Hands on: Microsoft's Windows Live Essentials rides a new wave

Wave 4 of Live Essentials offers some great individual applications but could use a coherent interface.

The beta of Microsoft's latest update of its free Windows Live Essentials line of online applications -- which Microsoft calls Wave 4 -- was recently released to reviewers and beta testers; the final release is expected sometime this summer. It's a grab-bag of useful, if often unrelated, applications that offer a variety of services for doing things such as managing photos, creating videos, checking e-mail, doing instant messaging, writing blog posts and synchronizing data among PCs.

Whether you'll be impressed with this newest version will depend on whether you view it as a single, coherent product line or as a group of disparate applications. As a coherent product line, there's no clear theme tying everything together. But the individual products are useful, solid pieces of work and often quite powerful, given that they're free. In fact, they're some of the best free applications you'll find anywhere and are well worth the download.

A quick overview

The Wave 4 release of Windows Live Essentials comes about a year and a half after the Wave 3 release. The new release has a lineup of applications that is almost identical to that of its predecessor: Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Movie Maker, Windows Live Sync, Windows Live Writer, Windows Live Family Safety and the Bing Bar (which replaces the previous Windows Live Toolbar).

Windows Live Essentials works only with Windows Vista and Windows 7, so Windows XP users are out of luck. Some features have been optimized for Windows 7 -- for example, Windows Movie Maker can make use of codecs built into Windows 7.

Some of the offerings in Windows Live Essentials are applications that originally shipped with Windows but were stripped out in Windows 7, such as Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker. Other applications, such as Windows Live Sync and Windows Live Writer, are unique to Live Essentials.

In this review, I'll look at the changes in this beta version of Windows Live Essentials compared to Wave 3.

Windows Live Sync

The sleeper of the group that has gotten very little notice is Windows Live Sync. That's a shame, because for people with multiple PCs, this little app may be the best of the bunch. Beyond that, it could provide an important syncing foundation for many other Microsoft products in the future, including the Web version of Office.

Windows Live Sync does exactly what the name implies -- it synchronizes files and folders among multiple PCs, Macs as well as Windows PCs. (Note: While previous versions of Windows Live Sync do work with Macs, I was unable to get the Mac version of this beta to work.)

As with previous versions of Windows Live Sync, you install the software on each computer that contains folders you want to synchronize. The application finds other computers that have Windows Live Sync installed; you can then choose the folders that you want to synchronize, and on which computers you want them synchronized. The software does its magic in the background as you work.

This new version of Windows Live Sync has a new client interface for controlling synchronization; it now shows you more detail about all the folders on a computer you want synchronized -- which device they synchronize to, synchronization status and so on. You can also choose to share the folders with other users.

How? Well, with this version you can sync your folders not just from computer to computer, but also to the free Windows Live SkyDrive Web-based storage service, where you get 2GB of free storage space. That means that Windows Live Sync doubles as a simple backup service. It also means that you'll be able to get access to your files from any Internet-connected computer.

You can also synchronize your Internet Explorer Favorites and a variety of Microsoft Office settings, including templates and e-mail signatures, among multiple computers.

Windows Live Essentials

Windows Live Sync makes it easy to synchronize files and folders.

An especially useful new feature, taken from an older Microsoft service, Windows Live Mesh, is the ability to take control of one of your Windows computers via a remote Internet connection. I tried it out and found that it was quite easy -- I was able to control a remote PC as if I were sitting at its keyboard. Anyone who has struggled with setting up Windows' built-in Remote Desktop Connection will welcome this new tool.

Windows Live Sync is so useful that it's surprising that Microsoft hasn't baked it into all of its products, such as Microsoft Office and the Web-based Microsoft Office Web Apps. Perhaps that will come in the future.

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