Utility software

Synchronize Your Data With Multiple PCs, Macs, and Mobile Devices

Every day you probably run your hands across various different keyboards, touchpads, and plastic buttons. But working with so many different devices poses some challenges.

Windows Live Mesh splits the difference between using a peer-to-peer design and supporting cloud-based synchronization for PC-to-PC connections. Live Mesh's offer of 5GB of free, online space is hard to resist.
The hard part is getting the various products to talk to each other. You may store your business files on your work computer and your personal files on your home laptop. Your cell phone may be the hub of your social life, but that means nothing when you surf the Web on a Mac. You'd like to watch movies on this system while you work, but they're stored on a Windows-based computer elsewhere in your apartment.

Sure, you can use removable media to transfer files, but the process is slow, you have to keep the media on hand in order to access files, and the cost of scratching a disc, losing a thumb drive, or dropping a portable hard drive is high. In the case of frequently updated files, you have to run back to your host system to copy new material. And of course you can't do anything by phone.

The solution to this problem of data creep is synchronization. Lots of free applications and utilities can ease your multidevice lifestyle by keeping your critical files up-to-date and accessible to all of your deskbound or mobile systems. The result is a smooth, seamless (and free) process for ensuring access to the latest versions of much-needed files.

The underlying synchronization philosophy is the same, but different devices have different foibles that affect your ability to sync them easily. With that in mind, we'll focus on three different types of synchronization: PC to PC, PC to Mac, and PC to mobile device.

Sync PCs to PCs

There are two primary ways to synchronize files across PCs, be they desktops, laptops, or a combination of the two: through direct, system-to-system synchronization, or by uploading files to and downloading them from a third-party cloud service.

Direct synchronization benefits from faster transfer speeds and an unlimited capacity for changed data (because you perform the sync directly across two connected computers on your personal network). Its primary disadvantages is that you have to run both systems simultaneously to perform the synchronization, which eats up electricity and limits your ability to sync files when you're on the go.

Cloud-based synchronization services act as a third-party host for your files. Anything you upload will exist in its own protected space on the Internet, accessible from any device that you allow into your cloud network. Computers will sync with your virtual storage space whenever they come online, eliminating the need to keep two or more systems running in order to keep files matched between the two.

The major downside of the cloud is limited capacity. No service provider gives you access to more than a few gigabytes of free storage space for your files. And since the available bandwidth between you and your ISP effectively caps your synchronization speed, relying on the cloud may not be a good idea for heavy file transfers.

Windows Live Mesh offers the best of both worlds. This beta tool for Windows XP, Vista, and 7 systems combines Microsoft's Windows Live Sync utility--a free, direct-synchronization tool--and 5GB of space in a Microsoft-hosted cloud. Soon it will support Macs and phones, though these services have not yet been enabled. At this writing, the service is entirely free for download and use.

Use this Live Mesh configuration screen to select which PCs should sync with which folders, and whether to drop your files into your cloud storage.
To get started with Live Mesh, head over to Mesh.com and click the Sign In link. To use Live Mesh, you must have a Windows Live ID; if you don't have one, create it now. After logging in via new accounts or by typing your log-in name and password, you'll jump to the 'Review and accept agreements' page for Live Mesh. Click the I Agree button to transfer to the main Live Mesh screen.

The Live Desktop screen is where you'll manage the connections between your PCs and your Microsoft cloud. But before you can look at what's in your cloud-based storage, you'll want to add a system or two to synchronize. Click the large Add Device button, and download the accompanying Live Mesh software for your system. Run the installation routine, which adds a small Live Mesh icon to the lower-right portion of your taskbar.

Sign into Live Mesh with your Windows Live ID, assign your current system a name, and click the Add Device button. With that, you've completed your basic Live Mesh configuration. Repeat the preceding series of steps for each additional system you want to add to your synchronization network. Once you're done, you can start adding files and folders to sync. Select a folder (excluding Windows system folders, hidden folders, your desktop directory, and folders on removable media or mapped network drives) on one of your systems, right-click the folder, and left-click the Add Folder to Live Mesh option that appears in the context menu. Give the folder a name, and click OK.

The shortcut icon in the middle folder icon (of the three shown) indicates that the folder is synced between PCs and not to the user's Live Mesh cloud. The regular-looking folder icon below it signifies data that Live Mesh is synchronizing to your online storage.
A shortcut to the folder will appear on the desktop of every other computer that runs Live Mesh. Go to one of these systems and double-click the new desktop shortcut. Use the screen that appears to assign the selected folder to a new location on your PC, if you wish. Once you make the change, Live Mesh will sync the folder on this computer with the one on your original computer. Repeat this process for all of the connected systems in your Live Mesh.

If you want to perform synchronizations exclusively as peer-to-peer transfers (thus bypassing the 5GB limit of the Live Mesh cloud), click Show synchronization options after double-clicking the desktop Live Mesh folder shortcut. From there, select the Never for this device option for the 'Live Desktop' device. Otherwise, anything you add to the folders will transfer to the cloud as well--which you can view by signing into Mesh.com and double-clicking on your Live Desktop.

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