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Hands on with the preview of Windows 8's cloud sync service

Microsoft has integrated its cloud computing features into much of Windows 8. The focal point of that integration is the before long to be rebranded Windows Live service-use a Windows Live account as your login, and you can synchronize much of the information associated with your account to all your Windows devices through the cloud. Or for the moment, that's the goal. Synchronization in Windows 8 Release Preview gets most of the way there, however there's all in all a bit of fit and finish work to be done on the back-end service earlier Windows 8 ships.

If you've used Apple's Mac OS X and iOS, you're probably familiar with Apple's idea of sync, as embodied by iCloud. Windows 8's sync is not iCloud-and that, in some ways, is a good thing. During the Windows 8 sync service will provide a connection between PCs, tablets and in the long run even Windows phones, it won't do so in the data-intensive way that iCloud does.

Different approach to using the cloud than Apple

That's because Microsoft has taken a different approach to using the cloud than Apple, embedding a lot of the real heavy synchronization work into its Metro apps themselves based on the user configuration information stored in the cloud. So Windows 8's cloud sync features are more about handling administrative and user experience details than syncing large blocks of user data. If you want to move documents and pictures around betweeen devices, that sort of thing is left to SkyDrive.

Windows 8 settings sync is just that: it won't synchronize your email between devices. During it will save your email configuration to the cloud, you after all have to enter the passwords for your mail accounts manually to add each to the Mail app. And technically, there's no address book or calendar synchronization in Windows 8 sync-because those features are tied into the Mail, People, and Calendar apps directly through the source services. Once you have connected your mail accounts and other cloud services to your Windows Live account, their contents automatically get connected to each Windows 8 device you use.

Setting up for synchronization starts when you configure your user account. At installation, Windows 8 prompts you for a Windows Live account. You can create a new Live account or use an existing one for your user credentials, or choose to bypass this and set up a local-only user account-nevertheless you won't be able to leverage the synchronization features if you do. You can as well opt out later and switch to a local-only account through Windows 8's settings menu.

When you set up your user account-either at install time or from the PC settings menu afterward-you'll be prompted to either use an existing Live account email address or enter a new one. You'll as well be prompted for a phone number and alternative email address, which will come into play later when you finish configuring your account for synchronization.

Clicking "Trust this PC" launches Internet Explorer, and takes you to a Windows Live page to confirm adding the computer to your Live account. If you've added a phone number to your account, Windows Live will send you a confirmation code via text message to enter on a web page to add the PC; if not, it will email a link to you to click to activate.

Once you've completed confirmation, you'll be able to configure synchronization in Windows 8's settings. Go back to the PC settings menu, and select "Sync your settings." You'll now be able to select what gets pushed between systems you've designated as trusted:

Another thing that you can do with Windows 8 sync is manage usage of "metered connections" just as 3G and 4G wireless service for syncing, based on the support built into your device. If you do allow synchronization from broadband wireless, you can as well disable or enable whether that happens during you're in "roaming" mode on another provider's network.

Clearly, it's not fair to compare Windows 8 Release Preview's sync to Apple's iCloud directly, especially since there's no good way to test how so then it works with other devices but. I tested the service between two PCs, which is hardly the range of devices that the sync service is supposed to support. As well, it's clear that there is a lot of work for all that to be done on the back-end of the service.

With this limited test capability, I set both systems to synchronize everything that Windows 8 gives as an option. Some things synchronized almost without warning-bookmarks and passwords moved over quickly because they were tied to the Live account, for instance. The lock screen I chose synchronized quickly as then. However it took a few hours for my profile picture to be synched between the two, and for other basic interface preferences to be copied over.

In theory, the way Microsoft is doing sync will be compelling, and potentially more useful to some users than the way iCloud works. However like iCloud, Windows 8's sync exists in an operating system monoculture: you'll need to have Windows on everything to get the benefit of its particular approach.

Sean Gallagher / Sean is Ars Technica's IT Editor. A former Navy officer, systems administrator, and network systems integrator with 20 years of IT journalism experience, he lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

More information: Arstechnica
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