Windows Live Essentials: Does it hit or miss the mark?

Windows 7 has moved many tools out of the OS and into a free download. How do they measure up?

Let me say at the outset: I never liked Outlook Express. Never. The feature difference between Outlook and Outlook Express was always so extreme that I would only use Outlook Express when necessary and always with a frown. In moving on to Windows Mail (which came with Vista), which I use at times, I find myself putting on the same frown. It was with that mindset I downloaded and installed the Windows Live Essentials suite, Microsoft's latest collection of communication- and collaboration-oriented apps.

Unlike its predecessors, Windows Live Essentials is not bundled with an OS, although some of its multimedia components are. That means Microsoft can change and update the applications without being tied to the OS upgrade cycle.

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Despite Windows Live Essentials' association with Windows 7 (it will be integrated into the forthcoming OS if you download and install it), you do not have to run Windows 7 to use Live Applications. You can download them to a system running Windows XP SP2 (32-bit only) and Windows Vista (32- or 64-bit). With the exception of Movie Maker, which does not run on XP, the applications work the same as in Windows 7. You may need to install additional components in some cases, so be sure to review the system requirements at the Live download site.

What's in Live Essentials
The apps include:

  • Messenger, which lets you send instant messages to contacts or groups, play games, share pictures as you chat, and see what's new with people you know.
  • Mail, which lets you access multiple e-mail accounts in one program, plus your calendar, newsgroups, and feeds. As part of Windows Live, it lets you view your calendar online, and see when Messenger contacts are available to chat.
  • Photo Gallery, which lets you edit, view, organize, and share your favorite photos. You can also tag people in photos, stitch photos together into panoramas, and more.
  • Toolbar, which when added to Internet Explorer provides at-a-glance access to your Windows Live Hotmail, calendar, photos, and more.
  • Writer, which lets you create formatted blog posts (including photos, videos, maps, events, and tags) and publish them to almost any blog service, including Windows Live, WordPress, Blogger, Live Journal, and TypePad.
  • Family Safety, which lets you control how your kids experience the Internet. You can block or allow certain Web sites and contacts, and monitor where your kids are going online.
  • Movie Maker, which lets you add and arrange video clips and photos, add a soundtrack, preview your movie, and then publish the results to any of several popular videos sites.

Additional items for download include the Microsoft Office Outlook Connector, the Office Live Add-in, and Microsoft Silverlight.

How Live Essentials measures up
My Outlook Express- and Windows Mail-induced frown disappeared the moment I opened up Windows Live Mail. The entire interface is modern, with sleek lines and highlights as you work with it. I especially liked that it had the look and feel of regular Outlook in that it has a navigation pane with options for Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Feeds, and Newsgroups to the left.

The calendar is my favorite option: You can use a Windows Live account to sync your calendar to the Internet, which means you can access your schedule from anywhere. And, the calendar e-mails you to remind of import dates. I tested this before going on a business trip a few weeks back. I set up a Windows Live account, created a schedule for the calendar, and did the online sync. Typically I bring a sticky note to remind me of important things I need to do. It gets shoved in my wallet, and I hope I don't lose it. But on this trip, I was in the hotel lobby checking my online mail and got an e-mail reminder from my calendar of what I was supposed to do that day. It took me slightly off guard because by that point I had forgotten I made the Live schedule and was happily working off my sticky note.

It brought a smile to my face, even though there was nothing overly impressive about the functionality that I haven't seen before with scheduling tools. But the fact that it was free and that it worked impressed me.


I've tested all of the applications. Some are better than others. My wife has the new Photo Gallery, and she loves it for organizing the thousands of pictures and videos of our child. With our camera making .mov files, it is nice to see support for QuickTime 7 in Photo Gallery.

The Live Writer application is an easy-to-use WYSIWYG blog tool that I like pretty well, although I still tend to use Word 2007 as a blog editing tool.

Live Messenger is just as annoying as it always was. I'm not a big fan of presence tracking, and I have never liked IMing in any form, so take my opinion on Messenger with a grain of salt. One possibly interesting capabilty to my mind is the Live Call feature, an Internet phone service meant to compete with Skype (although it may not reach that level, as Skype has the market already).

Live Essentials hits the mark. I like the modern look of the applications, how they function, and the feature-rich tools that are free to download. On the negative side, I wasn't so pleased that I have to use a Windows Live account to work with certain items (like the Family Safety tools). I like that the settings are online but not that they're removed from the OS itself. Parental Controls still exist in Windows, but the Web site control and activity logging is now handled through a Windows Live account.

Where are you with these tools? Have you used them? What free apps are you working with that equal or surpass the Windows Live Essentials suite?