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Windows Live Mesh

[Warning: this is an old article. Mesh has been replaced by SkyDrive and the free version is only 7 GB rather than 25GB. The description is still pretty accourate of how Mesh/Sky Drive works. ]

Do you have a Windows 7 or Vista computer? If so, do you want 25 gigabytes of free online storage? Want 5 gigabytes of shared storage? Want to be able to use your files from your work computer on your home computer or vice versa? Want to be able to log onto your work computer with your laptop while on the road or on vacation? Want to have online Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote available from anywhere for free? Want to be able to upload photos from your phone and make the available for friends to view without ever leaving the party?

Yes, you can do all of this with Windows Live Mesh. Yes, Microsoft is making all this available for free -- just not for Windows XP.

Windows Live Mesh allows you to sync your data online so that your work, home, laptop and any other computer you wish all have the same version of the documents in your My Documents folder -- or whatever folders you want to sync. If you leave your work computer running, you can log into it from home and use the desktop just as if you were at work. It's similar to Remote Desktop, GoToMyPC or other remote login systems. In addition, you can sync your Internet Explorer settings, sync your Office settings and sync your Hotmail (messages, calendar and contacts). You can import your POP3 email account into Hotmail, too, so all your messages, contacts, etc. are all in one place and available on all your computers -- even your data-enabled cell phone.

You will see adds on the pages and some of them are annoying. If you want to turn them all off, subscribe to Hotmail Plus and for $19.95 per year, they will turn off all ads (not just in Hotmail) and give you an additional 5GB of storage space, bringing the total to 10GB. The web interface for Windows Live runs fine in Firefox and you can turn off the ads with NoScript.

No one will need every feature of Windows Live Mesh. But all of the pieces are well-done and work well. Once setup it is a huge pleasure to have all your files synced on all your computers. No more problems with having an old version of the file you want to work on in the computer you are using. Make changes to a file and the updated version is automatically synced with your other computers.

One word of warning. We have all received messages from friends who had their email account hacked and who were supposedly robbed while abroad. The emails invite you to send money to your "stranded" friend. The hackers are carefully changing the password on the email account, sending the request for money out to the contact-list once and then deleting the contacts, wiping out your inbox and sent message folders and fixing it so when you recover control of the account you have no way of contacting everyone to tell them the message was a hoax. If you have an easily-guessed password for your Hotmail account, hackers will not only have access to all your Hotmail information, but they will also have access to all your synced files. If you have a file that lists all your bank account usernames and passwords, you'll have an even worse time than those that lose only their email account.

At a minimum, have a secure password and if you store data you really don't want stolen, put it in an encrypted file. Use the Open Source TrueCrypt if you don't already have something you know and trust.

With some planning and attention to detail, Windows Live Mesh can make your life much easier at a price anyone can afford (free). Done poorly, any online storage system can lead to disaster and Mesh is no exception.