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Synchronize Windows 8 settings across PCs with OneDrive

Windows 8 settings can be synchronized across devices, but the differences between OneDrive and Active Directory will determine which one you use.

One of the really nice things about Windows 8 is that administrators can synchronize various Windows 8 settings between PCs. This allows users to have a consistent experience as they move from one PC to another. Settings can even be synchronized between a Windows 8 PC and a Surface RT tablet.

Synchronizations are performed on a user-by-user basis and depend upon cloud connectivity. When a user logs into a Windows 8 PC for the first time, the OS prompts the user to log in using a Microsoft account. This allows Windows to access the user's OneDrive, where the synchronized personal settings and preferences are stored. The OS automatically uses OneDrive to synchronize these settings and preferences to any Windows 8 device that the user logs into.

Of course, this raises a couple of questions. The first question has to do with what settings and preferences can be synchronized. The second question is how corporate environments can take advantage of synchronization, since OneDrive is geared toward consumers rather than business environments.

What does Windows 8 OneDrive synchronize?

Let's start by talking about what gets synchronized. By default, Windows will attempt to make the end-user experience as consistent as possible as a user moves from one PC to another. However, it is possible to prevent certain types of Windows 8 settings or preferences from being synchronized. You can also completely disable synchronization.

If you want to see exactly what Windows can sync -- or make changes to the current synchronization settings -- open the Charms Bar and click on Settings, followed by Change PC Settings.

Next, click on OneDrive followed by Sync Settings. The Sync Settings screen contains a series of slide bars that you can use to enable or disable synchronization for various items. The options that are available include:

  • Sync your settings on this PC
  • Start screen (the user's Start screen tiles and tile layout)
  • Appearance (colors, background, lock screen and account picture)
  • Desktop personalization (themes, taskbar, high contrast and more)
  • Apps (list of applications that are installed)
  • App data (settings and purchases within apps)
  • Web browser (favorites, open tabs, homepages, history and settings)
  • Passwords (sign-in info for some apps, websites, networks and HomeGroup)
  • Language preferences (keyboards, input methods, display language, personal dictionary and more)
  • Ease of Access (Narrator, Magnifier and more)
  • Other Windows settings (File Explorer, mouse, printers and more)
  • Back up your settings for this PC

So, what about synchronizing Windows 8 settings and preferences in business environments? The short answer to this question is that you won't be able to do it in the way that I just described. Instead, you will have to revert to using roaming profiles. Let me explain.

The previously discussed synchronization method is based on the use of a Microsoft account and a user's OneDrive, which is geared toward consumers. Microsoft offers a business version of OneDrive that is aptly named OneDrive for Business. Despite of the similar names, OneDrive and OneDrive for Business couldn't be more different.

OneDrive for Business is based on the use of SharePoint (or SharePoint Online) and therefore uses a completely different client component than the consumer OneDrive. The reason why this is a problem is because the consumer OneDrive client is a part of the Windows 8 OS. The OneDrive for Business client is not. That being the case, the Sync Settings screen will not allow a user to log into OneDrive for Business. Settings can only be synchronized using OneDrive.

The workaround in business environments is to use roaming profiles and folder redirection. When a user logs on to a Windows 8 machine, the OS creates a folder under the Users folder and places the user's profile in that folder. This is where the user's documents, preferences, etc. are stored.

The trick to synchronizing Windows 8 settings in a corporate environment is to use folder redirection to store the user's profile on a file server. It then becomes possible to configure the Active Directory to look for user profiles on the file server.

The end result is that any time a user logs in from an Active Directory-joined, Windows 8 PC, the PC uses a common profile, thereby providing a consistent end-user experience. Microsoft provides a guide to setting up roaming profiles at TechNet.

It is worth noting that roaming profiles are operating system version specific. A Windows 8-based roaming profile, for instance, is incompatible with Windows 7.

Microsoft provides two ways to synchronize user preferences between Windows 8 PCs. The method you should use depends on whether or not your PCs are Active Directory-joined. In AD environments, you should use roaming profiles. In non-Active Directory environments your only option is to use OneDrive-based synchronization.

Next Steps

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Improve desktop performance with Windows 8 settings

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This was last published in February 2015

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