Syncing settings and data on multiple Windows 10 PCs

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. I have three Windows 10 computers, one at the office, one at home, and a traveling laptop. Is it possible to sync all these computers together so I don't have to constantly edit settings or transfer data files back and forth?

A. Windows 10 allows you to sync your Windows settings and data files across multiple computers so that changes made on one computer automatically update all your computers. Let's look at two solutions.

Syncing settings: To sync your Windows settings, on your primary Windows 10 computer search for Settings, and from the Settings window select Accounts, Sync your settings to display the dialog box pictured at right, and then set all of the items you wish to sync to the On position.

When Sync Settings is turned on, Windows automatically syncs the settings you choose across all your Windows 10 desktops and laptops that you sign in to using your same Microsoft account. A listing of most of the Windows setting categories along with example settings that can be synced across your computers is shown below in the chart "Windows Settings You Can Sync in Windows 10."

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Windows settings you can sync in Windows 10

Account: Your Microsoft account picture.

Command prompt: Your command prompt defaults, such as its size, position, and transparency.

Passwords: Your computer’s saved passwords, for example, to your OneDrive, Google, or Dropbox accounts. (Technically, it is more accurate to say that your Windows 10 Credential Locker, which contains your passwords, is synced across your computers.)

Date, time, and region settings: Settings for internet time, 24-hour clock, daylight saving time, country/region, first day of week, region format (locale), short date, long date, short time, and long time.

Desktop settings: Your desktop theme (background, system color, default system sounds, screensaver), slideshow wallpaper, and taskbar settings (such as icon positions and autohide).

Microsoft Edge browser settings: Your reading list, Favorites, top sites, Favorites bar settings, the Home button, block pop-up settings, cookie preferences, screen reader settings, and more.

Internet Explorer: Open tabs, reading lists, browsing history, Favorites, excluded URLs, homepages, and domain suggestions.

Keyboard settings: Settings for on-screen keyboard, sticky keys, filter keys, and toggle keys.

Language settings: Domain language, predictive typing, custom words, language profile, spellcheck, autocorrect, and highlight misspellings.

Magnifier and mouse settings: Tracking, mouse cursor following, mouse cursor size, and mouse cursor color.

Narrator settings: Quick launch settings, Narrator speaking pitch, reading hints, hear typed characters, hear typed words, visual highlighting, and play audio cues.

Typing settings: Blinking cursor thickness, background images, spelling dictionary, autocorrect misspelled words, highlight misspelled words, show text suggestions as I type, add a period after double-tapping the Shift key, and play key sounds as I type.

Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi profiles (only WPA-protected profiles).


Syncing your data files: Next, you will want to sync your data folder and files across all your PCs as well. Microsoft's solution for doing this is to save your data files to your cloud-based Microsoft OneDrive account, which is included with Windows 10. (Before you start screaming that you don't want to retrieve your data files from the cloud, hear me out.) The folders and files you save to your OneDrive account in the cloud can be automatically copied and saved to all your Windows 10 PCs. This approach may sound confusing, but it isn't. That's because Microsoft OneDrive manages all data file copies for you automatically and presents them to you as a single view from each PC you use. The result is that it always feels as if you are launching and saving your files from your cloud-based OneDrive account, even though those files are actually launching and saving from your local computer(s). To the end user, it appears as if you are working with only one copy of your data, even though there are physically four separate copies (in this example) in the cloud and on all your computers. To help you better understand, consider the following example:

You create the Excel file called Budget.xlsxand save it to your cloud-based OneDrive account. Automatically, that file is then copied and synced to all three of your PCs as well, so there are physically four copies of that file (one on your OneDrive and copies on each of your three computers). You use your traveling laptop to open this file in a place where you have no internet access. In this case, even without internet access, your laptop displays the contents of your OneDrive account and allows you to open the Budget.xlsx file. How is this possible since the files reside in the cloud? The magic in Microsoft's OneDrive tool is that while it appears to open the file from the cloud, it actually opens the Budget.xlsx file from a synced copy of your OneDrive data stored on your traveling laptop. This allows you to open, edit, and save the file, even without internet access. When you save the file, it saves the revised file to your traveling laptop and when you later reconnect your traveling laptop to the internet, OneDrive automatically resyncs that revised Budget.xlsx file back to the cloud and then to your other connected PCs. To the user, this syncing process is completely seamless.

OneDrive's approach of managing multiple synced copies of all your data files has (at least) three important benefits:

  • This approach allows you to access and work on your data files even when you don't have access to the internet.
  • Files retrieved from your computer open and save much faster than when those same files are opened and saved from/to the cloud, especially when slow internet access speeds are involved.
  • All your data files are seamlessly synced and maintained across all your computers and presented to you as a single OneDrive window to avoid the normal confusion one would have from managing four separate copies of each of their files.

The OneDrive solution consists of two parts — a cloud-based OneDrive account and a OneDrive desktop app. Your primary OneDrive account is maintained in the cloud, while the OneDrive desktop app comes preinstalled on all Windows 10 computers. You must activate both parts to fully exploit the OneDrive solution. Your cloud-based OneDrive account was most likely set up automatically when you set up Windows 10 on your computer(s), but your OneDrive desktop app(s) may not yet be activated. To determine if your OneDrive desktop app is running and ready for use (activated), from the Windows 10 desktop, in the System Tray located in the bottom right corner of the Windows Desktop, click the up-arrow icon (or caret icon) as circled in red below, and then hover over the OneDrive icon. If your OneDrive Desktop app is not set up, you will see the notification OneDrive Not signed in (as pictured below to the left). If OneDrive is set up, then you will see the notification OneDrive Up to date (as pictured below to the right).

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If necessary, to activate your OneDrive Desktop app, left-click the OneDrive icon to launch the Welcome to OneDrive screen (as pictured below), click the Get started button in the lower-right corner, and then log in using your Microsoft username and password. Your OneDrive Desktop app will then be activated and will appear in your File Explorer window, as pictured below. Repeat this process to set up the OneDrive Desktop app for all your computers. Thereafter, each time you save or edit a file, that file will be automatically synced across your cloud-based OneDrive account as well as all your other Windows 10 PCs.

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Your OneDrive Desktop app will appear as a normal folder on your computer. Next month I'll discuss seven important features of OneDrive to help you better understand this solution and get the most out of this tool.


About the author

J. Carlton Collins, CPA, (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.

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