By Stephen H. Wildstrom In the early days of PC software, the industry consisted of hundreds of little companies, many of them making utility programs that added little bits of function, such as data backup or an address book or a file manager, to computers' bare-bones basic functions. As operating systems grew more capable and expansive, most of these functions were gobbled up by Windows, and their publishers disappeared. One of the rare survivors is LapLink, whose core product, an easy way to exchange and synchronize files across PCs, is still going strong after 18 years.
The original version of LapLink used a special serial cable to connect two computers, and -- even though serial port connections are slow, cranky, and obsolete, the retail version of PC Sync ($79.95) -- still comes with the blue LapLink cable notorious among old-time techies. You can save 10 bucks if you download LapLink from the Web, but you don't get the cable. You can get much faster transfers if you connect two computers using a special USB cable ($19.95 with software purchase), or you can connect over a local-area network or the Internet.
DRAG AND DROP. The current version, PC Sync 3.0, provides a lot of useful function even in an era when sharing files across networks has become routine. For one thing, it can automate the task of keeping files synchronized on separate PCs. And when syncing big files, the program will minimize the transfer time by moving only the piece of the file that differs between the two versions.
All you have to do is set up the folders you want to keep synced as a "SmartXchange," and a single click will ensure that the two versions are kept identical. For ad hoc file transfers, you can just drag and drop folders or individual files between the two panes representing separate computers.
PC Sync can also help with the onerous job of transferring settings and data between an old computer and a new one. First, you install the software on both computers, then use a wizard to describe just what you want to transfer. You can't transfer the applications themselves -- those must be installed on the new machine from the original CDs -- but you can move all your preferences as well as all the data files.
Microsoft includes a somewhat similar applet called the Files & Settings Transfer Wizard in Windows XP, but the PC Sync tool is more powerful and flexible -- though also somewhat harder to use.
LapLink founder and CEO Mark Eppley is a passionate collector of digital music, so there's a music feature in PC Sync. MusicMover searches out and collects all of the music files on a hard drive and lets you share them easily with other computers, sort of a do-it-yourself Napster.
SECURITY ISSUES. PC Sync has one serious disadvantage when judged against the normal network file transfer on Windows 2000 or XP. These Windows NT-based systems allow authorized users to log in and browse files any time the computer is powered up and connected to a network. PC Sync requires that the computer have a local user logged in with the LapLink software running. For transfers to and from unattended remote computers, this is a security risk. On the other hand, The PC Sync file transfer appears to be more secure than the file sharing built into Windows 98 or Me.
Despite an assortment of bells and whistles, PC Sync is in many ways the same program that has been around since 1983. Even in the fast changing world of high-tech, some oldies but goodies persist. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online