Microsoft’s Live Mesh service, now in beta testing, has the most promise of any of the online services. With an easy setup, you can make your files available on multiple computers, you can share files with other people, and you can access your computers remotely, all for free. At the moment it only works on Windows PCs but soon it will be possible to add Windows Mobile devices and Macs.

Let me take you through a simple setup to help you get started.

Your use of the Live Mesh service starts with your Windows Live ID, the free email address and password that Microsoft uses to set you up with its services. Here are the instructions to set up a Windows Live ID. Have your Windows Live ID in mind before you start, and make sure your Live ID account shows “United States,” per my instructions.

Now go to the Live Mesh web site, www.mesh.com, and click on Sign In. Provide your Live ID credentials and accept the license agreement on the next screen.

livemesh1You should be taken directly to the main Mesh screen, shown on the right.

Click on the “Add Device” button. You’ll be adding the computer you’re sitting at by installing a small piece of software. It will take 3-4 minutes to install the software. (It hasn’t frozen. Wait for it.) When it’s done, you’ll have a distinctive new icon by the clock.

Now click on the “Live Desktop” icon on the main Mesh screen. You’ll be looking at your “Live Desktop.” It will have icons for files and folders but don’t get confused – these folders are online, not on your computer.

Add a folder and give it a recognizable name – “My Synced Files,” say. Now close the browser window! You’re done with “Live Desktop” for now.

Minimize all your open programs so you can see your computer desktop. Within seconds, a shortcut named “My Synced Files” will appear on your desktop.

When you click on it, you’ll be asked where that shortcut should lead. By default, Mesh offers to set up a new empty folder on your desktop with the same name. Take that choice for now. The folder on your desktop will quickly turn to a translucent blue. It’s now part of the Mesh system.

It’s just a folder. You can put any files you want into it. You can fill it with Word documents and open them and edit them just like any folder. It’s just a folder.

But everything in it will be automatically copied to the online folder. Every change will be copied online. If you delete a file from My Synced Files on your desktop, it will be deleted from the online copy automatically. You don’t have to do anything, it just happens.

So put some files and folders into “My Synced Files”! Don’t go nuts. Put in 50 files, not 5,000. It works with 5,000 but you’ll get impatient and think it’s broken. Put in some folders full of files.

The reward comes when you sit down at a different computer.

If you have a second computer, go to the Mesh web site on the second computer and log in with the same Windows Live ID, then click “Add Device” to install the software. After it’s installed, you should have the same shortcut on your desktop to set up “My Synced Files.”

  • If that shortcut doesn’t show up automatically, then go back to the Mesh web site and click on Live Desktop. When you right-click on “My Synced Files” and click on “Change Sync Settings,” you’ll be able to change your second computer to sync “When files are added.” You’ll immediately have the same shortcut on your desktop to click on to establish that you want “My Synced Files” to appear on your second computer desktop. Within minutes, the “My Synced Files” folder on your second computer will be filled with all of the files that are on the first computer.

From now on, when you change a file in that folder on one computer, the changed file will be there on the other computer right away, automatically. The two computers will always be in sync.

Let’s reiterate. Once this is set up, you will work with your files on your computer, in the folders on your desktop, just like before. You don’t need to “upload” files to Live Desktop – just save them into “My Synced Files.” In fact, normally you’ll never visit Live Desktop from one of your own computers except to set up a new folder.

Try that to get started! It’s only a taste but you’ll be past the hard part. Here are just a few things to look into when you’ve gotten your bearings!

  • You can add existing folders on your computer by right-clicking the folder name and clicking on “Add folder to your Live Mesh.” I’m syncing my Internet Favorites folder on my desktop and laptop, for example.
  • You can share a folder that’s been made into a Mesh folder. It’s easiest to do that from Live Desktop – open the folder in Live Desktop, then click on the bottom of the right hand column where it says “Members.”
    • The person you invite will get a nice email invitation. It will lead them through installing the software and giving them shared access to the Mesh folder. Remember, they need to have a Windows Live ID ready, and they need that email invitation to lead them to your folder.
    • You can share a Mesh folder; you can’t share subfolders inside the Mesh folder.
  • You can log into www.mesh.com from another computer and see all the files in Live Desktop. You should be able to download them or open them at that new computer but I’ve seen some bugs in that process.
  • More interesting – you can log into www.mesh.com from any computer, click on one of your computers, and click on “Connect.” If the computer is turned on, you’ll start a remote desktop session that allows you to control the remote computer as if you’re sitting at it. This is very, very cool.

This is a beta service. Test it carefully, with backups of important data, but by all means test it! This is one of those times when you can gain new powers that you do not currently have. Enjoy!