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 Photo Gallery

The previous version of Windows Live Photo Gallery was a solid piece of work -- a good tool for organizing and viewing photos and for performing basic photo editing tasks. This new version juices it considerably, not only redoing the interface but adding some very clever new features such as face recognition.

As with Windows Live Mail, the primary change to the interface is the addition of the Ribbon. (Notice a pattern?) The Ribbon is particularly welcome here, because a considerable number of new editing tools have been added, and without the Ribbon interface, they would have been difficult to reach.

Windows Live Essentials

Windows Live Photo Gallery now sports a Ribbon-based interface.

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These tools include a Retouch feature for removing blemishes, scratches and similar glitches. You can also auto-adjust batches of photos at a time, changing color balance, sharpness and exposure.

The new Photo Fuse feature is nifty and will be welcomed by everyone who has ever taken group photos. It works this way: Let's say you have two photos of the same group of people. In one photo, two of the people are blinking, and in the other photo, two other people are yawning. With Photo Fuse, you can replace the faces from one photo with faces from another and come up with a photograph in which no one is blinking or yawning. The resulting image doesn't come out absolutely perfect -- you may notice a bit of ghosting -- but it will be better than either of the original photos.

Also new is a face recognition feature. When you tag a photo of someone in Windows Live Photo Gallery, you can ask the software to look through all of your other photos, and find pictures of that person in other photos so that you can tag those as well.

When used on Windows 7, Windows Live Photo Gallery also includes a wizard-like import tool that launches when you plug a device with pictures or videos on it into your computer.

It's easy to share photos and videos with a variety of sites, including Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Windows Live Groups and your SkyDrive account. On the Ribbon, you click the icon of the site where you want to share photos, and it takes one more click to share them. There's also integration with other Windows Live Essentials software. You can, for example, send a photo e-mail from within Windows Live Mail.

Windows Live Movie Maker

The most significant change you'll see in the new version of Windows Live Movie Maker is -- surprise! -- that it now gets the Ribbon treatment. But there are several other useful changes as well.

For example, Windows Live Movie Maker sports the same interface on the Ribbon as Windows Live Photo Gallery for sharing videos via SkyDrive, Facebook, Windows Live Groups and YouTube.

Also notable are the new AutoMovie themes, which add a title, transitions, captions and a soundtrack to your video. You get a choice of six themes, such as a Sepia theme that turns your movie sepia-toned. In addition, Movie Maker now features a live preview feature, so you can see your movie in the playback window before making any changes.

Windows Live Essentials

Windows Live Movie Maker shares videos via SkyDrive, Facebook, Windows Live Groups and YouTube.

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