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How to use Windows Live SkyDrive

Do you need an alternative to Dropbox? The revamped Windows Live SkyDrive feature for Microsoft's Office Live Workspace offers convenience, many components and free storage.

I'm all about convenience -- drive-through windows, remote controls, robotic vacuum cleaners, you name it -- if something can make my hectic life easier, then I'm all for it. So when I heard that Microsoft changed its Office Live Workspace offerings, I decided to check it. I need to store data on the fly, without having to worry about losing a USB stick or carrying around a USB drive. Plus, I'm also a cheapskate when it comes to not wanting justify a purchase if my needs can be satisfied for free.

I was an original beta tester for Microsoft's Office Live Workspace when it was released a few years ago, and I didn't think much of it at the time. I had used the Windows Live Folders service (the predecessor to SkyDrive, which existed long before the term "cloud" got overhyped) and decided that other Software as a Service alternatives were more robust and better fit my needs at the time. Well, a few months ago, I got an email from the Windows Live Team saying that it was going to upgrade my Office Live site and move me to the updated SkyDrive offering. I am a current Dropbox user and like it, so the hard sell was on for me.

The first thing I noticed after signing up for an Office Live site was that I got a barrage of services. I have no idea why some require separate registration and some still require the download of the newly introduced Windows Live Essentials 2011. Since I converted some time ago, when the Essentials product was not yet available, this is what was offered to me when I first logged in:

  • Live Messenger
  • Live Groups -- a shared storage area within SkyDrive for groups of users
  • Live Photos -- photo galleries allowing for Silverlight slideshows, metadata and tags
  • Live Contacts -- formerly "Live People"
  • Live Office -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and even OneNote
  • Live Mesh -- File and folder sync for PCs and Macs
  • Bing
  • MSN
  • Hotmail

All of these components could be overwhelming for some novice users. The features are abundant, but the average user probably won't use most of them. But, my primary target was SkyDrive, so I dove right in to it.

My needs were simple -- ample free online storage space, to be able to upload and download files easily, and to have some mechanism for synchronizing files between my computers and the cloud service. Remember, I am a avid user of Dropbox, which is lightning fast on upload, downloads, and synchronizations, so that is what I had to compare SkyDrive with.

It includes 25 GB of storage, which is more than adequate for my needs and much more than the capacity of Google Apps or the free 2 GB in Dropbox. However, if I took advantage of all the integration features of all the applications in the suite, I would probably use that up pretty quickly. You can't upload a file that is more than 50 MB in size, which is rare, but sometimes necessary. Dropbox has no file size limit when you use the desktop client (which I always do) and even a 300 MB limit on anything uploaded via its website. The larger space included with SkyDrive is very tempting, even with the limitations.

The interface for SkyDrive is fairly clean but not too intuitive, with some inconsistent dropdown menus and confusing options. I do like the number of options for files and folders, though. The product also integrates with Live Office and allows users to work on documents on the fly. The Sharing piece is a bit clumsy, but it does work well once you get it set up. Even with these nuisances, the interface is still better than what I am used to with Dropbox, since it caters to file synchronization and not the abundant other options offered by Live.

Synchronization is achieved via the new Windows Live Mesh, which is part of the Windows Live Essentials 2011 download. While I was writing this article, I got an email from Microsoft saying that as of March 31, 2011, Live Sync will stop working, and only Windows Live Mesh will be supported. Essentially, the Live Sync product and Live Mesh are being combined into a single offering within Live Essentials called Windows Live Mesh, which it always should have been, in my opinion. The Live Mesh piece has improved, with a new Mac client and the ability to replicate Internet Explorer and Office program settings between computers. I set up both, and after a few minor problems, things worked well. Remote computer access in Mesh gives it another point for integration.

In the end, I decided to keep both services up and running. SkyDrive fills some voids left by my current free Dropbox account and allows me to edit Office documents and photos and connect remotely to my computers wherever I am with no client installed. I haven't tried the mobile option yet, but Dropbox's iPhone app, so I don't think Live will win that battle any time soon. I haven't fully used or tested all the other apps that Microsoft throws at you with this, but I'll get around to them, as long as Office Live Workspace stays free, of course.

Mike Nelson has been in IT for over 20 years, with exposure to a very diverse field of technologies. He has devoted over half a decade to virtualization and server-based computing. Nelson is currently a senior analyst at a Fortune 100 company in the U.S. Midwest.

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