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Live Mesh consumer app is a work in progress

Microsoft's new sync platform and product shows what the future of interconnected PCs will be like. Maybe.

Microsoft is announcing Live Mesh today in conjunction with the Web 2.0 Expo. It's an ambitious technology platform for sharing data among people, apps, and devices. Consumers will first be exposed to the technology in a personal data synchronization and device-sharing product of the same name, competing directly with products like LogMeIn, GoToMyPC, SugarSync (review), Syncplicity (review), and Microsoft's own FolderShare, and SyncToy.

We tried the technology preview version of the app. As a sync tool for PCs, it's got good potential. It is easy to perform the basic operations of adding PCs to your sync pool and to define which folders you want to keep replicated. Synced data is automatically copied from PC to PC when both devices are online. It's more difficult to set up the system so directories with different structures sync to each other, but once you find the option to do so, there's a lot of flexibility.

Live Mesh shows you your synced devices in a cute animated "ring." (Click image for gallery.)

Live Mesh is free. It also gives each user a free but limited (5GB) Web-based storage pool, the Live Desktop, that acts like another sync point: You tell it which of your PCs' folders you want to see on the site, and the data is copied over. Some media types, like MP3s, can be streamed directly from the Live Desktop using a Silverlight media player.

Live Mesh grafts a sidebar window onto Windows Explorer for directories that are synced. (Click image for gallery.)

Live Mesh allows users to share their directories with other people, but this feature isn't fully built out. It's currently possible to give another person full access to a synced folder on your PC, but I couldn't find a way to share just a single file, nor share a file or folder from the Web-based Live Desktop (which would have been better, since sharing from a PC means you have to leave your PC on for the other person to see the files). I also couldn't find a way to give other people read-only access to my directories.

One big plus: Live Mesh integrates Windows' built-in Remote Desktop function. It's easier to set up remote access using Live Mesh than any other app I've used.

The Web-based Live Desktop lets you stream your synced media files. (Click image for gallery.)

And there's a handy notifier widget with Live Mesh that shows you what's happening with all your shares and syncs: Who's accessing them, changing files, and so on. Once you start building out a large mesh of files and folders among various devices and people, this will become an important tool for keeping up with what's happening to your data.

Ready for prime time? No.

Our recommendation: If you're currently using another file or folder synchronization product, stand pat. Live Mesh is too rough around the edges. In addition to the user interface issues, I found that during initial sync it dragged my systems' performance down a lot. I would hope performance improves as Microsoft inches toward a public release of Mesh. But we are talking Microsoft here, so that's not a given.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Live Mesh has a ton of potential. Fix the performance, the user interface, and add Mac and mobile clients (in the works), and it could help people really get a handle on their far-flung data. Add an option for unlimited online storage (like HP Upline; review) and it becomes a killer backup app. We'll keep an eye on this one, and we recommend you do, too, but I wouldn't rush to install it today.

CNET reporter Ina Fried got briefed by Microsoft's Noah Edelstein and recorded this video demo:

See also:
Live Mesh: a glimpse of Ozzie's plan
Peering through the Ozzie Mesh
FAQ: Making sense of Live Mesh