With the launch of Windows 7, Microsoft has introduced some new scenarios and ways of working with your computer. Core operating system features like Windows Touch, Ink and Speech make up a really strong feature set. The new Scenic user interface in particular with its radically updated Taskbar has kept folks busy learning about its new functionality like Jump List, Aero Peek and Pinning Shortcuts to it plus more, but what about the Ďotherí Windows? Yes, the one that focuses on extending the experiences of the Windows OS to the web and personal activities such as email, photos, videos and expression. Windows Live Essentials is more than just applications though; itís also a seamless, streamlined set of well integrated software plus services. Microsoft is focused on delivering value beyond the box and based on my experience with the suite since September 2008, I must say, I am highly impressed! Back in January of 2007, Microsoft introduced Windows Vista, which bundled new and improved applications such as Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Mail and Windows Movie Maker. Over time Microsoft updated Photo Gallery and Mail beyond the operating system christening them as ĎLiveí applications. This created a problem of duality, triggering a possibility of confusion between similar applications already built into the OS. So, Microsoft decided from then on that certain programs would be removed from Windows and be made available exclusively through Windows Live instead.
Here is a quote from Windows Live General Manager Brian Hall about the decision:
Removing programs such as Photo Gallery, Mail and Movie Maker from the core operating system will give Microsoft more time to focus on the core operating system experience in addition to improving the efficiency of things like Service Packs which could ultimately be fewer and smaller. Mr. Hall also said that a cleaner operating system eliminates potential confusion for customers faced with two different programs that are similar in function-one already in Windows and the other from Windows Live. He also said that Microsoft is working with OEMs are around Windows 7 so that they can place shortcuts that will link to a download page where you can choose just the programs you.
One thing users must note is that Windows Live Essentials is free! The only thing required is an Internet connection and going to the Windows Live Essentialís home page and download it.
Whatís included in Windows Live Essentials?
There are two ways of installing Windows Live Essentials, you can download the 1 MB web installer from http://download.live.com then pick and choose what you would like to have installed. You can run the program at a later date if you decide to install more applications. If you are on a slow connection and would prefer to avoid killing your bandwidth, you can download the full suite, but there is a bit of trick to doing so, I honestly wish Microsoft would just provide a direct link to the full installer, someone with 4 Windows based PCís is not going want to run the web installer on all 4 when they could easily download the entire package and run it across three. Hereís how you get the full suite. Click the download link for the Live Suite, and then cancel it when the 1 MB download option appears. Click the Try Again button and you will be presented with the 134 MB installer, this option includes everything.
windows LivE Mail
For years Microsoft has offered a free e-mail client with Microsoft Windows, once called Microsoft Exchange in Windows 95, then Outlook Express in later versions, the program was updated as Windows Mail with the release of Vista. Since disbanding from the operating system, versions called Windows Live Mail Desktop were released as alternatives to what was included in Vista with more modern functionality such as RSS Feed support and integrated Calendar and Contacts. I have been using Windows Live Mail 14 on Windows 7 since the pre-beta build. My experiences so far have been more of a wanting for the old Windows Mail at times, although the suite offers a standard set of email tools and some unique features that I would have loved to see in Windows Mail.
Launching Windows Live Mail for the first time, you are presented with the Add an Email Account Wizard, which is very simple and straightforward. Just enter your personal information, click next and Finish, Mail starts downloading your messages right away if you choose to do so. The Windows Live Mail interface I must say is more aesthetically attractive compared to its predecessor, featuring a much lighter palette and degree of customization options, such as the ability to choose a colour scheme which is synergistic with Windows Live services such as Hotmail. Mail focuses on disabling certain functions it seems for the sake of form over function (weíll get into that more as we go along).
The Command Bar features text only buttons that are also updated to look the same in Windows 7 which shows the close Ďaestheticí relationship between the two. You can still invoke the classic drop down menus by pressing ALT on your keyboard. Common options such as New, Reply, Forward, Delete, and Junk are all there with the addition of new ones such as Add to Calendar and Sign in to Windows Live button to gain immediate access to additional services through your account. The parts of the interface are setup to look more like Microsoft Office Outlook, with a Task pane on the extreme left, Messages in the middle and a viewing Pane on the extreme right. The Task Pane is divided in to five categories: Mail, Calendar, Contacts, RSS Feeds and Newsgroups.
The Mail pane is made up of different folders for viewing, sending and receiving your messages. The Quick Views folders displays quick access to messages you might not have gotten the chance to look at in all your accounts aggregating them into one location, you can even filter messages according to Contacts (very nice option). Unread RSS Feeds can also be managed and viewed from here too. If you have an account setup in Windows Live Mail (which I am sure you would have), you get access to your traditional Mail inbox folders. I have my Hotmail account setup and I have access to all my messages like I use to in Outlook Express or if I were running Microsoft Outlook with the Outlook Connector. Outlook Express users in particular can rejoice since Hotmail HTTP Support ended with Outlook Express when Microsoft discontinued Web DAV support in 2005. Only Premium subscribers to Windows Live Plus were able to use the HTTP functionality of Hotmail under Windows Mail in Vista. In addition to HTTP support, Mail also supports the POP3 (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) messaging standards that users expect. Another nice addition for Windows Live Mail users is support for other Web Mail services such as Googleís Gmail and Yahoo!ís Mail. Unfortunately when I tried to setup my Yahoo! Mail account I got the following message:
ďYou must have Yahoo Mail Plus to use this e-mail client with your Yahoo Account. Please go to the Yahoo site to find out how to become a Yahoo Mail Plus User. Http://mailplus.mail.yahoo.comĒ
Photo Mail - Integration Across Windows Live Essentials
Emailing photos is just a click away, I selected 3 images from my Live Photo Gallery library and immediately a Windows Live Mail window popped up. The 'Attach files' dialog is now handled by Live Mail, such as resolution and size; images sent can be reduced to 512 K or the highest 5 MB for best quality. You can add photo effects such as a frame, colour border and even choose how your photos are presented to the recipient in different layouts.
In Windows Live Mail 12, Microsoft introduced Storage Folders which is a repository for email, folders created by the user, accounts, newsgroup and other data. Itís very handy for backup purposes when you are transferring your messages to another computer. There really is no change in this update except being visible in the Mail Pane itself.
Windows Vista included its own built in calendaring application, which I kind of liked, it was something most users who install Windows with basic needs could easily benefit from to manage their schedules. Featuring options available for publishing and subscribing to .ics calendars, which includes settings for controlling how often it gets updated with new event dates, were some nice highlights. Windows Calendar although capable lacked better integration with Windows Mail apart from a link to launch it. With Windows Live Mail, Microsoft has melded the two together and it looks like a success! The Calendar interface is superbly beautiful and features much of the standard functionality of Windows Calendar. The Navigation Pane displays quick access to a ĎDateí calendar with options for creating new calendars and groups. Calendars interface is customizable to an extent; you can view your information by Day, Work Week, Week and month. For persons who subscribed to .ICS calendars, that direct functionality is not available in the UI itself, but you can still access them by logging into http://calendar.live.com, click ĎSubscribeí > Import from an .ics file. When you start Windows Mail from then on, your Calendar will automatically be synced. There still is no support for Hotmailís Calendar, but I hope that gets updated as soon as possible.
To access your contact data, you must be signed into Windows Live (Windows Live ID required), this allows you to utilize the same Contact List available in your Hotmail Contacts, see who is online and sync with your Windows Live Calendar. The interface, integrates heavily with your Windows Live Messenger contact list, so, dependency on it for me is not recommended, since I donít have my entire address list stored in there, a unified data store would really come in handy here. Windows Live Contacts supports all of the standard features you would find in Windows Contacts explorer such as creating Groups, organization, sharing and printing. You can import your contact database from a number of formats including .WAB, .VCF, Outlook Address Book and .CSV, it supports exporting in .VCF and .CSV. The only drawback, itís not integrated into the Windows Live Mail interface, opening a separate window instead. Also, it would have been nice to have synchronization between the Windows Contacts and Windows Live Contacts list instead of keeping two separate databases.
Feeds and Newsgroups
One of the hit features over the past few years is Really Simple Syndication. RSS allows a user to subscribe to their favourite Websiteís and receive notifications of updates to those subscribed sites without the need to individually browse each to check for new information. Windows Live Mail makes managing those subscriptions easier with its familiar email oriented approach. Feeds you subscribe to through Internet Explorer are automatically synced and updated in Live Mail. Newsgroups are pretty much the same as previous versions of Microsoft Mail clients.
Windows Live Mail is robust and very easy to use. However, I miss functionality like Send All which ensured that Messages were sent if you had a connection issue. What I notice happens is, when my messages are not sent off immediately and I open the Drafts folder and open the unsent email or newsgroup post, it doesnít always start sending right away. I will at times have to close Live Mail, reopen and the unsent messages will begin sending again (but not always). Also, there seems to be no option to turn off ĎCheck for New Mailí, I am on a slow connection and I notice if I am not in Mail and I start doing some surfing it will slow down as Live Mail is checking for email in the background. I just want to check for email if I want to. Live Mail works quite well on Windows 7, although there could be more integration with the OS similar to Live Messenger. I hope in a future update I will see a Jump List update for New Message, Events and add contact type contextual options. Overall, itís a strong release and will definitely be an asset for Windows 7 users who depend on Windows Mail.
Windows Live Photo Gallery
Now we have come to one of the core experience tools in the Windows Live suite, Photo Gallery, which is a combination of digital asset management if you like, photo and video viewer, light weight image editor and a key to sharing your digital memories with family and friends. Windows Live Photo Gallery was initially released as Windows Photo Gallery with the release of Windows Vista in January 2007 succeeding Microsoft's Digital Image Pro software. It was a great addition to Windows that has seen one major update since, the Windows Live Photo Gallery 2008 release which added major integration and online publishing features with Windows Live and third party online services such as Flickr. Photo Gallery has always included third party support through online photo services for printing your images, but with a lot of value and popularity through social sites such as Facebook and Flickr, sharing your memories is exceptionally easier and more fun to use.
Opening the Program for the first time, a dialog will appear asking for permission to support or import different image file formats. Live Photo Gallery supports a range of image formats, such as .JPEG, .PNG, .GIF, Bitmap, and .TIFF. Images added to your Picture explorers such as Personal or Public Picture folders are automatically populated in Photo Gallery. If you have images stored in another location you can easily add them by going to File > 'Include a folder in the gallery...' and navigate to wherever it is located on your hard drive. Microsoft has made some changes to the menu structure adopting an icon less menu bar. The interface has seen some renovations in key areas, the Photo Gallery controls located at the bottom of the window for quickly viewing a slide show and navigating through your photo library have been reduced to a set of conservative status buttons. I like the small changes though and it makes the interface feel less cumbersome. I understand that Microsoft was trying to create consistency across applications in Windows Vista, but it does not apply to every scenario it seems. This move gives users more real estate to view your photos with no loss in functionality. The interface is much cleaner with less frames and elegant separators with drop shadows.
New Menus and Options
Going back to the menu bar area, Live Photo Gallery has added and rearranged some of its options over the past couple of releases. Open has now been replaced by Extras with familiar links to further edit and view your images in default programs such as Microsoft Word (you would be surprised how many image editing options there are in Word 2007), and now Windows Media Center directly from Photo Gallery. Slideshow is now also a part of the menu structure. The library controls themselves have been consolidated into status bar buttons which are actually more pleasing, in fact, the 'Zoom in or out' slider is more accessible instead of having to click in previous versions to invoke the function. The sorting area has been significantly cleaned up, columns such as 'Name, Date, Rating etc..' have been consolidated into 'Arrange by auto' menu with additional filters such as Tag and Person (the tagging gallery is now off by default). The Rating feature displays 5 star options with filtering tools for displaying a specific set based on your personal rating. The fundamentals of Photo Gallery remain the same, and users should feel right at home upgrading to this release.
Meta Data Features
A core part of managing your digital library, Meta data gives the user detailed information about a particular photo or video. This area of the Photo Gallery interface, has not changed significantly in version 2009, but adds new options for users that are sure to impress. The expandable hierarchical view of folders, tags and calendar dates are more subtle with the expandable indicators only appearing when your mouse pointer is hovered within the area. The latest feature that has been added is People tags. The basic idea is to have human recognition in your photos. Itís a tradition to take group photos, whether itís a couple, family or friends. Itís similar to features found on social networking sites such as Facebook or Flickr which allow you to tag people or objects in a photo which either links you to more information about the person or item. People Tags is quite impressive, when you click on a photo with multiple persons in it, the image is immediately identified as having persons found. What is also impressive is the software's ability to identify a face in a photo. If you hover over the Person found buttons in the Tag Gallery a square is automatically generated over a personís face. The level of accuracy is quite amazing. Of course, you can create your own identities if Photo Gallery 2009 does not discover an individual in a photo automatically. If you are not signed in, when the 'That's Me' tag is selected, a Windows Live ID dialog prompt appears asking you to sign in to access services such as Windows Live Spaces and MSN Soap Box. You also get richer tagging capabilities, persons in your Photo's you know can be linked to your Windows Live Contacts (this kind of remind of when Smart Tags were first introduced in Office XP). Powerful stuff, definitely love it.
Beyond photos, users can now publish videos to MSN soapbox; you can download a free plug in Uploader for YouTube by William Duff. An issue I discovered about videos in Photo Gallery 2009, when you are previewing them, there is no support for real time seeking. Videos also depend on GPU acceleration. I am currently running the software on Windows 7, but my nVidia Geforce 6200 is not supported yet, so when previewing video, there is constant stuttering. This is not the case on other systems of course where your hardware is properly setup. Other issues I discovered include preview of photos and videos being in half.
Photo Gallery includes some new features for basic photo editing. These include Black and white effects such as Orange, Sepia, Yellow, Red and Cyan. The No Filter option seems to be buggy right now since it does not turn off the filter effect when the option is selected, I had to CTRL + Z or undo out until the original colours re-appeared. Photo Gallery does give you the ability to revert back to an original though, even after a photo has been edited and saved, this seems to be based on Vistaís Previous Versions feature. I am not sure if this is available to Windows XP users. These are basic Photoshop functionality users who are familiar with the program will find in Photo Gallery 2009 and they are free! The 'Straighten photo' is also new and just as the name says aligns your image using a gridline while you simply use the slider to control the accuracy. Don't look at the slider; the gridline is the key to ensuring that the photo appears straight based on your personal satisfaction. A new Photo-stitching feature lets you easily build panoramic views from a collection of photos. The panorama must be based on an actual scene; you can't just use a bunch of unrelated photos. The other areas such as Auto adjust, exposure, colour, detail, cropping and red eye have remain unchanged. In addition to its strong support for photo-sharing services, you can order prints directly from over 70,000 worldwide printer services partners. The printing dialog looks a bit out of place in this release, especially on 7.
Integration across Windows Live and Services
Publishing your photos has been a feature of Photo Gallery since the 2008 release, with support for Flickr and Windows Live Spaces. Users can obtain additional plug-ins for services such as Facebook and YouTube, I would have hoped these come by default with the final version, and it just seems like the right out of the box experience thing to do. The two upload plug-ins for YouTube can be download here and Facebook here were created by William Duff, for users of Google Picasa, you can find that here by Mark Steeves. So, Photo Gallery provides a very open platform that enables third party developers to further enhance the program beyond what the Windows Live Team delivers. Images published directly to your Live Space are now directly stored on your Windows Live Skydrive. The Windows Live Team has also promised to continue to updating the program regularly so no more tying to releases to Windows OS schedules which means, expect innovative updates.
With the recent roll out of the new Windows Live Home (http://home.live.com) which focuses on improved social networking, sharing your photos is even easier. A feature called 'Home Page Photos' displays a collection of photos you have uploaded from your hard drive. There could have been better integration across the online services, by simply linking to existing galleries of photos that have already been published from Photo Gallery to your Live Space and have them streaming on the users Windows Live Home Page.
The upload process is very easy though, simply browse for the photos you would like to add using the browse fields or install the 'Upload Photos Add' which provides drag drop ease for uploading multiple photos at the same time. Once your photos are uploaded, you can set permissions to share with your friends, since the default is just you, add more photos, create a folder or view a slide show and even order prints. Permissions themselves are federated across your Contact list or your Social Network. For instance, I have my Windows Live Messenger list setup in different categories; they show up as groups within the category of permission with Public being everyone that visits your Windows Live Home page and Networks being those within your social group. You have the option of setting options for users such adding photos, editing details or even deleting. If you have friends that are not in your contact list, you can add them by simply entering their email address and click ĎSaveí. Photos are displayed in a neat little animated slideshow.
Another example of the tight integration in the Windows Live Essentials suite and services is the ability to sync data across multiple media, including Photos. From the Live Photo Gallery ĎFileí is the ĎSetup Gallery Syncí feature which allows you have your photos available on multiple PCís without the manual chore of copying between computers. The setup up process is very simple, just launch Windows Live Photo Gallery on both PCís > sign in on each using your Windows Live ID. Next, on one of the two computers click Setup gallery syncÖ from the File Menu in Photo Gallery and follow the instructions. Youíre on your way to synchronizing photos! Some of the great advantages of having your photos synced include retaining edit history across PCís. You can undo edits you've made to your photos and even revert back to the original photo from any of computers synchronizing with the gallery.
Windows Live Photo Gallery is more than the photo manager we have come know since its inception as one of the multimedia features of Vista. It has evolved over the years into a mature product that integrates tightly with the web through innovative services such as the new Windows Live Home and Windows Live Essentials suite. Its support for add-ons will further enhance the products qualities and give users unique and cool ways of sharing their digital memories. Itís a complete end to end experience, itís not smooth in some areas, but itís off to a definitely great start.
Windows Live Messenger 2009
Windows Live Messenger 9.0 is Microsoft's latest version of its Instant Messaging software that allows you to communicate by text, video or ink with Hotmail, MSN, Live and even Yahoo! contacts. Windows Live Messenger's support of standard features such as video conferencing I believe make it the ultimate social networking tool regardless of all the Facebookís and My Spaces out there. Version 2009 in particular focuses deeply on social networking and personalization. Creating a personal identity with the service and expressing it to others through your contacts is one of the major benefits of this new update.
If you have used Windows Live Messenger before, getting started with the service is a cinch. Your personalization such as themes and color scheme is retained if you upgrade from a previous version. Signing in for the first time you can clearly see some differences in the contacts interface; large Vista profile displays replace Messenger buddy icons. Itís a bit overwhelming at first so the first thing I did was to customize that feature to display the much smaller familiar indicators which are now square dots represented by different colors.
On Windows 7, WLM 9 displays two Windows Messenger Taskbar grouped buttons, one for your online status and the Messenger buddy icon with a red X over it similar to not connected to a Network status icon in the Vista notification Area, this seems to be a bug though and should be fixed in a near future update. The old Messenger business card is now consolidated into a floating widget with a list of options such as: Sending an offline instant message, Email, Enter a mobile number, View contact card and online profile. The open your email inbox button is more distinctive with a gold icon envelope along with a number indicating the amount of messages you have unread. 'What's new list' which I have turned off is taking a page from the ad banner in the main messenger window by advertising fellow contact activities, whether they have changed a background, playing a song or changed their personal messages. Because of the limitation of my screen resolution on my desktop I have turned it off, but on my laptop itís on. Itís a cool feature that makes engaging with your friends a lot more fun and of course social, you can also receive status updates when friends reply to your Twitter account.
Your display picture plays a distinctive role in this new release giving you visual cues that clearly identify you or your contacts status. Each time you change your status, your Display picture animates with a cool glistening effect. You can create your own 4-second video for your display picture. You can also make your own personalized video emoticons (dynamic pictures), so instead of sending a smiley, you can send a video of yourself smiling. Speaking of display pictures, Messenger 9 includes some new bundled animated gifs called WeeMee's that are not really impressive but are ok, they include shooting star, musical notes, city light, fish tank and sunlight. You can download additional ones and I am sure there will be more available. Personal Message (now ĎShare a quick messageí displays both it and the current song you might be playing from your Windows Media Player library. Since we are on the topic of themes, I got to say itís probably the most dramatic in this release and focuses on making you express yourself clearly in your conversations. A contact can now see your theme and you can see theirs, in addition to that they are customizable and they blend in really nicely.
You can choose a background header known as a 'Scene' along with a colour for the main window; WLM 9 comes with 24 of them, you can also create your own. I would have liked an option for your themes to be federated across all your Windows Live services, so a Scene color scheme and background image is also reflected in my Live Messenger on other PCs, Live Hotmail and Spaces for example. Also, changing your Scene is not as obvious as one would think, since itís a hidden tool that is activated when you hover your mouse pointer over the upper right hand corner of the main window which folds back like a creased page revealing a paint brush. Maybe it would have been better to make it be a button beside the search box on the main window, since there are other buttons there for changing the appearance of contacts, adding a contact or group and show drop down menus.
Grouping contacts is a regular activity for messenger users. Itís especially necessary if you have a lot of IM contacts that range in colleagues, friends and family and would like to make it easier to differentiate them for easier management, discovery and communication. WLM 9 adds a dedicated groups feature that goes beyond just creating organized groups for your contacts. These groups are sociable allowing you to invite friends and be invited to your own friends groups. Creating a Group is very simple, just click the 'Add a contact or group' button next to the search box > click 'Create group'. This will start the 'Create a group' wizard, just type in the name of your group, and click Next. The wizard will create your group and at the end you can start adding contacts, click next and 'Done' to confirm the invitation. One problem I discovered during the adding process, you could not scroll through your contact list in the main window, so when you wanted to reference an existing contact, you were stuck doing so from memory or opening up your Live Contacts to do so.
A nice check off list from your IM contact list would also have been nice to send out mass invitations. There is another limitation; you are limited to only 20 members in your group which I think is a shame. I have friends who share the same interest and that goes well beyond 20 friends. Hopefully this limit will change post WLM 9 RTW. Groups is a replacement for MSN Groups now called Windows Live Groups (surprise), which makes it even more difficult for groups to be a viable solution for persons who want to be able to do something on a large scale. The inability to create subgroups or sub-topic groups is something I wish the WLM 9 Team could have worked on. When you look at the ease of use provided by Facebook to easily create a Group and invite as many people as you want or have as many people as you want to join, itís quite obvious who is in its infancy and who delivers a mature social experience in this regard.
Itís true; we have a person or group of persons we regularly chat with on our contact list. WLM 9 emphasizes this with the new 'Favouritesí group which is easily identified by a Star. There are a couple ways to get your special contacts into the Favourites group, you can easily drag and drop into that group, right click the Favourites title and click 'Edit Favouritesí and click your contact from the displayed list, you can also do a quick filtered search. The significance is not really clear, I already had a list called Ďcolleagueí with all the friends I chat with regularly, so Favourites is really just a pre-canned feature for those who never thought of simply creating a 'New Category' and dragging existing contacts into it. The only difference I see is that, Favourites IM contacts display pictures are larger and itís the first group that you see when you log into Messenger. If you find the large display pictures distracting, you can customize them by clicking the "Change Contact list layout" button or going to Show Menu > Tools > Options > Layout and choose an appropriate size. It would still be nice if the WLM Team could add support for rearranging categories themselves. I would love to have my Family category be second after the Favourites group and the ability to turn an existing category into a second set of Favourites group also.
Search - an essential feature especially if you have hundreds of contacts. The Search facility itself does not feature any major changes; the same filtered Search experience is what you can expect. It would be nice to have Boolean logic that can deliver better results and information about your contact list. For instance, if I do a search for 'kind: blocked' all the contacts that are blocked on my list show up or if I do a search 'available' all the contacts on my list that are available show up or Ďrecent: conversationsí. It makes it especially convenient when you have a lot of contacts in different categories. I would also like to see a feature of search that integrates with Groups; I give some of my IM contacts a Nickname, each with the word 'HEART'. When I do a filtered search, it would be nice to have the option of creating an on the fly group from all these contacts with HEART in their name.
What's new in options?
Layout - here you can customize the layout of your contact list, which includes setting the display picture size that's right for you, showing the Tab bar, Favourites or ĎWhat's new listí. Contacts can be labelled by Display name or First and Last name and you can organize contacts into Categories or Online Status. Contacts can also be set to be sorted by Status or alphabetically by default. Users have the option of controlling offline contacts to either show in a separate category or separate into categories such as Offline or SMS.
Sign in now replaces General option from 8.5, now listing options for how Messenger starts up and signs into the service. A new option available in this category is 'Sign in at more than one place'. Security reasons might come to mind if you plan to do this in a public setting, but if you leave your computer on at home and sign into Messenger at work you will be able to sign in at both locations and receive IM messages from both places. Itís also great for working with different devices, so you can stay signed in on a mobile phone and your desktop at the same time. Also, options applied on one device, whether itís closing a window or receiving a message are applied to all devices. You do have the option of changing how this works whether you want to keep signed in or sign yourself out everywhere else, you can also define locations by giving it a name. This feature is specific to WLM 9.0, so upgrade all PCís if you need it.
Alerts and Sounds have been separated into different categories; ĎAlertsí displays its traditional options such as when a Contact comes online, messages received and email alerts. Sounds itself contains some dramatic changes giving reason to why itís now separated. Here you can assign a collection of pre-canned sounds for different alerts such as: Contacts Sign in, new instant messages, email message, incoming voice or video call, outgoing voice or video call, new Windows Live Alert and even Nudges. Users can have a distinct 'Sign in' sound when they come online; these range in Band intro, Electric Guitar, Gong or your own personal song from your music library. Just click Add New Sound, browse to where the song is located, select it and use the cropping tool to define a 5 second piece of the song you find appropriate with the option of Fade in and Fade Out. Itís really cool, but I have discovered some users are beginning to annoy me with their custom sounds, so I did the next best thing 'Mute my contacts 'Signature sound'. :)
Phone - Provides the option of setting your mobile phone at http://mobile.live.com/signup to receive messages from your contacts. Unfortunately, none of the carriers here in Jamaica such as Digicel, Cable & Wireless (LIME) and CLARO are supported, meaning itís at US thing for now.
For users of older versions of Messenger (which is a lot), a lot of the social experiences that you would get from two users running WLM 9.0 won't be available to you. A WLM 9 user chatting with a WLM 8.5 user results in just a standard conversation window with the exception of custom colour, you also don't get the option of doing Photo Sharing with older versions of Messenger. But itís a fact that people who use Messenger often upgrade to the latest version and Microsoft's advertising of the latest version in older versions makes that a non issue. There are still some small benefits which we will discuss, such as the new Status Display frames are part of the conversation window, you get the same conversation layout which is a grouping of sequential messages. This can be turned off in Tools > Options > Messages if you prefer the old layout. The Display pictures are now moved over to the left side of the window and are significantly larger; you can adjust this or turn them off all together. The 'Enter your message here' is more compact compared to 8.5 but at the same time itís much neater and organized. A horizontal scroll list toolbar displays your emoticon gallery, winks, nudges, voice clips, and font and window background options. You can also easily switch between handwriting and keyboard text there.
Probably the best feature added to conversations in Windows Live Messenger 9, but could have exceeded expectations by supporting video sharing like Yahoo! Messenger. I love the ability to really engage with friends, and find features like sharing photos a great way to do that. Your photo libraries and contacts can be viewed at the same time. To initiate Photo-sharing, simply click the Photos button in the conversation window to send an invitation to the recipient which must be accepted. Once that is done, photos can be added by you or the other people who are displayed in a slideshow format within the conversation window with messages displayed as commentary. The conversation window can even be reverted back to full conversation and view small thumbnails at the top of the window.
Yahoo! vs. Live
Itís clear who is innovating and winning at the same time. Yahoo Messenger which is currently at version 9 released not too long ago doesn't offer anything significantly new from version 8.1. Releases of Windows Live Messenger have been rapid and constantly bringing new features like Nudges, Ink recognition, tight integration across Windows Live services and now respectable social networking capabilities. The only thing I see thatís new in Yahoo! is the ability to change the skin and share videos from YouTube easily, something I hope the WLM Team sees and also implements. The social networking aspects of WLM are a good start but are still in their infancy, over time I do hope they become more mature and focus well on the needs of users, Groups for instance needs to go beyond 20 members.
I love the deep customizations; I love the synergies between the Live Services and Windows Live Messenger 9. Features like Scenes, WeeMee's are nice additions that add continued fun to a string of interactive features Messenger has been bringing to users over the past six versions. The interface is slick but at times it can seem crowded and I hope this does not affect the programs future. It would be nice to have a light mode that users can sign in with just the essentials to do text messaging with users since it takes a while depending on your connection to load all these features when you use the service on a different computer with a slow connection. I would also like if your message history could be synced to travel with you wherever you go, but I guess that's where Live Mesh comes in. The new multiple sign in feature will be great for persons who use IM across multiple devices particular cell phones and to keep the conversation between contacts seamless across them uninterrupted. Should you upgrade? This is a weird question to ask, itís a free product, small, takes no time to download and itís not disruptive as upgrading your Office suite or operating system. So, yeah I say, definitely download it and it won't be a great experience unless all or most of your contacts are using the latest version so give them the link too. :)
Windows Live Writer
I started blogging back in late 2004 when Microsoft launched its MSN Spaces online journal platform now Windows Live Spaces. I have stuck to the service ever since because of its simplicity, ease of use and continued improvements over the years. Back in the early days, most of my blogging was done through the MSN Spaces ĎAdd Post Blog Formí, which is limited in what you could do and still is. Then around 2006 Microsoft introduced Windows Live Writer beta and it was like a breath of fresh air to my blogging exercise. Blogging for me became a much richer and enjoyable experience because of what I could now do; images with wrapped text and tags made it a definite asset for my blogging journey.
One of the things I immediately find frustrating about Windows Live Writer is the process of setting it up and connecting to your site and re-downloading information, especially if you blog from more than one computer. I wish there was some way to backup and export your profile settings and just import them as a part of the setup process, in fact, it would be great if you could travel with your Windows Live Writer profile on a thumb drive. Alas, itís still a straightforward five step process, of entering your email address and password, selecting your blogging platform and let Windows Live Writer Connect to your blog and downloads the necessary information. During the wizard, Live Writer downloads your blog style and layout so writing content can adhere to its natural look and feel in addition to seeing WYSIWYG previews before you publish to the web. After this is completed, you are prompted to confirm your blog name and you off to expressing yourself.
Supported blogging platforms:
Windows Live Writers interface if you have never used it before is word processor oriented. Still it lacks some of the traditional functionality and finesse of Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, but is perfect enough for what it does. Writer 2009 does include familiar tools like Word Count along with Auto Link glossary support. Interestingly enough, I am surprised the Windows Live Writer Team didnít apply the Office Fluent UI which was introduced in Office 2007 to this update since Writer has been through a few versions of the traditional standard and formatting toolbar UI already and it would be a natural improvement to the application. Writer is not really major in changes and it still lacks some common functionality you get for free in Word Pad, options like keyboard commands for aligning text or images. The ĎOpení dialog does not feature the bread crumb menu improvements and search facility of Windows Vista (interestingly its supported under Windows 7 BETA).
More Multimedia Support
Writer handles multimedia much better, which makes it easier for users to publish videos and photos to their blogs. A new Photo Gallery feature displays your photos in casual thumbnail preview with links to a full size slideshow when inserted onto the blank canvas. You also have the ability to post photos from existing albums on your Windows Live Photos page. New photo options include, border effects, crop and tilting. Videos is especially improved, the new Insert Video dialog features options for publishing videos to both MSN Soapbox and YouTube while submitting a post to your blog at the same time. Options include insert an embedded URL, locally, or from your account on both services, very convenient!
Writer 2009 could work better with Microsoft Word, I notice I lose formatting when I copy over content from Word documents with Bullet points and tables. I donít like the limited capabilities of Tables either, you canít centre them, the formatting options are lack lustre, there could definitely be more capabilities. I am limited by what I can do with pictures in Writer too, as you can see in this blog post, image captions are below the photo, centred. I would like the ability to have text wrapped images with captions to display a more professional look. Photo Albums are too rigid, I wish they could be more scalable with the ability to resize using anchor boxes. Also, the Photo Album dialog could feature more customization, such as the ability to rearrange pictures, my work around for that is to continuously click in the Album Style: list box on the chosen layout until the desired image in the album comes to the foreground.
Plug in Architecture
What makes Windows Live Writer especially powerful is its Plug in architecture which allows third party developers to further enhance the application. Live Writer 2009 includes SharePoint 2007 support, new APIs enabling custom extensions by weblog providers, automatic synchronization of local and online edits, integration with Windows Live Gallery, and support for "Blogger Labels" are some of the features new and existing users can look forward to. Here are links to some popular ones you can add to your web log post.
FLICKR UPLOAD (Download)
DIGG THIS (Download)
TWITTER NOTIFY (Download)
Sending your content to the web could be more informative. The same Publishing to ĎBlog Nameí displayed on a dialog doesnít give user much to chew on, a progress bar would have been nice. The reliability is improved too, past versions of Writer often generated unrecognizable errors during failed uploads. I still encounter them; one in particular is when I am publishing post with .PNG files. Speed on my GPRS connection is quite good, I use to encounter numerous failures with previous versions, although sometimes I will still get a few, I have worked around it by ĎSaving Weblog Postí as a draft to my Live Space and publish at a later date from Live Space summary page. I notice that Live Writer does not support publishing post in the future for Windows Live Spaces, I receive the follow message:
ĎPosts on this blog service canít be saved for future publishing
The publish date you selected is in the future, if you publish this post, it will be visible immediately.í
Windows Live Writer continues to improve rapidly and the new features will make publishing to the various supported blogging services and social networks such as Twitter more fun and easier. What I would like to see one day is a web based version of Live Writer so I can have access through the web browser on any PC instead of having the software installed locally. It would be great especially for environments where you cannot just install stuff without the Admins permission. Live Writer makes sharing your words and media with your audience attractive, thatís been the core focus of the program since its debut and that theme continues with this update.
Windows Live Sync
Some persons note that the Windows Live Team seems to be using a multi-faceted approach to data synchronization. Why? Windows Live Sync and Windows Live Mesh; persons seem to confuse or conclude that they both do the same thing, in a way they actually do, I would describe them as being closely related. The best way to really decipher the two is to think about them from the perspective of online/off line, devices, computer to computer and of course synchronization. Still not clear? Well let me go a little further. Windows Live Mesh is very full featured in the respect that, you get a combination of online storage, remote access and synchronization between computers and devices even when one or more might not be connected to the Internet. On the other hand Windows Live Sync utilizes the Internet to synchronize files and folders between multiple computers without the storage component, the major drawback to Live Sync is the computers you are syncing data between must be connected to the net at the same time and both must be running running Windows Live Sync.
Windows Live Sync is installed as part of the Windows Live Essentials suite or you can download it from Microsoftís website, after installation, you can start the program located under the Program Group for Windows Live in the Start Menu. Live Sync supports Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP SP2, Mac OS 10.5 or later. After launching Live Sync, you are asked to sign in with your Live ID after which a blue two way arrow icon is placed in your Notification Area.
Installing on additional PCís
To install Sync on the other PCís on which you will be synchronizing data between, go to the following URL: https://sync.live.com/foldersharetolivesync.aspx, click the ĎUpgradeí button and sign in with your Windows Live ID and click the Install Sync link. I wish this was a more straightforward process, I consider it not to be intuitive and self explanatory, so more improvements could be made in this area after Sync is setup on the initial PC. If you also use an Apple Macintosh, you can also setup Live Sync on it too.
With Live Sync, you can synchronize files across all the computers you use, share files and photos with friends and remotely access your files from any other computer connected to the Internet. The web based interface is similar to Windows Live Skydrive and is divided into Personal, Shared folders and Remote Access. If you have more than one computer, you can create personal folders (A synchronized folder that you create for yourself). Files in a personal synchronized folder are not shared with other people and only the owner of the folder can access them. If you have more than one computer, you might create a personal synchronized folder to share files between them.
Sharing and Syncing
You can also share files with friends or colleagues when you create or connect your computer to a shared folder (A synchronized folder that you have been invited to share, or a folder that you have invited others to share. Files in a shared synchronized folder are accessed and can be changed by more than one person. The owner must invite other people to use the folder in order for them to have permission to access it over the Internet. You can have up to 20 folders with 20,000 files each with a file size limitation of 2 GBs. Accessing data from the other PC as noted earlier requires that both systems are connected to the Internet. You have a combination of ways to access the data, which includes signing into your personal sync page or doing so from the contextual notification menu which will display your custom folders. I notice that clicking a folder that's setup for syncing does not automatically take you to its location on the Sync website, I had to go to main page and browse the Remote PC until I arrived at the ĎCollaborateí folder.
Integration with Windows Live Essentials
Users of Windows Live Photo Gallery 2009 can benefit from Live Sync by having Photo Gallery sync your photos automatically for you, by clicking File > Setup gallery sync. Once you have Sync on the initial computer, just go to the other PC running Photo Gallery and follow the same procedure.
Security and Technology
Sync is a peer-to-peer network (Two or more computers that share a direct connection) with security features. Only you and the people that you invite can view or access files in your synchronized folders. To help increase privacy, Sync encrypts all files exchanged over the network using AES (Advanced encryption standard), an algorithm used for securing data transferred over the Internet and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), an encryption format that helps keep information secure while it is sent across the Internet and authenticates files using RSA. RSA is a cryptographic technology that is the industry standard for high-quality encryption, especially for data sent over the Internet. The acronym stands for Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman, the inventors of the technique.
I would say Windows Live Sync is good enough for the individual who just wants to have access to the data on that single PC from one or more computers. For example: accessing data on your home PC from your laptop or work pc. It makes remote access simplified, there is no need to know IP addresses, no need to do any major configuration that's often required of Windows operating systems Remote Desktop client software. Also, Remote Desktop is limited to Windows XP Professional and Vista Business, Enterprise and Ultimate. Live Sync allows you to get a much richer experience regardless of the operating system. So, it has its advantages, but the draw backs of having to keep both PCís connected is probably the only main issue, hopefully some of the storage synchronization capabilities of Windows Live Mesh will in the future be incorporated into the next release Live Sync.
Windows Live Movie Maker
By default Windows Live Movie Maker is not checked to be installed during setup, in addition to that, itís not supported under Windows XP. Live Movie Maker features the new Scenic Ribbon UI, but itís drastically limited compared to its predecessor in Vista. The interface seems like itís designed for an on the go user who is uploading videos to MSN Soap box and does not really fancy details too much. The Ribbon features the tabs Home, Visual Effects and Edit. It is quite basic, features like Timeline are not even in there, Iím hoping that the label beta is the reason for this. You add photos and videos from the Home menus which are automatically populated within the bin area. Content by default is played in the view itís laid out, but you can drag and drop to rearrange how you want scenes to play within the video.
Live Movie Maker remains light on visual effects, even PowerPoint 2007 would do a better job (then again, PowerPoint 2007 cost $300). Itís quite obvious there is more to expect and hopefully in the near future we will see an update, the only options right now are Sepia Tone, black and white and one transition, cross fade. Live Movie Maker supports direct publishing to MSN Soap Box, but no YouTube yet. Microsoft, I realize Google is a competitor, but if you can support GMAIL access in Windows Live Mail, YouTube should be an out of box option, put competition aside for sake of offering your consumers choice and real value. Yes, there is an option to a plug in, but come one, which is more popular, YouTube or MSN Soapbox? The Good the bad and the ugly right now is the fact that its limited in what it can do, limited effects and transitions, no support for narration, no text over lays, you canít edit footage, but most importantly of all, no Time line, but itís got potential if the premise is to make video editing faster and simpler. I hope by the time Windows 7 hits RC1; we will see an updated Windows Live Suite with comparable options to Windows Movie Maker or even better, for now I, stick with Windows Movie Maker.
Office Live WorkPlace Add-In
Windows Live is not just a consumer product, there are some business functionality built into the suite too. In addition to the Office Outlook connector for managing Live Hotmail email in the Office Personal Information Manager, the Office Live WorkPlace add-in allows you to save your Microsoft Office files directly to your own online work space at Office Live. The Windows Live Suite does not include the add-in itself, that you will have to download. The ĎSave to Office Liveí in supported Office applications pane features a sign in link which triggers the installation of the ad-in from Microsoft Downloads. Once you have downloaded and installed the ad-in, a restart is required. The Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint Office Fluent file menu includes a new Save As and Open As capability for Office Live. Hopefully by the next release or even before then, Microsoft will support the add-in across the entire suite of products.
After the Ad-in is successfully installed the next step is to sign into the service. Existing users of Office Live Workplace will get automatic access to their workspace, for first time users; you will need to sign-up and configure the service first. After clicking continue in the Office Live Workspace wizard, your web browser is launched automatically which takes you to the Office Live web page where you must first accept the Service Agreement before continuing. Once you have setup and configured your Office Live Workspace, you are ready to start saving and opening Microsoft Office files from the web. With your workspace, you can store 1000+ documents online, share them with others, and then access them directly from Microsoft Office Word, Excel, or PowerPoint.
Saving to the workspace is very similar to working in Windows Explorer. The Office Live ĎSave Así window works more like a Mapped Network drive. Initially, I got an error message trying to save, but after closing out the window and trying again it worked successfully. Documents saved to Office Live Workspace, can be shared and viewed as a web page. Unfortunately, I was not presented the option of doing so in the browser. Office Live instead insisted that I download the file and edit locally. So there are some issues still to be worked out where that is the concerned. Microsoft is promising that the next version of Microsoft Office Ď14í will support editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in the web browser. Users can still appreciate the basic collaboration functionality built in such as versioning of files, commenting and the ability to share files in work spaces with multiple users. If you need to collaborate on a document at the same time, Download SharedView* for free and share your screen so others can see everything you're doing in real time.
I would like to see federation across Windows Live storage services, such as the option to have files uploaded, replicated and saved in your Windows Live Skydrive too. Having data scattered across different but similar services seems like too much to manage. Overall, I appreciate the ability to work with my Office files in new and innovative ways. Itís a great way to collaborate, especially for students who might be doing school projects and need a cost effective solutions to share and sync information effectively.
Windows Live Toolbar
Microsoft continues to offer a similar toolbar for users of MSN which pretty much does the same thing as Live Toolbar by offering the following services:
The Windows Live Toolbar is more simplified but more cohesive, featuring a Live Search Box and links to Windows Live services such as your Windows Live Profile, Mail, Photos, Calendar, Sharing and Translation services. The Search field features an integrated list box so you can search specific content such as Web, News, Maps, Images, Feeds, current web page or your computer on the fly. The great thing about it is no matter where you are on the web you can stay signed in and have immediate access to these Windows Live services. You can preview your Mail inbox, see new photos from friends and family in your social network and preview events in your Calendar.
If you find the Live Toolbar predefined set of applications too limited, you can install additional buttons which range in services such as Wikipedia, Office Live or Live Skydrive. I love the Wikipedia button since I am always looking for information on topics that interest me, you can find more at the Windows Live Gallery where there is a healthy collection of add onís for Live Toolbar.
Its way more simplified and focuses more on content. The Translate this page button handles translation of web pages written in foreign languages to your native language. How well does it work? I didnít spend too much time to find out, but the speed is very fast. I translated a Windows Live Space written in Portuguese to English; the results were not impressive, but I could understand what was written on the page without too much deciphering. Translated pages can be viewed in multiple ways including side by side, Top/Bottom, Hover over with Translation or Translation with original. English speaking users have the option of translating up to 13 languages, worldwide languages that can be translated to English include Chinese Simplified and Mandarin, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, French and German to name a few. The only gripe I have about the Live Toolbar, it doesnít support Firefox and there is no Internet Explorer 64-bit support either.
Office Outlook Connector
The Outlook Connector provides access to your Windows Live services such as Hotmail, Contacts and Calendar inside of Outlook with the ability to sync between the two. The advantages are you are able to utilize the rich capabilities of Outlook for syncing, viewing multiple calendars for instance, keep offline copies of your hotmail email and contacts. When you install Live Essentials, a new menu is added to Outlook called Outlook Connector. From there you can sign into to the service which requires a Hotmail, Live ID or MSN account. Additional Hotmail accounts can be added and managed as one profile. The Server Status toolbar manages the synchronization between your Windows Live services (Mail, Contacts and Calendar) along with displaying your storage usage. I am a bit curious about the storage usage, since the toolbar displays 625 MBs out of 500 GBs for my account. I donít think I would ever need that amount of storage just for mail so it must be some mistake. Another great thing about managing your Mail, Contacts and Calendar, itís automatically exposed to the Windows Search Index in Vista or Windows Desktop Search if you are running it on Windows XP.
Windows Live Family Safety
Windows Vista introduced Parental Controls which made it easy to manage the time your children spend using the computer in addition what type of content they can view on the web and receive reports about their activities online. Windows Live Family Safety is pretty much the same; the difference is itís more about managing the online activities. With Live Family Safety Filter, you can choose who they communicate with online and generate reports of their online activities other features include:
If you are running any of the consumer editions of Windows Vista such as Home Basic, Premium or Ultimate, you probably donít need it, but for Vista Business and Windows XP users it should be a welcome addition. To setup the service, you need to have a Windows Live ID (XBOX, Hotmail) that will be your primary account for Family Safety. The Family Safety interface features a Profile Center, with a toggle on or off button. The ĎCustomize settings for your familyí area features a link to a dedicated website where Parents can add accounts and customize settings.
Windows Live Essentials is deep; itís deep in features and value. The thing about the suite is the cohesive experience it delivers, focusing primarily on what users enjoying doing on the PC these days. Microsoft for years has provided a complete suite of knowledge worker experiences with Microsoft Office. Windows Live Essentials fills that gap for the consumer. The most exciting thing about Live Essentials is that all these applications and services are free and they make connecting up to family and friends seamless; providing a simplified process of sharing memories and interest. After using the suite since the early betas I am a solidified user and I know you will be too. So I say, go to http://download.live.com right now.