Earlier this year, I gave Windows Live Sync 2011 beta a try and came away unimpressed and rather annoyed. Since then, Live Sync has come out of beta, been renamed Live Mesh, and has its synced storage size increased from 2GB to 5GB. Have the previous bugs been fixed? Is the 5GB of space enough to tempt me from other services? Or did the Windows Live team learn nothing from the beta?
Note: This is a review of Windows Live Mesh and its SkyDrive Synced Storage feature. Live Mesh also has the ability to sync program settings and connect to your computer remotely for a full desktop experience. Although these are really nifty, I won’t be covering those.
Putting the “Windows” in “Windows Live Mesh”
Setting up the Windows Live Mesh client on Windows is fairly simple. After logging in with your Windows Live account, you’re presented with the Windows Live Mesh dashboard. The dashboard provides you with the status of any syncing occurring, the option to choose which folders to sync, and the ability to view your devices.
To set up a folder for syncing, click the Sync a folder link in the dashboard, select your folder, and then choose which devices you want to sync to.
Choosing another device will automatically create a folder of that name in your Personal folder (on Windows) or your Home folder (on Mac OS X). If the other device is on, syncing begins immediately.
All Windows Live users also have access to 5GB of store on Windows Live SkyDrive. If you use multiple computers but those computers aren’t all on at the same time, using the SkyDrive Synced Storage feature is a nice in-between. Not only that, but files saved on SkyDrive can be accessed from any desktop or laptop computer with Internet access. I’ll talk more about SkyDrive later in the article.
Once a folder is set up for syncing, it’ll show up in the dashboard with any kind of status information listed next to it. For a more detailed look at the folder, including the folder location and the devices the folder syncs with, just click the arrow to the right of the folder.
What Am I Waiting For?
As the syncing begins, Windows Live Mesh will indicate which folder or folders are syncing at the top of the dashboard as well as next to the specific sync folder. If Live Mesh is syncing files from other sources, it will also indicate the number of files left to sync next to that specific folder.
For some reason, when syncing to other devices, Live Mesh does not display this number, which can be a little annoying. In fact, it doesn’t exactly give you any kind of additional information at all. How fast is Mesh sending the files? What’s the estimate time until completion? When syncing only a couple of files, this additional information may not be necessary, but when syncing a larger number of files, knowing this will help users know if they need to continuing waiting or have time to move on to other things.
On the subject of status, when files are syncing, there’s not even an indication that anything is happening with the notification icon in the taskbar. Maybe make the icon spin? Change the arrow colors (one to indicating uploading, one to indicate downloading)? Any kind of notification would be helpful to know what’s happening with Live Mesh and syncing of files.
As most people won’t have the Live Mesh dashboard open all the time, how do you know anything is syncing? This is where the Notification Tray icon in the Taskbar comes into play. At least, you would think it would. Notification Tray icons can be used to help indicate the status of your various apps, but Live Mesh does not do that.
Instead of any kind of animation to indicate anything is happening, it just sits there, staring at you with indifference. The only time the icon is animated is when Live Mesh starts up. After that, it stays in a static position showing the same color. Any kind of notification would be helpful to know what’s happening with Live Mesh and syncing of files.
Live Mesh Lives Better on the Mac
There’s no clearer difference between Windows developers and Mac developers than by looking at the Windows Live Mesh clients between the two operating systems.
The Live Mesh Dashboard takes a different cue than its Windows counterpart and tries to achieve a more Mac-like look, which is what a Mac user would want. After signing in, a list of available folders on your other devices is presented on the left with overall status and individual folder status appearing on the right.
The information on the right is neatly organized. At the overview screen, you can see your device name, its status, and information about your other devices. For each individual folder, you get that information, the location the folder is syncing to on your Mac, and who the folder is shared with. When information is syncing to your Synced Folders, Live Mesh displays the number of files remaining as well as a status bar in the folder list on the left.
If you already have the standard system folders from Windows on your SkyDrive Synced Storage, Live Mesh for Mac ask you to map those folders to the system folders on your Mac. (My Documents to Documents, My Videos to Movies, etc.). If the folder doesn’t exist, Live Mesh will create the folder in your Home folder.
Unlike its Windows counterpart, Live Mesh for Mac does give you a heads up when files are syncing if you don’t have the dashboard in front of you. Whenever there is any activity with Live Mesh, the Live Mesh menu bar icon will animate in a spinning motion.
I did run into one possibly bug with Windows Live Mesh for Mac. When attempting to sync my web site’s files (which contained about 6000 files smaller than 10KB each), Live Mesh stopped syncing with around 4500 left. Live Mesh stated it was still syncing that folder but nothing was happening. No error messages or file restriction warnings. I honestly have no idea what happened but it was definitely odd. Archiving a lot of the files into ZIP files resolved the issue.
(Quick side note about Live Mesh for Mac. There are no options to remotely connect to your Mac for the full desktop experience like there is on Windows. Again, this review isn’t about that feature, but figured it might be important to note.)
Travelling the SkyDrive into the Cloud
One of the newest features added since Windows Live Sync is the ability to sync your files to the Internet. Using Windows Live SkyDrive Synced Storage, you can sync up to 5GB worth of files onto the cloud.
The dashboard for Windows Live Mesh on the web is called Windows Live Devices. From Devices, you can rename your devices to more friendly names as well as prevent them from syncing files anymore.
When browsing a computer, Live Devices provides a lot of useful information. Not only can you see what folders are syncing to that computer, you can also view how much disk space is available on the computer and which folders are currently syncing files.
When browsing your folders, you’re automatically taken to the Windows SkyDrive Synced Storage folders where you’ll be able to view and download any available file and folders as well as manage which devices sync to that folder.
Feel free to share, as long as they’re your friends
If you want, you can share your files with other Windows Live users. No matter which client you are using, all sharing is handled through the Windows Live Devices web site. In your Live Mesh client, navigate to the folder you want to share and click the relative Share button or link. On the Live Devices site, just enter the name or email address of the person you would like to share with and click Save. Those people will then receive an email letting them know you shared a folder with them.
One particular thing you may have noticed is that there is no option to share your folders publicly with anyone. This is truly an unfortunate missing feature. The regular version of Windows Live SkyDrive does provide this option but this removes any possible syncing options. (Which would be useful for someone who is always sharing files to the web.)
“Almost Anywhere” really means “Almost Anywhere”
Live Mesh and SkyDrive Synced Storage is a helpful tool, especially if you’re on the go a lot. There are times you need that file from your computer but can’t get to your computer. Just log into SkyDrive and there are your files.
Well, if you log in from a desktop or laptop computer.
Right now, there are no native applications on mobile platforms for accessing your SkyDrive Synced Folders. If you think you’ll just use the Windows Live Mobile web site to get to them, think again. Upon logging into SkyDrive Mobile, you are only presented with the files and folders on the regular version of Windows Live SkyDrive (which offers no syncing options).
To be fair, Microsoft does note on their Live Mesh promotion page that your can “Access the stuff on your computers from almost anywhere”. Maybe the Live Mesh team can strikethrough the word “almost” in a future release.
Some Restrictions May Apply
One of the biggest problems I ran into with then Windows Live Sync was the fact I was syncing WAY too many files. This is due to my need to manage multiple web sites, which core web application platforms use a lot of files. Unfortunately, this made Windows Live Sync choke. Horribly. I can safely say this bug is no longer there. I am happily syncing over 7000 files and folders without a single error. That being said, there are some restrictions on what you can and cannot sync.
When attempting to sync some folder Outlook Personal Folders files, Mesh popped up a warning that it could not sync those files. Mesh would not continue syncing until I resolved this issue. Since these PST files are only there for archival purposes, archiving them into a ZIP file resolved the issue. This is rather problematic for the way I handle some of my data.
One way advanced users have used syncing tools such as this is for syncing portable applications. Instead of taking a USB Flash Drive with them with their programs and utilities, some people will just copy these files to their syncing folders so that their apps settings are with them wherever they go. Live Mesh may or may not support this. After installing PortableApps.com into a Live Mesh sync folder, Live Mesh refused to sync the PortableApps folder. But if I were to install a Portable App outside of that folder, it would sync without any issues.
Browsing the Help Center for Windows Live Mesh does not provide any information about restricted file types. In fact, the help documentation for Live Mesh isn’t helpful at all. More on that later.
I can understand Microsoft’s concern for not waiting to sync certain type of files on the grounds of security and safety (do you really want to sync viruses and malware to all your computers?), but for those power users who like being able to run their apps from anywhere, you’re may have to look elsewhere.
What’s In A Name?
As Live Mesh allows you to sync your choice of folders, your own interaction with these folders can prevent Live Mesh from syncing properly. I didn’t like naming a synced folder “Program Files” anymore, so I renamed it to “Settings” in the Windows Explorer. Being use to Dropbox, I figured Live Mesh would pick up on this change and update itself accordingly. It did not. My “Program Files” folder still existed on SkyDrive Synced Folders but not my computer. My new “Settings” folder existed on my Desktop but SkyDrive knew nothing of it.
Thankfully, all I had to do to resolve this issue was set up Live Mesh to sync the disconnected “Program Files” folder to the “Settings” folder. Unfortunately, now I have the issue of folder names not matching up. On my Windows 7 computer, the folder name is “Settings”, but it’s still called “Program Files” on SkyDrive and other computers. The name cannot be changed on SkyDrive and changing the name on other computers will only lead to the same issue. It’s a really big mess.
The lesson here for this situation: don’t rename your Synced Folders names unless you feel like going through the trouble of going through the sync process all over again.
There’s No Going Back (If You Screw Up That File)
One feature missing from Live Mesh is Versioning, which I’m actually quite surprised about. Versioning is built into Windows 7 (if you’ve configured Windows Backup) as well as Microsoft’s line of server operating systems. So why is it missing from SkyDrive Synced Storage?
As Microsoft’s base of Windows Live users is likely larger than that of Dropbox (just a guess, not fact), I could only assume storage is the issue. On free accounts, Dropbox only offers versioning of files up to 30 days. If the Windows Live team offered at least 7 days of Versioning, it would be better than nothing. More often than not, I find myself making a mistake immediately than more than a week later. Others may be different.
Not A Lot of Help
While reviewing Windows Live Mesh, I needed to research which types of files are restricted. The most logical location to look for this is in the program’s Help files. When accessing the Get help for Windows Live Mesh menu, you’re taking to a FAQ web site with just basic questions. File type restrictions is not one of the questions answered.
The Help Center does include a link to a Forum for community help and assistance. This seems to be a common theme with software applications as of late. I find this to be lazy and signs of a company not wanting to put much effort into their documentation. Searching the forum for your answers isn’t great as you have to contend with questions that don’t ask anything, questions with a million question marks and exclamation points, and questions in various languages. Restricting my search to only Live Mesh still resulted in search results in other Windows Live products.
Still Missing An Opportunity
A complaint in my original article was being unable to edit Office documents saved in my SkyDrive Synced Storage in Windows Live Office Web Apps (wished Microsoft would drop the “Web Apps” part … the name is long enough). Sadly, this still stands. I honestly still think this is an opportunity for Microsoft to really take out Google Docs.
On the flipside of this argument, I can understand Microsoft not wanting to cannibalize sales of the retail copy of Microsoft Office. I cannot see that happening as the Live Office apps are really gimped versions of their Desktop counterparts. But for someone who is on the road and needs to make a quick edit to a document, it would be of wonderful use. Live Office provides the basics of what the user needs for that moment while saving any major changes for when the user gets back to their desk.
A Pretty Hard Act To Compete With
As most know, I have praised one of the original document syncing services, Dropbox, since almost its inception. The software and web service was different than other products at the time as it would automatically sync files on your computer to other computers as well as onto the web. It also included features to share files and folders in your Dropbox with other users. If any of those collaborators made changes, everyone would see the changes. A great tool for small businesses, especially with its support for File Versioning. Accidentally saved the wrong changes or deleted the wrong file? You could pull it back from the digital grave from Dropbox’s web interface, almost as if nothing ever happened.
These are some pretty big features to try and go up against, especially from a company who offered a free basic plan. I feel that Windows Live Mesh and SkyDrive Synced Storage can be that and better than it as well.
Although I listed quite a few negatives about those two services, overall, Live Mesh works like it should and does so just fine. Issues like the sync status and folder renaming will most likely be worked out in later versions, but I wouldn’t call these deal breakers. Access to my synced files on a mobile platform did have me leaning on the fence as to stick with Live Mesh or not. Matters related to access to Office Web Apps from Synced Storage is definitely in the “Want” list, but, again, I understand Microsoft’s stance on this.
In fact, when you look at the list of problems I had with Live Mesh and SkyDrive, these are problems that advanced users like myself would run into. For the person who just wants to sync their files to ensure they have what they need when they need it, it’s perfectly fine. The other thing to remember is that this is Live Mesh’s first public outing. It had been a side project of the Windows Live team for the longest time before being folded into the main Live Essentials package. You could almost consider this the official “Version 1.0″ edition of the software.
That being said, if you’re needing a little more flexibility in what you can do, I have to say stick to Dropbox. But if you’re talking about your parents who only dabble here and there on the computer, then for a free solution, Windows Live Mesh will do just fine for them.