Utility Spotlight

Microsoft Live Mesh

Lance Whitney

Microsoft provides several free and effective tools for you to store and synchronize your files and documents via the Internet. Live Mesh, Windows Live Sync and Windows Live SkyDrive are all part of the company’s online arsenal. But there’s been confusion over what these services do and how they potentially integrate with and complement each other. With cloud computing being such a hot topic, I thought I’d look at Live Mesh specifically and in comparison with Sync and SkyDrive.

Live Mesh

Live Mesh is essentially a desktop in the cloud. Through Mesh, you can store files online to access them from any computer. You can also sync local files or folders stored on any PC, so those files appear in your Mesh and on any machines you include in the sync.

To use Live Mesh, first go to the Live Mesh Web site   and sign in with your Windows Live account. After accepting the terms of the software agreement, you’ll see the Device window, which displays an icon to your Live Desktop and an option to add devices you wish to sync. Your first step should be to connect to the Desktop where you can access the “Get Started” help information and create a new folder to store files you wish to upload.

By creating folders, you can use Live Mesh as a traditional online file storage site. To do that, double-click on the Create new folder icon and name the folder. After you open your new folder, you can now upload files, either one at a time by browsing to or typing their local path, or several in one shot by dragging and dropping them onto the folder window. (Note that before you can drag and drop, you first must install a Live Desktop plug-in. For now, the drag-and-drop method works only in Internet Explorer.)

You can display the folders in your desktop as icons or in detail mode. You can also turn on a navigation pane so you see your folder tree on the left and a file list on the right. A Media Viewer can play certain audio and video content, such as WMA and WMV files, within Live Mesh. Double-clicking on most files and documents, however, prompts you to open them in their native applications, which need to be installed locally.

Though Live Mesh can serve as a simple online storage site, I find the tool most useful for its synchronization capabilities. By adding computers to your Live Mesh network, you can sync folders and files among your Live Desktop and your PCs. Those of us who juggle more than one desktop or notebook can use Live Mesh to sync documents, browser favorites and other files across machines.

To build your network, log onto Live Mesh from the computer you wish to keep in sync. In Live Mesh, click on the Devices tab and select the Add Device icon. You’ll be asked to download and install the Live Mesh software. After the software loads, it will prompt you to add your computer, which then appears in the Devices window. Live Mesh is also added to your Windows autostart routine, and its icon will display in your system tray.


Figure 1 You can add multiple PCs to Live Mesh to keep them all in sync.

You can now right-click on any folder or file on your local machine and choose the Add Folder to Live Mesh command. That object will be uploaded to and synchronized with your Live Mesh Desktop. You can add as many devices as you’d like and of course sync the same folders on each one. As an example, I synchronized the Downloads folder across my various PCs with Live Mesh, so any file I download on one machine is available on all of them.

Live Mesh can also serve as a handy remote control program, essentially an alternative to Remote Desktop Connection. By installing Live Mesh on multiple computers, you can remote control one from another. You can also copy and paste files and content between the host and client.

Windows Live Sync

Sync uses the same synchronization concept as Live Mesh, but is a peer-to-peer (P2P) service. Files you include in Sync aren’t stored in the cloud, they’re copied and updated from one PC to another. Therefore, Sync is a good option if you don’t want your files to be stored online but wish to keep them in sync among multiple PCs.

Because Sync is a P2P network, you must periodically keep at least two of the PCs in your network turned on at the same time so the files can sync. As an example, I use Sync on my desktop, notebook, and mini-notebook to keep my documents and browser favorites in sync among all three PCs. I typically use my desktop and at least one of my notebooks every day, giving them the opportunity to sync with each other.

Windows Live SkyDrive

Finally, SkyDrive is strictly an online storage site. Offering you a generous 25GB of space for free, SkyDrive is an ideal place to store large files and documents you wish to keep online but don’t need to sync. SkyDrive will also play a role in Microsoft’s upcoming Office Web Apps, which I wrote about last month. You’ll be able to save and open your Office 2010 documents via SkyDrive and edit them online.

If the distinction between these services still sounds cumbersome, take heart. Recent news suggests that Microsoft may soon revamp its online offerings, combining Live Mesh and Sync into a single service known as Live Sync. The redesigned Live Sync would reportedly offer you the ability to sync your files in the cloud and via P2P through one single service.

Lance Whitney is a writer, IT consultant and software trainer. He’s spent countless hours tweaking Windows workstations and servers. Originally a journalist, he took a blind leap into the IT world in the early ’90s.