Microsoft has sacrificed usability to provide a pretty interface in Microsoft Live Mesh - a powerful but unnecessarily clumsy file-sync service.
Using Microsoft's Live Mesh service is like learning to drive a car: once you have the hang of it, it seems pretty straightforward - but if you've never sat in front of a dashboard before, it can be a little confusing at first. The current preview version serves mainly to provide you with remote access to other computers, a method to synchronise data on those computers, and a way to share data with colleagues.
Unlike the hand-holding interface of BeInSync, the the Microsoft Live Mesh website starts you off with a screen showing existing devices (including the online file manager, Live Desktop) and a big '+' button for adding one. With a new device, you log in to the Mesh site and click the '+' button to download and install the Mesh software.
Once you've set up all your computers, you can connect to any one of them and even control that system remotely via Windows Remote Desktop, a Windows XP and Vista feature that Live Mesh enhances. (You might also need to install an ActiveX control on the system you're using to access another of your devices.) Unlike BeInSync, which provides access just to the data residing on other machines, the remote-desktop feature in Mesh lets you take complete control of a distant computer, although a slow internet hookup will make the experience painful if not impossible.
If you don't require remote access, you can head over to the Live Desktop to do your syncing and sharing chores. You can easily synchronise any folder on a computer by right-clicking it and choosing Add folder to your Live Mesh.
If you expand the dialog box, you can also identify which computers Mesh should copy the data to for syncing. In most cases you'll want at least one copy on the Live Desktop internet "cloud" (Microsoft's connected servers) so that you can access it even when your other computers are shut off. If you indicate that you want the data synced to other computers, Mesh will make a copy of the folder on the desktops of those machines (rather than asking you to decide where to put it, as BeInSync and Syncplicity do).
Mesh assigns a blue icon to folders it manages, but (unlike Dropbox and Syncplicity) it provides no direct indication as to whether they are up-to-date. Mesh does give you other kinds of information via the "Mesh bar," a sidebar that it attaches to every open Mesh folder window. The sidebar lists who is using a shared folder and how many people it's shared with, as well as a report of recent activity, including alerts about version conflicts. For information on multiple folders, you can open a pop-up Notifier window by clicking the Mesh icon in Windows' taskbar tray.
Live Mesh's online file manager is the most sophisticated and Explorer-like among the five sync services I tried, but it doesn't yet support drag-and-drop from your own desktop, or even thumbnail views of files (available in most of the other products). You can see slide shows of media files if you install Microsoft's Silverlight browser plug-in, but that doesn't help you in selecting and working with just the photos you want.
Mesh doesn't have any specific backup features, but you can convert any server folder into a static backup by telling the program to stop keeping it in sync.
Although Microsoft Live Mesh provides many ways to do its various tasks, few were intuitive in the beta we tested. It cries out for a good quick-start guide, but the closest you get for now is a video tour. We were frustrated by features that were hard to discover, and glitz that seemed to slow down the work. The most distinctive feature, the remote-desktop capability, is already built into Windows, and unless Microsoft can come up with very attractive pricing (which at this writing hasn't been determined), we would look elsewhere.