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How to Sync Your Desktop Email Client (Outlook or Thunderbird) Across Multiple Computers

posted Jul 7, 2011, 10:23 PM by admin@
If you use webmail like Gmail or Hotmail, there's really no syncing needed to keep your email coordinated across multiple computers—open up your web browser on any computer and everything is just as you left it. Those of us who prefer—or are required to use—a desktop program like Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird, however, have to work a little harder to get our emails, contacts, calendar events, and tasks synchronized across multiple devices. Here's how to set it up.

You've got several ways you could go about syncing your desktop email client between computers, but the best, most complete method involves storing your application profile in a file-syncing tool like Dropbox so that all of your settings are automatically synced between your computers. Here's how to move your Microsoft Outlook PST file or the profile for cross-platform Thunderbird to accomplish that goal.

Why not just use IMAP?

If your email account can use the IMAP protocol, this is the easiest way to have your email synced; IMAP syncs even your sent email with the email server. However, some companies or service providers require you to use POP3; with POP3 you can change a setting to save emails on the server, but your sent emails aren't synced.

Another reason to go the Dropbox route is to sync your settings and other items, such as tasks, in your Outlook or Thunderbird program across all your computers.

How to Move Your Outlook PST Files to Dropbox

Dropbox works great as a syncing solution for Outlook especially, since the PST file is stored and accessed on your local drive; storing the PST file on a network share, by contrast, can result in really bad performance problems or corruption of the file. Dropbox is also one of the few programs that can accomplish this syncing without a lot of hassle.

The instructions below are using Outlook 2010 on Windows 7. The exact menus may not be the same in older versions, but you should be able to find similar commands.

  1. To move your Outlook PST file, first you'll need to find it. In Outlook 2010, you can right-click on Personal Folders and choose "Open File Location" to see the file in Windows Explorer.
    Alternately, you can go to your Control Panel > Mail settings (if you have trouble finding it, look under User Accounts or simply search for "Mail" within the Control Panel). Click on the "Data Files... button" and in the new window, you'll be shown the location of the PST file. (Usually it's under C:\Documents and Setttings\[username]\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook.)
  2. Close Outlook, then go to Windows Explorer and cut and paste the file to your Dropbox folder.

When you next open up Outlook, you may be warned that the PST file can't be found. Click OK, then browse to your Dropbox folder to find the new location.

You may also have to change where the emails get stored:
  1. Click on the File tab, then Info.
  2. Under Account Settings, click Account Settings.
  3. On the E-mail tab, select the account and click Change Folder.
  4. Select the Inbox to change the email delivery location.
From your other computer(s), point Outlook to the Dropbox data file by going again to the File tab in Outlook > Account Settings. In the Data Files tab, add the moved PST file, set it as the default, and remove the old location.

There are a few caveats to this approach:

  • You'll need to close out of the Outlook program on the first computer before opening the PST file on the second one. This is very important! Dropbox is pretty good at creating duplicate, "conflicted" copies of the PST files if necessary, but constant syncing attempts of an open PST file can lead to corruption. So close out of Outlook and let Dropbox do its syncing before you open Outlook on the next computer.
  • If your Outlook file is very big, you could run out of space in your Dropbox account. Keep this in mind, and you may either want to upgrade your account or follow our cheapskate's guide to getting more free space on Dropbox.

Move Your Thunderbird Profile to Dropbox or a Shared Network Folder

If you're using the cross-platform Thunderbird email client, you could move your profile to an external drive (like a USB thumbdrive), but that requires carrying around that USB stick and bringing it to each computer you need to access.

The better option is to move your profile to a new shared location—either a shared network folder or your Dropbox folder. Here are the instructions for moving the profile.

  1. First make sure Thunderbird isn't running.
  2. Next, find the profile folder. On Windows, the default location is in C:\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird\Profiles\ or C:\Documents and Settings\[username]\Application Data\Thunderbird\Profiles.

    On Mac, the location is ~/Library/Thunderbird

    On Linux, the path is ~/.thunderbird/
  3. Cut and paste the xxxxxxxx.default folder to your new location (e.g., Dropbox folder)
  4. Next, edit the profiles.ini file in a text editor. You'll find the file in the same location as the profiles folder above.
  5. Edit the "Path=" line to the new location, e.g., C:\Users\[username]\Documents\Dropbox\xxxxxxxx.default

    When entering a non-relative path in Windows, use backslashes (relative paths get forward slashes), and change IsRelative=1 to IsRelative=0.
  6. Save the profiles.ini file and restart Thunderbird.

On your other computers, you can copy over the profiles.ini file so they also point to the new location of your Thunderbird profiles folder. That should be it.

(For more information on moving your profile, see Mozilla's Moving your profile folder instructions.)

Note: You could also move the portable version of Thunderbird into your Dropbox folder for speedier access.

There are lots of reasons to use a desktop email program (better offline capabilities, email sorting, and collaboration features depending on your office needs). Lack of support for syncing across multiple computers shouldn't stop you from using Outlook or Thunderbird. Syncing your profile with Dropbox, you can take your desktop email experience with you on all your computers.