I just bought laptop so I can work downstairs as well as on my desktop. Is there a way I can use Outlook on both machines in such a way that they are synchronized? Right now if I open email on one it doesn’t appear on the other, and vice versa. Any way around this?

This is a problem I’ve dealt with for years. Being the geek that I am, I have several computers, and often will want to use one, or the other or another still to read email.

I’ve settled on one solution, but there are many, many approaches to this problem. Naturally each has both pros and cons.

To recap the problem, the most common configuration for email uses POP3 accounts that download email to the machine where you’re reading it: the machine on which your email program is installed. That means that if you go to another machine to read email using the same technique, the email will get downloaded to that machine instead. Some email on one machine, some email on another… it can get fairly confusing.

So let’s look at some of the alternatives.

Webmail Services: services such as Hotmail, Gmail, and the like are accessible anywhere you have an Internet connection. The mail is not downloaded, but rather lives on the Hotmail or Gmail servers. Log in from one machine and you’ll see the same email as you would logging in from any other.

There are two problems. The first is simply that you must be online to read your email. If you can’t get on the Internet, you can’t read your email.

The more serious problem that I’ve discussed before, and remind people of often, is that free email services should not be relied on for critical information. By that I mean use them only in conjunction with a backed up, fully supported email service from your ISP or other email service provider. My favorite approach is to simply automatically forward a copy of all your email from a “real” email account to a free Webmail service such as Gmail. That way your email can be downloaded, saved and backed up normally using your POP3 account, and yet you can read it from any computer that has connectivity using the free Webmail service.

Webmail from your ISP: You may not need to use an additional free service. Many ISPs and email providers now include a Web interface to your email as part of their service. The downside here is that these usually only display email that hasn’t been downloaded yet. That means that once you read your email by downloading it to your PC, it’s no longer accessible via the Web interface.

Since it’s supported by your ISP, though, it’s definitely safer to rely on this type of Webmail, and if you felt like it, you could simply not download email at all, relying on the Web interface entirely. If you do have a problem, you’ll have your ISP to call.

IMAP: IMAP is an alternative to POP3. Rather than downloading your email, a mail program configured to use IMAP leaves the email on your mail server. Depending on how you use and configure your email client, IMAP may require connectivity to even read your mail, though most clients do support local caching.

The great news about IMAP is that in most respects it operates much like you’re already used to. Most common email clients including Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Eudora and others, support it. You’ll need to check with your ISP or email provider to see if they support it, and exactly how to configure your email client to use it.

Copying your email folders: This is my “plan B.” Since Outlook stores all its information in a single file, the .”pst” file, I simply have Outlook installed on multiple machines, configured almost identically. I can read email on machine A, shut down Outlook, copy the pst to machine B, and now pick up with my email on machine B right where I left off on machine A.

This particular approach fits in well with my backup strategy as well, since I copy my PST to several machines each night. Should my laptop, for example, die – I can quickly and fairly seamlessly, switch to my desktop for email.

The downside is that you have to copy the PST. Depending on how big the PST is, how fast your network, and how often you switch machines, that can be a bit of a pain. Also, you need to configure Outlook on multiple machines. That, too, can be a pain since Outlook makes it difficult (nee impossible), to move account settings easily from one machine to another – you have to do it all by hand.

Remote Desktop: This is what I’ve settled on and have been using for a couple of years now. Outlook is installed and running on my laptop, which either travels with me, or lives in my family room when I’m at home. If I’m in my office at my desktop, I simply use Remote Desktop to open a window to my laptop. Thus I’m always reading email using Outlook on my laptop – even if that laptop is in another room in my house. I find this the simplest, overall, for a home network or even a small business situation.

Not a solution: One thing you’ll not is not listed as a solution, and that’s using file sharing to share out your email folders and access the single set of folders from multiple computers. Outlook Express, for example, doesn’t support folders across the net – at least not without an unsupported hack. Outlook does, but not with two instances of Outlook at the same time. Even running only one instance at a time, Outlook kind of “assumes” that the file is local, and as a result depending on the speed of your network, accessing an Outlook pst across the net can be slow. You’d have to check with other mail clients to determine if, and how well, they support accessing mail folders across the network, but in general I strongly discourage it for your “primary” mail folders. (I do keep my email archives on a network share, and only connect to them as I need to – that seems to work just fine. Usually.)

As you can see there are lots of alternatives. I like my Remote Desktop approach as being simple and effective for me. I have several friends that swear by IMAP, and I have at least one client who’s forwarding all his email to his Gmail account. All work, and work well.

It’s up to you to determine which best fits your needs.


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