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.

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Windows Live Mail

When Microsoft decided to kill the Windows Mail desktop client back in 2007, not everyone was pleased. Windows Mail had been an update to Outlook Express, was built into Windows Vista and was a nice piece of work, although not as powerful as full-blown Outlook. Microsoft subsequently made it available as a free download under the name Windows Live Mail.

This latest version of Windows Live Mail represents a significant improvement over the previous version. The big change here is the addition of the Ribbon interface, found in Office 2007 and 2010 applications, and a calendar pane (which gives you access to the calendar that is in Windows Live Mail). This makes Windows Live Mail much more Outlook-like. In fact, at a first, quick glance, you could almost mistake it for Outlook.

Windows Live Essentials

The new version of Windows Live Mail looks much more like Outlook.

Also useful is the new Conversation View, similar to the one introduced in Outlook 2010, which makes it easy to follow threaded conversations with one or more people. Every e-mail with more than one message has a small triangle next to it. Click the triangle to see a chronological list of every message in the conversation; click any message to jump to it. It's a fine time-saver.

Windows Live Mail also lifts several features from Hotmail. As with Hotmail, if you want to share photos with others via e-mail, you can send a photo album.

Create your e-mail, click the "Photo album" icon, and choose your photos. Windows Live Mail then formats your images into a nice-looking album (using thumbnails) in your e-mail, and also stores the photos on your Windows Live SkyDrive account. Recipients can click the thumbnails and be sent to the full-size images on SkyDrive. This solves the problem of ISPs blocking messages with too-large attachments.

Also welcome are Quick Views, which appear on the left-hand side of the Live Mail screen, and which are especially useful for people who use Windows Live Mail for multiple e-mail accounts. For example, if you want to see all of your unread mail from all accounts combined, click "Unread e-mail." To see unread mail just from your contacts, click "Unread from contacts." And to see all the RSS feeds you haven't read yet, click "Unread feeds."

Windows Live Messenger

Microsoft has also given its instant messaging application, Windows Live Messenger, a facelift -- most notably by integrating it closely with social networking sites.

There are now two views in Windows Live Messenger: a compact view, which looks very much like the old Messenger interface, and a new (and default) full view. The full view is designed to make Messenger not just an instant messaging application, but instead a central hub for your electronic communications, with a full view of activities on your social networks and the ability to interact with them without having to actually visit those networks.

At this point, Live Messenger only partially fulfills that promise, because it integrates with only Facebook and MySpace, and leaves out other important social networking services such as Twitter. So, for example, you can see Facebook and MySpace friends and their updates from within Windows Live Messenger, and share your status with your Messenger contacts. You can make comments on your friends' Facebook posts from within Messenger, view videos they've posted, and so on.

Windows Live Essentials

Windows Live Messenger now features integration with social networks.

Will these changes be enough to make you begin using Windows Live Messenger if you don't already use it? Not likely. But existing Windows Live Messenger users will be very pleased by what they see, especially if they're also users of Facebook or MySpace.

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