July 22, 2008, 12:01 PM — Sometimes, it's hard for my right hand to know what the left is doing. I do half of my computing at my primary desktop PC at my office, and the other half on either of two different laptops. It can be hard to keep track of my work with my files scattered around all those different hard drives.
What I need is some way to keep my files synchronized between all these different machines. Nothing I've tried in the past has really worked for me -- until now. Windows Live Mesh, which Microsoft made available to the general public as a "technology preview" on Tuesday, is the best synchronization system for Windows PCs that I've seen so far. And best of all, it's completely free.
Microsoft has offered file-sync technologies before. There was Windows Briefcase, then XP's Offline Files, and more recently SyncToy. But none of these was perfect. For one thing, the computers to be synchronized all needed to be available on the network at the same time. If you needed to sync from a remote laptop to a workstation behind a firewall, you were probably out of luck.
Live Mesh, on the other hand, synchronizes to Microsoft's online storage first, then pushes the changes out to the devices in the mesh. Because it works through an online intermediary, individual devices don't need direct access to one another at all. The Live Mesh client simply sends and receives the latest changes, quietly in the background, whenever the device is connected to the Internet.
The Live Mesh client integrates fully with Windows Explorer. Folders in the Mesh gain a new, bright blue icon that lets you know they're marked to be synchronized. When you open them, a new sidebar shows you information about their synchronization status.
The synchronization itself is smooth an unobtrusive. You don't need to sync manually; it happens automatically whenever you update the files in one of the folders in your Mesh.
The command center for Live Mesh is the Live Desktop, a slick Web site designed to look more or less like a Windows Vista desktop. Here you can upload and delete files, manage synchronization relationships, and even download files to computers that don't have the Live Mesh client software installed. And, yes; it works just fine in Firefox.
Using Internet Explorer does give you some advantages, however. Most notably, it allows you to download an ActiveX control that allows you to view the desktop of another PC in your Mesh remotely, much like Microsoft's Remote Desktop client software.
The Live Mesh client has gone through an extended, invitation-only preview period, but it's available now to the public. You can try it out by signing on to the Live Mesh Web site with your Windows Live ID. (This is probably less complicated than it sounds -- if you ever signed up with MSN Messenger or Microsoft Passport, that username and password is your Windows Live ID).
It should come as no surprise that, for now, you need a Windows XP or Vista PC to access the service. But Microsoft promises support for mobile devices soon, and believe it or not, Mac support is also reportedly in the works.
Overall -- though maybe I should feel dirty for saying it -- Live Mesh is a polished, exciting new offering from Microsoft. Once you start using it, you'll probably be left wondering how you ever got along without it before. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next for the service.