Company:

Microsoft

Price

Free

License:

Freeware

Rating:

3 Star Rating: Average

Microsoft ActiveSync 4.0

Chris Tilley | Editor-in-Chief
May 09, 2005

When it comes down to it, you either love it or hate it. ActiveSync is one of those programs through which your experience will be sound and trouble free, or will be dogged by problems of the type that you loose hair for. If you are the latter, then you probably dread those few seconds that pass each time you cradle your Handheld PC - Locating connection agent - Connecting to Host - Connecting...

H/PC Explorer 1.1ActiveSync was a vast improvement over it's predecessors. H/PC Explorer and Windows CE Services were over thought, painfully unreliable and featured as a distinct turn off from Windows CE when compared to the smooth, seamless synchronisation that many saw as offered by the competition.
While offering little new in terms of functionality version 3 was a major step forward at simplifying the the sync process, and through the subsequent 8 or 9 releases of version 3 we have seen this reliability become refined, as well as new technologies and platforms being added into the mix.
So now as the entire industry holds its breath on the precipice of the promised realm of 64-bit computing, and consumer IT devices become increasingly more and more complex, increasingly more powerful it is almost time for Microsoft to shake up the way its Portable Devices interact with the workstation, and to do this, once again they are placing their eggs in the basket of an old friend... ActiveSync.

The industry has been aware that ActiveSync 4 was on the horizon since before the 3.8 release in January. Windows Mobile devices are underpinned by the Windows CE core operating system version 4.2 and with the transition to CE 5.0 coming in the next few months ActiveSync 4 was always going to be the jewel in the communications crown of the latest generation of devices. With Bill Gate's key note address to the Las Vegas MEDC conference on May 10th, the new Windows Mobile 5.0 (formerly Magneto) is now officially with us, and so is ActiveSync 4.
With a 4 version OS gap between Major sync client releases (CE 4.0, 4.1, 4.2 and 5.0), the consumer should quite rightly expect great things from the new ActiveSync. So the two questions are, as Microsoft push the program through the final stages of testing, can they achieve this? and, is there still any room in their thinking for the Handheld PC?

4200 to 4343

When the world first saw evidence that ActiveSync 4.0 was truly on its way, the program was still well and truly in its Beta test stages. Build 4200 was covertly captured and images posted onto the Internet, spontaneously exciting the entire Windows CE Embedded community in a raft of speculation and anticipation, and 128 builds later, the 4th March 2005 '4328' version didn't do anything to quell the Internet's thirst for more information. Another 15 patient builds later and ActiveSync 4 is available for everyone.

The first thing you notice is the installer size, at just under 6MB, this is far larger than version 3. Significantly though quite a large proportion of this is down to ActiveSync finally being released in a Windows Installer (MSI) distribution package, rather than the old, clunky InstallShield method. This is mainly significant to corporate administrators who will now be able to roll out and administer ActiveSync from Windows group policy under Active Directory rather than have to go from work station to work station installing the program by hand.
For the consumer this should make for tidier Installations and uninstallations, as well as faster repair operations should anything go wrong.

As we anticipated, Microsoft has as with many of its applications radically rethought its support policy with ActiveSync 4.0. If you aren't using an NT5 platform (Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows Server 2003) then with ActiveSync 4.0 you will fall foul of the Microsoft life cycle policy. All compatibility with Windows 95 through Millennium as well as NT 4 has been abandoned. Secondly if you are a user of a supported platform you will also be require to have a base Service Pack level installed on the system. For Windows 2000 that is SP4, with 2003 the requirement is SP1, while XP maintains support for both SP1 and SP2. For most users already running one of the three compatible operating systems this will generally not pose a problem outside of large scale corporate environments.

If you are a Itanium 64 or x64 user then ActiveSync 4.0 shouldn't disappoint, with Microsoft looking certain to release optimised builds for both 64-bit platforms around the time of the Windows Mobile 5.0 release. It is because of this that increasingly ActiveSync 4.0 carries with is the air of being more of an adjustment release than something radically different fitting in nicely with the changes going on within Microsoft itself, and in the IT world in general.
The shackles of legacy support have slowly been eroded from the product line up to this point, and now Microsoft are looking to consolidate their focus and software efforts squarely onto new things.
For many in the Handheld PC community this is going to be a hard point to swallow. The changes in host support in ActiveSync 4.0 almost certainly will render legacy H/PC users out in the cold where it comes to reliable - if indeed any Synchronisation support under Windows Longhorn (the next Windows Operating System release).
Despite this version 4 also provides for a contradiction of perplexing terms. While it has removed support for legacy Windows versions, Office however has survived the cull intact. With Office 97 and onwards, and Outlook 98 and higher remaining supported in identical fashion to the 3.7.0 release. Even worse is the instance that Internet Explorer 4.01 or higher is required, which given the base Operating System support isn't even possible - with the lowest supported IE version being 5.01 SP4. It is nostalgic to think that despite a complete rewrite they still cannot get the readme file to match their own product suites.

The installation itself requires around 24MB of disk space and places much emphasis on the updating of USB drivers used to connect most if not all modern Windows CE based devices. To this end though the process is rather time consuming, more so than the dreaded 96% lockup during the ActiveSync 3 installation routine; to add insult to injury if you are performing an upgrade installation you will need to restart your computer at the end of it.
Windows XP users should also be aware that system updates will be installed onto you computer during install. See KB890927 for more information on the networking update.

Bitter Sweet; the taste of progress

Inevitably Host system requirements haven't been the only significant change in the support guise of ActiveSync 4.0. In recent years Microsoft have increasingly come to rely on the support road maps laid down in their very visible Support Lifecycles. The company has been enforcing the implementation of the application lifecycle policy with conviction and fervour, wiping their support burden for legacy software from the proverbial slate and allowing them to focus more resources on the here and now, and of course into future product development.

Unfortunately the Handheld PC has for nothing more than Political reasons now become a victim of this support policy. The ActiveSync 4.0 team have now changed the base supported platform for any connecting device up from ActiveSync 3's CE 2.00, to CE 3.00. Unlike in ActiveSync 3.5 and higher, where support for these older versions of Windows CE existed in an unsupported capacity - but none the less was present. ActiveSync 4.0 rigidly enforces this change in platform support.
In a similar way to Windows CE 1.0 and the release of the version 2.0 sync client, users have been cut off of the sync software path as version 4 has been programmed to refuse connections from legacy devices running CE 1.0, CE 2.0, CE 2.1, CE 2.11. It is not clear whether this applies for CE 2.12, or just the H/PC at this stage, but we can imply that it is all encompassing.


Connecting Windows CE 2.0 or H/PC Professional to ActiveSync 4.0
Connecting Windows CE 2.0 or H/PC Professional to ActiveSync 4.0

This change in the device support in ActiveSync 4.0 will come as a bitter disappointment to many in the Handheld PC community. Worryingly this has occurred at an exceptionally inopportune moment for the IT world, as we step into the realm of 64-bit computing and are turning the final corner on the road to Longhorn the cumulative effect of the decision to restrict synchronisation access to anyone not using a Windows CE 3.00 or higher may be that within 24 months legacy device users may not be able to synchronise their devices at all.
If changes in Longhorn do result in CE2 users being left in the shadows, unable to effectively run ActiveSync 3.8 due to changes in the communications layer. It could potentially prove to be disastrous for the community. With the largest user base to be found using Handheld PC Professional, if the devices can no longer act as functional PDA devices Microsoft could insight an exodus on a scale not seen since the release of Pocket PC 2002.

 

If you are fortunate enough to be a HPC2000 or Windows CE 4.x user, then as the devices use CE 3.0 or higher to operate under, your H/PC remains fully supported by ActiveSync 4. If you performed an upgrade install from ActiveSync 3, then things will remain more or less the same, but if you need to perform a fresh install, or are adding a new device then you will start to see some of the evolutionary interface changes that are present in version 4.

 

Aside from the graphical changes, the wizard itself is predominantly unchanged from the previous release, even down to the connection scan in which support is still maintained for old fashioned serial port connections.
Microsoft, despite shying away from a complete abandonment for legacy technology have however made some significant changes in functionality.

The art of Communication

USB is now the default connection method, with ActiveSync being denied access to Serial (COM) ports by default (a change carried over from ActiveSync 3.8). Using the get connected wizard will override this while probing ports, preventing a sure fire technical support overload come release day.
Along with USB, Infrared through the NT IrDA stack is maintained and importantly as a newcomer to ActiveSync, Bluetooth is now an officially supported synchronisation option. With the added simplicity of Bluetooth management native to Windows XP makes it an increasingly appealing method of communication. Bluetooth also classes as a Partnership connection, meaning that you can create a partnership using it, unlike WiFi which demands one be present before sync.
This is a step in the right direction and long overdue. Many Bluetooth users will have been synchronising through ActiveSync using the less direct approach, the delivery of formal, recognised support, while technically not adding anything that isn't possible through other means, should make the process easier when using the likes of Socket's Bluetooth connection kit.

As with all versions since the 3.1 release, the USB driver subset seems to have been tweaked. With all the emphasis on USB Driver installation during the installation, hopefully this release will spell an end to problematic connection time outs caused when the system, frantically searching for drivers is unable to mount the driver before the device itself drops the connection.

All USB devices, unlike Serial require a unique connection driver to be present

Version 4 appears to aid Windows in doing this, with the 'grab' time seeming much swifter than before. You will be given the opportunity to find this out for yourself, as ActiveSync provides us all with the opportunity to test this as a full driver reinstall is carried out the first time you connect your device after the installer enforced reboot.

With the improvements in the communications system, it is surprising that there has been a rather large omission from ActiveSync 4.

Connection Settings screen

Pay a visit to the new, simplified Connection Settings area and you may not notice it at first. However two options are missing from the screen.
The ability to disable/enable both RAS (Remote Access Server) and Ethernet (Wired/Wireless LAN) is missing from the available settings. Closer inspection of ActiveSync reveals that this is no apparent oversight. References to Remote synchronisation have been completely obliterated from the program and the help files.

At this time understanding the reasons why this change has been made can only be speculation. The most probable reason for this change is due to the inclusion of the "Microsoft Server ActiveSync" technologies into this release for use against Microsoft Mobile Information Server (MIS) in a corporate environment. Worryingly though this is going to cause serious problems for new device users who rely on Wireless networks for synchronisation.
Put quite simply, with the current base RTM redistribution of ActiveSync 4.0, you cannot sync remotely unless you have ActiveSync Server access.

Interestingly the support for Remote synchronisation via ActiveSync server has been built into this release, along with support for SQL server synchronisation. To do this ActiveSync makes use of a local server module which can be run from your PC.
This server is in actual fact a Web Server (HTTP server) running through a secure socket layer. At his time however you require the Microsoft server technologies to make use of this.

Speculating, it is possible that when Windows Mobile 5.0 is released things will become clearer. It is possible that Microsoft have chosen to migrate the Remote Synchronisation abilities of the previous versions into this secured web sync system. The connection can be kept secure by the encryption key being passed to the device when the partnership is created for the first time.
This is a more modern system that could replace both RAs and LAN connections through the simple requirement of 'any TCP/IP connection'. However it creates a very obvious problem. ActiveSync on the H/PC, or current generation PPC for that matter was not designed to connect to a HTTP server to sync. So without a new ActiveSync client to install on the H/PC, if this actually turns out to be correct. Remote synchronisation for these devices is now completely moot.

 

Interface

Aside from the changes to the Connection Settings, Get Connected and Partnership wizard, you could be excused for thinking that ActiveSync 4.0 lacked any sort of changes to the main interface; and you would almost be right.

Connect up a Handheld PC or Pocket PC to it and things look identical. However a chance has it all is not as it seems. Have a device mount ActiveSync without a partnership and you get to see a glimpse of what is in store for the program.

Two images, both ActiveSync 4.0, but one distinctly different from the other

The adjusted graphics and icons are complemented with a simplified toolbar, on which Schedule now sits centre stage.
Schedule is a new feature which - provided that you have a compatible device - allows users synchronising over restricted bandwidth connection (for example WiFi) to schedule using different criteria and time periods ActiveSync to automatically initialise a synchronisation with the device.

Stand-alone and Server ActiveSync Schedule configuration

In the corporate environment this allows for the idea of peak and off-peak times to be worked into ActiveSync's setup, providing administrators with the flexibility to maximise the bandwidth they have at their disposal. The settings also allow you to control the scheduler based on your own personal routine, when you are cradled, or roaming the building for example. Or even when Outlook e-mail volume is higher than average.
The extent to which the settings here are going to be implemented throughout ActiveSync or to older devices (than the new Windows Mobile 5. are as yet unknown. Likewise to the effectiveness of the scheduler in a real world experience; as simply we have been unable to make use of it under any test device.

Other than the updated graphics present in the connection wizards we assume that all other cosmetic changes are reserved for connections to Windows Mobile 5.0 devices. Even for Windows Mobile 2003 devices, the are no apparent changes.

As in previous releases, 4 maintains the backup and restore functionality, as well as the import and export controls for Windows CE database store and fundamentally ActiveSync is still the same program version 3.8 was. HPC2000 devices still maintain support for Pocket Access, the PIM functionality still exists and local file transfer through Windows Explorer remains the tried and tested method of moving data back and forth from PC to device. Unfortunately though file copies still lock the sending and receiving windows, meaning you are unable to continue file browsing when moving large files both onto and off of the PDA.

Additional features have been added in the guise of a tighter level of Media integration. If you are lucky enough to be a Windows XP user, and have installed Windows Media Player 10 along with it, the ActiveSync installer contains some connection and integration tools (KB894476) which effectively will allow anyone with a compatible device to keep their remote music library synchronised through the use of playlists as part of the ActiveSync synchronisation process. This differs from the system under ActiveSync 3.8, where by you have to shell out to Windows Media Player and initialise a synchronisation.
Unfortunately for HPC2000 users, the burden of legacy means that this, like the new scheduler is another feature which is unsupported in this release.

Conclusion

Over all it is too easy to fall into the trap of expecting far more from ActiveSync 4.0 that has been delivered. With the modern emphasise on the cosmetic and unashamedly aesthetic parts of computing to have seen the slightly altered user interface made available to everyone would have gone some of the way to making the release feel fit for 2005. In reality Microsoft are caught between a rock and a hard place.
They have made it clear from the outset that Windows CE, at least from the perspective of their synchronisation client will not provide the facilities to be a universal synchronisation solution. On the one hand they increasingly need to address the needs of the corporate user and the vision of the wireless, on-demand business landscape. On the other they want to nurture the concept of the digital home, a device for every occasion and a mantra enshrining Windows at the heart of the "house of the future - today".

The ActiveSync team score points for the MSI redistribution, for the outstanding work they have achieved towards facilitating the corporate 'client - server' synchronisation ideal, and for the new Schedule and Media synchronisation features. Unfortunately though these are meaningless to the Handheld PC community, and will be met with an increasing ambivalence by the emerging community of legacy Pocket PC users.
Loosing remote access support - unless remedied quickly through a broad solution which covers legacy users right down to the lowest common denominator - could prove a fatal mistake for Microsoft Windows Mobile. The lack of broad user interface changes, while trivial will likewise count against them as the mind set of long established users perceive there to have been little to no change in the client.

Over all, ActiveSync 4.0 feels more like "ActiveSync 3.9" when you consider the entire package, and playing games with user support while at a time when we now urgently need fully supported 64-bit software version is going to alienate an increasing number of users away from the platform, and away from the one thing you really are going to need to make version 4 shine - Windows Mobile 5.0 .

It is for these reasons that we are forced to advise users within the Handheld PC community not to install ActiveSync 4.0 unless you categorically will not require remote access support within your setup.

 

System Requirements:

HPC2000, Windows CE 3.0, 4.x .net, 5.0, Pocket PC 2000, 2002, Windows Mobile 2003, 2003SE, 5.0
Windows 2000 SP4, XP SP1, 2003 SP1

Rating

 

 

Cost:

5 Star Rating: Exceptional

Pros: Instantly recognisable to existing ActiveSync users, free, security driven release aimed at corporate rollout

Cons: No support for 2.x generation, communication layer restricted, no mac support, one size fits all

Usability:

3 Star Rating: Average

Built-In helps:

3 Star Rating: Average

Customer Service:

2.0 Star Rating: Weak

Overall:

3 Star Rating: Average

 

 

Want to let us know what you think of this review? Click here to have your say in the Forums!