Windows 8 Tip: Use SkyDrive to Sync Your Documents and Pictures

In a previous tip, I discussed how you can complete the Windows 8 user experience by installing Windows Essentials 2012, a suite of useful desktop applications that provides far more functionality than the built-in Metro apps and desktop applications that come standard with the OS. One of those applications, SkyDrive, is particularly useful. And if configured correctly, you can use this application to sync all of your important documents and photos—and other files—between all of your PCs and the cloud.

Windows 8 does include a Metro-style SkyDrive app in-box. But as with other mobile apps, the Metro-style SkyDrive app does not provide any way for you to sync SkyDrive-based content from the cloud to your PC. Instead, you will need to install the desktop SkyDrive application, which provides a File Explorer-based interface for accessing the contents of your SkyDrive storage.

You can obtain the SkyDrive application in two ways: As a standalone application via the SkyDrive web site, or as part of the Windows Essentials 2012 suite of applications. (Microsoft irresponsibly refers to this and other desktop applications as an app, so don’t be fooled.)

The first time you run the SkyDrive application, you’re asked to sign in with your Microsoft account—use the same account you sign into Windows 8 with, of course—and choose a location in the file system to which to sync your SkyDrive-based folders and their contents. The default location is C:\Users\[User-name]\SkyDrive, but you’re free to locate this folder anyway. (I generally don’t change the install location on portable computers with a single SSD drive. But on my home PC which has a SSD-based boot drive and a second, larger traditional hard drive, I move the location to the latter drive.)

If you’ve already been using SkyDrive, you’ll probably want to give the application some time to sync the contents of the SkyDrive-based storage to your PC. This can take a while, depending on how much content you’ve stored there. (Remember, all SkyDrive users get at least 7 GB of free storage, while grandfathered accounts often have as much as 25 GB of free storage; you can also pay Microsoft annually for more storage.)

While you’re waiting for the cloud-based files to sync, let’s think about how we might optimally use this storage, while keeping in mind that anything you store there can be synced with any other PC (or, soon, device) you regularly use. That is, if you decide to store, say, all of your documents in SkyDrive, you can ensure that those documents are always available, on each of your PCs, automatically.

Currently, SkyDrive natively understands two file types only: Documents (Office document formats, text files, PDFs, and so on) and Pictures (photos and other images). So while, yes, you could of course store music and even video files in SkyDrive, the assumption—based on hints and clues from Microsoft—is that this functionality is coming in a future update. So for now, let’s focus on just documents and pictures.

In Windows 8, Microsoft utilizes the same system of virtual folders, called libraries, which were present in Windows 7. So the Documents library is really just a database-like view into two physical folders: My Documents and Public Documents. Likewise, the Pictures library is really just a view into My Pictures and Public Pictures.

Depending on how deep you want to jump into the cloud, then, you could add SkyDrive-based Documents and Pictures folders to the appropriate library in Windows 8 or you could even choose to remove the default folders and use only SkyDrive-based folders.

Here’s what I do.

Documents. Because data portability is important to me, I remove the My Documents and Public Documents folders from the Documents library on all of my Windows 8-based PCs. Then, I configure the Documents folder in SkyDrive (C:\Paul\SkyDrive\Documents) to be the only location aggregated by the Documents. This way, virtually all Windows applications and apps that need to save data files will look to this folder by default. (Some, like Visual Studio, ignore Windows’ libraries and still write directly to the My Documents folder, which of course still exists.)


I’ve organized the contents of this SkyDrive-based Documents folder according to my own needs and work habits, of course. So there are folders in there for blog posts and news, books, ongoing article series, and so on. (My SkyDrive-based OneNote notebooks are also contained in this folder.)

Pictures. Because I have different needs for photos, I configure the Pictures library a bit differently. Here, I retain the My Pictures folder, and remove Public Pictures. But I add a SkyDrive-based Pictures folder (C:\Paul\SkyDrive\Pictures) to the library as well. (The My Pictures folder is used as the default and public save location.)


Why do it this way? When I acquire photos from a camera or memory card, I don’t want them all to sync up to the cloud or to other PCs. So I use the local My Pictures folder for this purpose, and on portable computers I consider this to be a temporary scratch space of sorts: When I get home from a trip, I’ll move any acquired photos to my home server and remove them from the PC.

In SkyDrive, I keep just a few folders of photos that I sync from PC to PC (and with the cloud, where they’re accessible from mobile devices, including Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT). These includes favorite photos of family, friends, and locations, and some wallpapers other pictures I use frequently, rather than some giant chunk of my photo collection.

Looking ahead, I expect Microsoft to add Music as a folder type in SkyDrive, and in preparation of this, I have actually started syncing a small collection of frequently-listened-to music files to a Music folder on SkyDrive. And on this most recent trip, I added this synced folder to my Music library on the PC I brought, mostly for experimentation purposes. I suppose Microsoft could also add a similar capability for videos, but the size of those files makes such a thing, if not unlikely, untenable for most regardless. I will likely continue just using non-synced folder locations for the Videos library.

Configuring your Windows 8 libraries with SkyDrive folders will require a bit of configuration in SkyDrive, where you will create the folders you want and remove the ones you don’t. (If you’re really using SkyDrive a lot, as I am, there will also be folders you can’t remove, like Twitter Uploads or whatever.) I find this to be easier in File Explorer, since it works just like any other file management task. But if you visit the SkyDrive web interface, you can change the folder type for any contained folder (remember, only Documents and Pictures are currently available), which is useful for when you’re visiting these locations on the web or via a mobile app.


I’ve been using SkyDrive like this in Windows 8 for months now and it works well. I’m curious to see what services changes come in the future, and how this will change what I sync from PC to PC.

For more information about my use of SkyDrive with Windows 8, please read 2012: A Cloud Odyssey - From Live Mesh to SkyDrive, SkyDrive Tip: Recover Deleted or Modified Files, SkyDrive Tip: Configure Folder Types, and SkyDrive Tip: Migrate from Live Mesh.

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