in the special folder ActiveSync creates for synchronization. Some devices don't support that capability, so it's more of a device limitation than an ActiveSync one." He says ActiveSync can synchronize Excel, Pocket PowerPoint, InkWriter, Pocket Excel, Word, Notes, PowerPoint, Pocket Word and Note Taker.

If your device doesn't support other file synchronizations, ActiveSync also lets you drag and drop files between the SD card and the desktop. This will help you transfer files, but it won't actually synchronize them.

Kohli would also like to see support for synchronizing photos. "I have a camera on this device," he says. "It isn't that great, but it's good when you're really in dire straits." He says he uses it to help clarify issues in the server room. He takes a picture of something questionable so he can discuss it with someone. That ensures they both have the same point of reference. "So synchronizing pictures would be on my wish list."

Another issue is ActiveSync's perceived inability to sync up more than one inbox. "I divide my inbox into a couple of sections or folders, and I wasn't seeing an option to sync multiple inboxes," Hudson says. "I really wanted it to do that." Later, he found that ActiveSync does provide for syncing up multiple inboxes, but that the information was buried in the help files.

"Synchronizing subfolders is supported only on Windows Powered Pocket PC 2002 and later and Windows Powered Smartphone 2002 and later, but it does support the feature," Hudson says. "Seems to me a lot of the things people are wishing for are already in there, but not necessarily enabled by default." Consequently, he advises anyone to fully research the ActiveSync help files before concluding that it lacks support for certain features. There may be more to it than you think.

More Information

Learn more about ActiveSnc 4.0 and download a developer's copy here.
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