Monday, June 28, 2010
Windows Live Sync Wave 4 Beta: Some Improvements, Some Big Problems
Posted by Jason Dunn in "Digital Home Talk" @ 07:46 PM
If you haven't already checked out the new Windows Live Essentials Beta (also known as Windows Live Wave 4), you should - it's definitely worth a look.
The new Windows Live Mail client is a quantum leap forward - the speed improvements they made to IMAP accounts alone make it worth the upgrade. Windows Live Movie Maker is also much-improved, with Zune HD, Windows Phone, and custom output profiles. Windows Live Sync, what I believe is the most underrated part of the Windows Live suite, has finally received a huge update that's long overdue. Year after year, Windows Live Sync - formerly known as Foldershare, created by Byte Taxi and purchased by Microsoft in 2005 - limped along with nary an improvement to the user interface in sight. That's finally changed...but not all of it is good.
First, the good news: you can do pretty much everything from the desktop client. It's been completely re-designed, with a far less cryptic user interface. From within the desktop client, you can select a folder you want to sync, and select the computer you want to sync it with (the other machine has to have Live Sync installed already of course). It's even smart enough to put the folder in the same place on the other computer. For instance, I have a folder called Workspace that I keep on the desktop of every computer. I use Live Sync to keep that folder in sync amongst all of my machines, which allows me to maintain an active workflow no matter which system I use. In previous versions of Live Sync, to set that up I'd have to do a lot of drilling-down in the Web based interface. With the Wave 4 beta, I just select the computer I want the folder to show up on, and boom, it gets synched over to the same location on the new machine. Brilliant!
Another hugely welcome change is the fact that libraries can how have up to 100,000 files in them, up from 20,000. This is great news, because it means I can now put my photo collection back together; I had to break my photos up into two separate master folders when I broke past 20,000 total photos. The new 100K limit should keep me happy for at least a few years.
Now for the bad news: initial sync performance is, in a word, abysmal. I set up Live Sync on my Dell Vostro V13 after re-installing Windows 7 (long story), and set it to sync my 25K pictures from a desktop PC. The laptop had a solid wireless connection at 54mbps, and both the laptop and desktop were set to stay turned on for three hours. I've done this 10+ times with the previous Live Sync client, and in the morning I always saw that all the files were synced over.
Imagine my surprise when I turned on the laptop this morning and less than 3000 photos had synched over! Worse, Microsoft has removed all real data from the status indicator - all it says now is "Syching". There's no indication of the speed at which the sync is processing (which was critical for ensuring that your LAN sync was going at the right speeds), there's no real-time view of the files as they sync (which allowed you to peg files that were causing problems), and there's no estimation of when it will be complete. All you can do is sit and watch the running total of synced/un-synched files.
As of 6pm my local time, this sync had been running for eight hours, and it still has 16K or so images to sync. It would have been faster for me to copy over all the images using an external hard drive - but even then, Live Sync would foil my plans. How? Because on another computer I'm doing a straight My Documents to My Documents sync from my main workstation. Minutes before I started the sync, both computers were running the previous version of Live Sync, and thus have identical directory contents. In previous versions of Live Sync, it would do a file-by-file comparison and recognize the files were identical - this process would only take a few minutes for thousands of files. For some reason, Live Sync seems to be re-synching all the files from scratch...yet there's no indication that any duplicates are being created.
Live Sync is also a resource-heavy process now - previously, beyond the initial scan after a reboot which would send the hard drive into heavy read mode, Live Sync had a fairly light touch. Now, even when doing an initial sync between two folders where the files are identical, it's a process that will consume up to 7 MB/s of hard drive throughput. This makes for a sluggish system, and if you have thousands of files, expect the process to take hours - so you'll have a bogged-down system for a long time. If you've kicked off multiple large libraries to sync, it will be even more resource-intensive - on one of my systems I started both a My Documents sync and a My Pictures sync, and the hard drive has been grinding away at 10 MB/s for hours.
If it sounds like this mini-review has turned more negative than when it first started, it's because I've worked on it over the course of the day, and have been baffled staring at the "Processing Changes" messages for hours on end. While I appreciate the excellent new UI that Live Sync now features, the performance - both from a server and client level - is atrocious and I have to wonder what sort of testing the Live Sync team did before they released it. I can't imagine anyone thinking that this level of performance is acceptable. Sure, this is a beta, but I expect better from the Windows Live team.
My advice? Since the old Live Sync continues to work for now, wait a few weeks until the Live Sync team solves some of these performance issues - and, let's face it, some of the performance issues right now are due to people like me installing the new client and slamming the Live Sync servers with 40,000+ file sync requests to process, multiplied by several computers. The Live Sync servers can't cope with the load right now, so give them some time to deal with us early adopters.
Or wait until this new version of Live Sync exits beta when, hopefully the team can raise the performance bar much higher.
UPDATE: Since writing this article, Live Sync has continued to infuriate me. It's surprisingly CPU intensive when doing a scan/sync, and it won't sync hidden files. That means that every time I create a new folder of photos, and Picasa scans it, Live Sync refuses to sync the hidden picasa.ini file until I find the file and set the status to non-hidden. It's also exceedingly irritating that it will report that it's waiting to receive "x" number of files, but it won't tell you which client has those files - so your only option is to boot up every computer with Live Sync on it and let the clients get back into sync. I have one computer running Live Sync 24/7 that never shuts off, so this problem should never happen - it certainly never happened with the previous version of Live Sync. Lastly, the server performance continues to be awful - the other night at 2 AM I sat there watching two computers running Live Sync report that they needed to sync 65 files...but after 15 minutes, not a single file had synched (and they were just JPEGs). This product is a performance disaster and should be avoided for now.
Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys photography, mobile devices, blogging, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, his wonderful son, and his sometimes obedient dog. He wishes SSDs were much cheaper, and much bigger.
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