Most of us use more than one PC these days, and if you count up the different machines you use on a weekly basis, they can easily reach double figures. You might have two or three machines in the house, and then a work PC as well. If you add that to the PCs owned by friends, family and colleagues, and machines found in libraries and internet cafes, you can start to see a trend emerging.

The upshot of this trend for PC polygamy is a disconnection between the computers we use and the files we need. Anecdotally, many people will find themselves in a situation where a file they were working on is stuck on their home PC while they are at work, or vice versa.

Not having your files when you need them can be incredibly frustrating, but online storage and syncing can cut the worry and keep your files at your fingertips. We've covered online storage services before, but Microsoft's Windows Live Mesh2011 has been revamped to offer something different.

Unlike most online storage services, Windows Live Mesh 2011 is designed to sync files between your PCs, taking the effort out of storage.

Like a lot of other companies, Microsoft has its own online storage service, called Windows Live SkyDrive, but Live Mesh is different. Its job is to fill the gap between your locally-stored PC content and the other PCs you use by creating automatically syncing folders.

Getting started

Windows live mesh

To get started with Windows Live Mesh you need to download the Windows Live Essentials client onto your PC.

The installer will ask you which of the family of programs you want to install, but you only need Windows Live Mesh to start syncing your data. You'll also need a Windows Live ID. This is the key to bringing in cloud services such as SkyDrive, which are used behind the scenes.

Once Windows Live Mesh is installed and you've signed in with a Windows Live ID, you can start syncing your files. In the main window choose 'Sync a folder' beneath the name of your PC.

A dialog box will open and you can choose any existing folder or library from your PC. If you'd rather not have everything from these folders sprayed onto the internet, you can create a Live Mesh folder locally on your PC. Anything added to this folder will be automatically synced to the web.

Windows Live SkyDrive, the service Live Mesh uses to store your files, has a 5GB limit, so if you have extensive libraries, you may want to be selective.

Upload your files

Windows live mesh

When you've designated a folder, Windows Live Mesh will sync it and all of your files will be uploaded to the cloud. Once this process has finished, the newly synced folder will have a green tick placed next to it to show that everything is now up to date.

Once a folder is synced in Windows Live Mesh, you can start to do more with it. In the main Live Mesh console, click on one of your synced folders to adjust who can see and share it.

This lets you give other web users access certain folders, even if they don't use Windows Live Mesh. The ability to set public folders has long been a feature of SkyDrive, and guests are able to access this area of your online storage space provided they also use a Windows Live ID.

Windows live mesh

After your first PC is synced with Windows Live Mesh, you can start adding other PCs. The best way is to install the client on other PCs you use, and sign in with your Windows Live ID. When you log in on another PC, you will see all of the folders that have been synced with your account at the top of your screen.

You can then choose to have the folders synced with your PC so they appear among your other files as normal. To do this, click one of the folders and a box will appear letting you choose a folder from your local PC with which to sync the Windows Live Mesh content. This can be any existing folder, like 'My Documents', but you can create a new one if you want the synced content to stay separate.

Windows live mesh

If you're using a PC without the client installed, you can then go to SkyDrive from any PC or mobile device to retrieve it. While it might seem cumbersome to use SkyDrive to access files you synced using Windows Live Mesh, it means you don't need to have client software installed at the other end to access your files - perfect for locked-down corporate networks.

Unfortunately, there's no provision yet for syncing to other services like Dropbox, so if you want to take advantage of Live Mesh, you need to use SkyDrive. This is something Microsoft would do well to change, because Mesh is a great service that gains nothing by being tied to SkyDrive, which is adequate at best.

Syncing settings

Windows live mesh

Windows Live Mesh doesn't just deal with your files - it can sync your settings as well. This is one of the most innovative yet simple parts of the service, and essential for anyone who's particular about the way their PC works. Live Mesh can save settings from Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office, which can be synced to other PCs.

Syncing your Internet Explorer settings may sound duller than a fortnight in Penzance, but it lets you port your favourites and bookmarks from one PC to the other as if by magic. This means that any web page you find while at work will be accessible from your home PC, so there's no need to hunt for information you've already found. In Microsoft Office, the syncing goes further, extending to templates, dictionary entries and email signatures.

To enable settings syncing, you need the Windows Live Mesh client installed on every PC on which you want the settings to appear. On your main PC, install the Live Mesh client and a list of supported programs will appear under 'Program settings'. You can choose to enable these individually by clicking on the program name and choosing 'Turn on'. You need to install the client on any PC on which you want to use the settings, log in with your Windows Live ID and turn on syncing.

Remote connections

Windows live mesh

One of the best features of Windows Live Mesh is the ability to remote-connect and share the screens of computers within your Windows Live circle. This has plenty of benefits, like the ability to access your files from anywhere in the world, or help family members overcome PC problems without having to go round and listen to their explanations.

To share screens remotely, you need to do a little groundwork. First, you need to have the client software installed on both PCs, and be logged in on both with your Windows Live ID. When a PC is connected for the first time, it's added to the list of devices in the Windows Live Mesh console, although it's greyed out initially.

To bring these devices to life, you need to activate remote sharing. In the Windows Live Mesh console, click the 'Remote' button at the top to be taken to a special menu. Click the 'Turn on remote connections' link at the top to allow other PCs to connect to yours. Your Windows account needs to be password-protected.

Windows live mesh

Once you've enabled remote connections on two PCs, you can share screens. Choose one of the PCs and click 'Connect to this PC'.

A new window will appear while the connection is made, which can take around a minute. If the PC is logged into an account, you need permission from the person using it to connect. If the remote PC is logged into Windows Live Mesh and left at the password screen, you can take control instantly. You'll need to use the machine's password to log in, as if you'd just turned the machine on.

When the connection is made, the remote machine's desktop will appear in the window and you can browse as if you were sat down in front of it. You can launch any program, although as with any remote connection software, their fresh rate is slow and the screen will be jerky to use. You also can't make your local PC interact with the remote one directly, so if you want to retrieve files, you will need to send them as if you were sat at the remote PC.

Windows Live Mesh isn't the most advanced or customisable syncing program available, but it's one of the easiest to use. The remote access features are some of the best we've seen, and if you need to access your PC online, it's well worth checking out.

If you're looking to do more with syncing, Dropbox is fantastic and offers support for mobile devices, which Windows Live Mesh lacks. Windows Phone 7 users can take advantage of extra syncing though, and with Microsoft developing its Windows Live suite so rapidly, we'll be keeping a close eye on what's coming next.

Filesharing

Windows live mesh

Once you've got yourself set upwith Windows Live Mesh, andyour circle of PCs has been added and enabled with the client software, you can start to fine-tune your syncing so you're in full control of your information. After you've made a folder available to be synced, you can tell Windows Live Mesh manually which PCs you want to access it.

Choose one of the synced folders from the list in Windows Live Mesh, then click on it to expand more options. Now, on theright-hand side of the screen, click 'Select devices'. A new option menu will appear, with a list of every device in your circle. Click the tick box to have that folder synced to the device, or leave it blank if you don't want it to be listed.

Windows live mesh

It doesn't matter if the PC you want to sync with isn't switched on, because the updated content will be sent as soon as you log inon the second computer.

However, the original PC from which the files are being synced will need to be logged into Windows Live Mesh when you doso.

The beauty of organising your files this way is that you don't have to use Windows Live SkyDrive to sync them.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 309. Read PC Plus on PC, Mac and iPad

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