Synching with Windows Live Mesh and SkyDrive

Patrick Marshall

Have you ever been in a meeting or hotel room and suddenly realized that the only copy of an all-important document was on your home/office PC?

Both Windows Live Mesh and SkyDrive provide cloud storage and a remote-access path to your files, but Live Mesh is the more flexible of the two.

These two apps/services each have their own particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, Live Mesh lets you sync files between PCs without placing them in cloud-based storage — something you can’t do with the popular Dropbox [site]. SkyDrive has less flexible file-synching capabilities but works with mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Keep files synched on multiple systems with Mesh

Packaged as a part of Windows Live Essentials, Live Mesh is an underappreciated gem that lets you directly access your home computer while you’re on the road. A free download (site), Live Mesh is surprisingly simple to set up and use.

Once Live Mesh is installed, you’ll need a Windows Live ID to sign in. You’ll also want to install Live Mesh on every PC you want as part of your Mesh network. From the main Live Mesh window (shown in Figure 1), click the Go to Windows Live Devices link to see a list of your Live Mesh–enabled devices. You’ll also see Mesh synced storage — up to 5GB of free, online space. (Although this is part of SkyDrive, it’s completely separate storage.)

Windows Live Mesh main window

Figure 1. Windows Live Mesh's main window lists folders synched with other PCs and the cloud.

Live Mesh syncs data on a folder-by-folder basis. In the main Live Mesh window, click the Sync a folder link to add folders to your Mesh network. That pops up a typical Explorer folder/file selection window. Select a folder or folders and click the Sync button; a Select Devices dialog box appears (shown in Figure 2). If you haven’t set install Live Mesh on other PCs, the only device listed will be SkyDrive synced storage (which is, in this case, just another name for Mesh synched storage).

Device Select

Figure 2. Live Mesh lets you sync a folder with specific devices.

Once your Mesh network is set up, you’ll have a safe backup of all your important files — especially if all your systems are not in the same location. And in the unlikely event all your local copies are lost, you still have backups (up to 5GB) in the cloud.

If you’re leery about storing data in the cloud, you can easily limit synching to your computers — or encrypt the folders synched to online storage.

From this point on, any changes to files in Meshed folders will be automatically copied to every other Mesh-enabled device — but only if Live Mesh is currently running on that device. (Synching will automatically resume when you launch Live Mesh.) Obviously, synching a folder to the cloud is always enabled as long as SkyDrive synched storage is checked and you have a working Internet connection.

In short, no more need to worry about whether you’ve backed up an important file. The only snag: Live Mesh doesn’t actually sync until you close the file; leave it open on one computer and try to access it from elsewhere, and you’ll have access only to the older, local version.

Live Mesh uses Transport Layer Security or Secure Sockets Layer to encrypt all file transfers. You can sync up to 200 folders, with each folder able to hold up to 50GB of data and up to 100,000 files. That should be more than enough for most of us.

Bear in mind, however, that certain files cannot be synched using Live Mesh. Most notably, Outlook’s .pst data files won’t make it through. (You can get a full list of unsupported file types at an MS Help & How-to site.)

Synched folders are listed in the main Live Mesh window. Clicking a folder displays its location, with whom it’s shared, and the devices it’s synched on. It will also indicate that files are being updated across the Mesh net (see Figure 3).

Folder status

Figure 3. Clicking a folder shows its current status.

More than just file and folder synching

Windows Live Mesh lets you keep Favorites for Internet Explorer synched across your PCs, along with Microsoft Office program settings, styles, and other custom configurations.

Live Mesh also includes PC remote control. I’ve used this feature while on the road to retrieve an e-mail or perform some task that can be accomplished only on my office computer.

To start a remote-control session, click the Remote header near the top of the Live Mesh main window. Mesh will then display a list of authorized computers (for example, those shown in Figure 4) and indicate clearly whether a device is available for connection.

Remote connection list

Figure 4. Live Mesh's Remote function lets you enable or block remote connections.

When you click Connect to this computer, Live Mesh notifies the other computer; if its user does not decline the connection, you’ll be prompted to sign in to the other system. You’ll then see the other computer’s display and have keyboard and mouse control. (A Live Mesh toolbar at the top of the remote-control window lets you control whether the remote system’s user can also see what you’re doing.)

I’ve often used this tool as a way to provide impromptu technical support and to give tutorials. If necessary, you can also reboot the remote computer from the Live Mesh toolbar.

Of course, for remote access to work, Live Mesh must be running on both machines. So it’s a good idea to have Live Mesh load automatically at bootup. (Note: If you close the Live Mesh window, the app is still running. You reopen it from the Windows taskbar Icons and notifications area.)

One other Live Mesh feature that’s saved my bacon more than once is the ability to access data stored in the cloud from a computer that doesn’t have Live Mesh installed. You just go to http://devices.live.com and sign in at the prompt, and you’ll see a list of your connected computers. Click the one you want, and you can access all synched folders. If you’re using Internet Explorer 6.0 (32-bit) or later, you can even remotely control the other computer.

SkyDrive takes a different approach to synching

Although Windows Live Mesh and Microsoft SkyDrive provide some similar capabilities, there are also important differences. For example, SkyDrive offers 7GB of free storage, and you can add more capacity for a fee. Live Mesh is fixed at 5GB. On the other hand, you can’t sync two PCs with SkyDrive without storing the data in the cloud.

Like Dropbox, SkyDrive also requires that synched data reside in a special, local, SkyDrive folder. As noted earlier, with Live Mesh you simply designate folders on your system that you want synched.

And though you can access files on a remote computer via SkyDrive, you can’t actually control that remote computer. However, SkyDrive does let you access remote files using Windows Phones, iPhones, and iPads.

For those who prefer Live Mesh — as I do — Microsoft has further complicated things with its recent Windows Essentials 2012 release (more info/download), the update to Windows Live Essentials 2011. Essentials 2012 does not work with Windows versions prior to Win7 — but more important — it dropped Windows Live Mesh.

Although both versions are available for download, if you update to Essentials 2012, your installation of Live Mesh will be changed to SkyDrive.

The curious thing is that Live Mesh already runs on SkyDrive servers. We can only hope that rather than eventually killing Live Mesh, Microsoft chooses to integrate the two offerings.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-10-04:

Patrick Marshall

About Patrick Marshall

Patrick Marshall is a regular technology columnist for The Seattle Times. He has also written for Government Computer News, InfoWorld, PC World, the Congressional Quarterly, and other publications.