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.

1 2 3 4 Page 4
Page 4 of 4

More Windows Live Essentials

Microsoft has updated or introduced several other tools in its Live Essentials suite.

The Windows Live Writer blogging tool has gotten a minor redo, with -- yes, you guessed it -- a Ribbon interface. In addition, built into Writer is a way to easily link to SkyDrive-based photo albums and display them, so you don't have to create and embed that code yourself. You can also embed a Bing map into your blog.

Apart from this, though, there's not much new. Windows Live Writer remains a nifty front end to a variety of blogging applications, including Blogger, WordPress, TypePad, Windows Live Spaces, SharePoint and others. Note that, depending on your blogging service, it may either be very simple or very difficult to get the software to work with it. It's very easy to get it to work on Blogger, for example, but when you try to get it to work on a site that may have built its own blogging front-end with WordPress, it can be tough to do.

Microsoft's new browser toolbar, the Bing Bar, takes the place of the old Windows Live Toolbar. There are versions for both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It adds the Bing search box on the left-hand side of Internet Explorer's toolbar, which is overkill, considering that there's already a search box on the upper right-hand side of the browser. There's also an autofill function for filling out Web forms, and links to various Microsoft services, such as Bing video, Bing weather, MSN stocks, and so on. If you like that sort of thing, you might find it useful, although many people will find it superfluous.

Windows Live Family Safety is a piece of software that I believe few people will ever use. It is intended to fill a hole that Microsoft created when it inexplicably weakened parental controls in Windows 7. This new version appears to work very much like the old version; I was unable to discover what was new.

Windows Live Family Safety requires such a ridiculously confusing setup that it's hard to imagine anyone going through the pain required to use it. You'll need to create a separate Windows Live ID for every child, and then link those Windows Live IDs to a master parental Windows Live ID, then map the IDs to individual user accounts... let me just stop there, and say it's not worth the effort.

The bottom line

Taken on an application-by-application basis, the newest version of Windows Live Essentials is a clear success. Windows Live Sync, for example, is probably the best free syncing product I've ever tried, and I've tried quite a few of them. And I don't think I've seen a free video-creation tool as powerful as Windows Live Movie Maker, either. Photo Gallery is an excellent application, if not necessarily the best free one in its class, and Windows Live Mail is also good, although not as powerful as, say, Thunderbird.

But whether you try the entire set or only a few apps, there's something here you can likely use.

Taken as a coherent product line, though, Windows Live Essentials is not a success. What does a browser toolbar like Bing Bar have to do with the movie-creation application Windows Live Movie Maker? Nothing, really. And therein lies the problem. Although there are some links between Windows Live Essentials applications -- for example, making it easy to send an e-mail full of photos from Windows Live Photo Gallery -- these are all really stand-alone applications. And only in some instances is there direct integration with Microsoft's free cloud-based file storage service, SkyDrive.

One can't help thinking about the possibilities inherent some aspects of Windows Live Essentials -- notably with Windows Live Sync. If Microsoft properly developed it, the company would have the makings of an exceptionally powerful cloud-based set of services with links to client applications, something that Google can't currently match.

Imagine if the Web-based and client-based versions of Office used SkyDrive for common storage, backup and synchronization, with Windows Live Sync providing the synchronization services. Imagine if Windows Live Photo Gallery similarly featured online-offline synchronization tools. You could get the best of cloud-based computing and client-based computing, and not need to worry or think about where the file you were currently working on was stored -- the latest version would be on whatever device you wanted whenever you needed it.

So download Windows Live Essentials for what it offers, because there's a lot to like. But like me, you may well wish for a coherent product line with synchronization services linked to other Microsoft products.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 3 4 Page 4
Page 4 of 4
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon