With Windows 8, Microsoft is finally adding what’s now called “user experience virtualization” features to its desktop operating system, providing ways to sync various things between different PCs, providing a consistent and familiar environment on each. The core OS provides a wide range of settings synchronization capabilities, and with a simple and free add-on application, you can sync files between all of your PCs as well.

(Windows 8 provides some other PC-to-PC sync possibilities, too. Metro-style apps you purchase and download are stored in the Your Apps view in Windows Store, making it easy to install favorite apps and games on each of your PCs.)

Sync settings

If you sign into Windows 8 with a Microsoft account—or what’s still called a Windows Live ID—the system will automatically sync virtually all possible settings for you; only passwords are not synced automatically. This is true whether you use Express or Custom option during Setup.

If you didn’t sign in with a Microsoft account, you can still enable this functionality. Domain-joined users will need to connect their account to a Microsoft account, a process I describe in an upcoming tip. Those with old-fashioned local accounts will need to convert their account to a Microsoft account. I’ll be writing about that process in an upcoming tip as well.

Settings sync is configured through the new PC Settings interface, a Metro-style experience that is accessible from the Settings pane (WINKEY + I, then “Change PC Settings). (You can also access this interface from the Charms bar by choosing Settings first.) Once in PC Settings, navigate to Sync Your Settings

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If the Passwords sync switch is accompanied by a warning that this setting is not being synced, you will need to make the current PC a “Trusted PC.” Click on the accompanying link to visit the Windows Live web site and do so.

Windows 8 divides it’s syncable settings into several broad categories, but doesn’t actually explain what each category syncs. Rafael Rivera and I have thoroughly documented all of the actual settings that are synced here in Windows 8 Secrets, so we’ll have more to say on this topic once the book is published. (We’re also looking at a way to provide a more granular level of settings sync than is available in the native Windows 8 interface.)

While most people will probably want to sync virtually all of the settings listed here, it’s worth scanning the list. You may want a different lock screen photo on each PC, or whatever, so take the time to view the limited information that Microsoft supplies here.

Sync files

Windows 8 doesn’t provide any native PC-to-PC file sync capability, but Microsoft does provide a new SkyDrive application, now in beta, that lets you do this. Actually, the SkyDrive application goes a step further: It also syncs files to Microsoft’s cloud-based SkyDrive service, making your important files available from virtually anywhere: In addition to the typical web-based access, you can also access SkyDrive-based files from Windows Phone, the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, or Android-based devices, thanks to free mobile apps for those platforms. There’s even a version for OS X, providing file syncing capabilities to the Mac as well.

You will need to download and install the SkyDrive application from the SkyDrive web site.

When you install the application, a SkyDrive special folder will be added to your PC’s file system. This is typically added to C:\Users\Paul\SkyDrive (where “Paul” is your own account name) but you can change its location. The application will replicate your SkyDrive-based folders within that special folder on your PC and, if there are any files stored there already, will sync them to the PC.

In its current beta version, SkyDrive isn’t very customizable. You can’t choose to only sync certain SkyDrive-based folders, for example, a feature that is fairly obvious and necessary and almost certainly coming in a future release. You can configure the few SkyDrive settings that are currently available through the application’s system notification icon.

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Users of Microsoft’s previous PC-to-PC file sync solution, Live Mesh, know that that solution lets you arbitrarily place synced folders throughout the file system (and perform other actions that aren’t possible with SkyDrive), but the SkyDrive app uses a single folder hierarchy in a single location in the file system. There are complicated workarounds using an esoteric file system feature called NTFS junctions, which I may examine at a later date. But it’s more likely that most people will simply want to use SkyDrive as-is. And certainly, there are some useful workarounds.

For example, you can add folders within SkyDrive to the various libraries in Windows 8, making them more readily accessible. I use a SuperSite folder in SkyDrive, for example, to store work-related files. And adding this folder to my Documents library is easy enough: Simply use the Manage Library function in Explorer to add that location to the library.

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You could also change the default save location of frequently-used applications to the SkyDrive folder or to a location within that folder. I do this with Microsoft Word, where the default save location is a folder in my SkyDrive called “Blog Posts and News”.

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Looking ahead, Microsoft will be evolving both the SkyDrive service and the application. On the service side, SkyDrive will be changed to natively understand more file types. So where today, it only understands documents and folders, someday soon it will also work with music files and, perhaps, video. And while I don’t expect the application to adopt Live Mesh’s arbitrary folder sync scheme, it’s reasonable to assume that Microsoft will allow you to configure which folder locations within SkyDrive sync to each PC. That way you won’t overwhelm a low-capacity SSD with 25 GB or more of SkyDrive-based files you may or may not ever need. (Indeed, Microsoft representatives have hinted to me that this latter change is coming.)