Windows Live Essentials 2009 Review

It's astonishing to consider how dramatically Microsoft's strategy for Windows has changed over the past decade. Ten years ago, Microsoft was being sued by the US government for bundling so-called middleware products in Windows, potentially harming competitors and consumers alike. Many, myself included, questioned the strength of the software giant's eventual antitrust settlement, but the ramifications of that agreement don't just persist today; they in fact guide Microsoft's product development in ways that few could have possibly foreseen. The most obvious result of that settlement, in fact, is the Windows Live Essentials suite, a collection of Windows applications that, a decade ago, Microsoft thought nothing of bundling directly into the OS. Today, they are free but separately acquired. As Windows users, we are all the benefactors of that change.

It all began with Windows Messenger, the instant messaging (IM) application that Microsoft bundled with Windows XP back in 2001. At the time, the thinking was that Windows Messenger would be business oriented while a separate download, then called MSN Messenger, would be more consumer oriented. By the time Windows Vista shipped in late 2006, however, Windows Messenger was gone, thanks to Microsoft's antitrust settlement. That removal was somewhat obvious and non-controversial: MSN Messenger (later renamed to Windows Live Messenger) was more feature-rich and more frequently updated anyway.

With Windows 7 (see my Beta review) looming on the horizon, however, the changes are far more dramatic and, yes, controversial this time. Now, Microsoft is cutting deep into the OS, deeper than many thought was strictly necessary. And it is exorcising a surprising amount of functionality from Windows. Some of it, frankly, is illogical.

What am I talking about exactly? Functionality that has long been considered a core part of Windows--functionality that is, by the way, still very much a core part of competing OSes like Mac OS X and Linux--is now gone. I'm talking email (Windows Mail), contacts management (Windows Contacts), and calendaring (Windows Calendar). Photo editing and management (Windows Photo Gallery) and video editing (Windows Movie Maker). (But not, curiously and illogically, the DVD editor called Windows DVD Maker.) And of course Windows Messenger, which was previously carved out of Windows like an unwelcome bit of melanoma.

All of this functionality is no longer included in Windows 7. In fact, looked at in a certain way, Windows 7 arguably does much less--out of the proverbial box--than does Windows Vista. That doesn't sound like a great selling point on the surface. But I'm here to tell you that Microsoft's decision to strip these features out of Windows is a good thing. No, check that: It's a great thing.

Here's why: These and other functions (and many, many others) are now provided by applications in the Windows Live Essentials suite, which is available as a free download for Windows XP, Vista, and 7. By stripping them out of Windows, Microsoft is meeting (perhaps exceeding) the requirements of its antitrust agreements around the world, yes. But more important than that, the software giant has also provided Windows users with two wonderful benefits: First, those that no longer want these applications no longer need to deal with them, something that should prove quite popular in the strictly controlled corporate environments that are Microsoft's bread and butter. (Too, those who only wish to use some of these applications can pick and choose which to get.)

Second, by moving these applications out of Windows, Microsoft can update them far more frequently and adapt to consumers' needs on the fly. Previously, these applications were artificially tied to the glacial pace of Windows development, where code check-ins are as tightly locked down as is Fort Knox. By pushing them out to the more freewheeling Windows Live team, Microsoft is ensuring that they'll be updated early and often. Smart.

(In fact, it's so smart, I'm surprised they didn't snag a few other bundled applications, especially Windows DVD Maker, Windows Media Player, and Windows Media Center. There's no good reason for these things to be tied to specific Windows versions either.)

So rejoice, Windows users. Windows Live Essentials has been set free. This free application suite is a must-have upgrade for all Windows XP, Vista, and 7 users. In fact, after an anti-virus package, it's the very first thing I install on every fresh Windows install: Windows Live Essentials is awesome. To find out why, let's look at what you get with this suite.

Windows Live Essentials: The mile-high view

Windows Live Essentials is a suite of Windows applications that "completes" or "light up" the Windows experience by adding a surprisingly rich set of functionality to the base OS. This is especially true of Windows 7, which, as mentioned previously, actually doesn't ship with a number of applications that were provided with earlier Windows versions.

Windows Live Essentials consists of Windows Live Mail (email, contacts, and calendar), Windows Live Messenger (IM), Windows Live Movie Maker Beta (video editing), Windows Live Photo Gallery (photo editing and management), Windows Live Toolbar (for Internet Explorer), Windows Live Writer (blog editor), Windows Live Family Safety (parental controls), and a few other related utilities such as Windows Live Sync (for PC-to-PC document and photo synchronization), Office Outlook Connector (for accessing relevant Windows Live services via Microsoft Outlook), and Silverlight, Microsoft's Flash competitor.

One of the key tenets of the current, or "Wave 3," version of Windows Live is "keeping your life in sync." To this end, all of the Windows Live applications (in Windows Live Essentials) and services (in what is simply called Windows Live) integrate deeply with each other. In some cases they also integrate with an ever-growing collection of third party services as well.

You install one of more Windows Live Essentials applications via a single installer, and there are no more application-specific installers as there were in the past. The installer is simple and straightforward, and you can simply uncheck any applications you do not want. Depending on your configuration, you may not see certain options. For example, those without Microsoft Outlook will not be offered the Office Outlook Connector. And XP users will not be provided with Windows Live Movie Maker. (That application is aimed at Vista and 7 users only, sorry.) There's no need to reboot after the installation is complete.

Windows Live Essentials 2009
The Essentials installer lets you pick and choose which components you want.

The Windows Live Essentials applications

Virtually all of the applications in Windows Live Essentials are excellent, and I've been using this suite on all of my PCs since the early betas from last summer. While I've written at length about most of these applications before--please refer to my articles, A Look at the Windows Live Wave 3 Applications and Making Sense of Windows Live Wave 3, Part 3: Windows Live Essentials for more information--I'd to highlight some of the more important and late-breaking details about them here for this review.

Note: One aspect of Windows Live Essentials that I'm not happy about is the online help: It's all Web-based, so if you're not connected to the Internet, you're on your own. That's a problem because these are local applications that, in some notable cases, are specifically designed to be used offline. Microsoft should at least make its help content available offline. In fact, it could possibly use Windows Live Sync technology to keep it up-to-date. Just a thought.

Windows Live Mail

Rating:

Windows Live Mail is the email, contacts, and calendar solution in Windows Live Essentials and as such it's got the most responsibility to shoulder among the various apps. Technologically, Windows Live Mail is the successor to Outlook Express (XP) and Windows Mail (Vista), which isn't much of a compliment, when you think about it. But Windows Live Mail also replaces Windows Address Book (XP), Windows Contacts (Vista), and Windows Calendar (Vista), and it provides additional functionality in the form of RSS feed subscriptions and USENET newsgroup support. That's a lot of stuff.

Windows Live Essentials 2009
With Windows Live Mail, you can aggregate mail from multiple accounts into a single, cohesive view.

In fact, the sheer amount of functionality in this single application may be Windows Live Mail's biggest shortcoming. I don't mind contacts and calendaring functionality being subsumed by this one application, but why can't I launch a stripped down Contacts or Calendar application separately? After all, when I think of my schedule, "Windows Live Mail" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. At the very least, there should be a way to launch this application so that the Calendar, Contacts, Feeds, and Newsgroups modes are displayed by default. And those modes should be available from Start Menu search: When I search for "calendar," for example, something like "Windows Live Mail: Calendar" should come up. It doesn't. (And here's a real nit: When you click the Contacts link in the app, something called Windows Live Contacts opens up in a separate window. So can you launch this pseudo application from the Start Menu? No, you cannot.)

Windows Live Essentials 2009
Windows Live Contacts, curiously, opens up in its own window.

Windows Live Essentials 2009
The Calendar mode in Windows Live Mail is a decent replacement for Windows Calendar.

The other big issue with Windows Live Mail is performance. This problem crops up in two areas: Synchronization and over-stuffed email servers. On the sync side, if you choose to go the Windows Live Calendar route and actually use Windows Live Mail's Calendar mode when at the PC, you're going to notice that PC-to-Web and Web-to-PC synchronization is not instant, and this can be disconcerting, especially when you're initially testing the service/application combo to see if it will meet your needs. The key thing to remember here is that Calendar is synced with the cloud on the same schedule as your email, so remember to configure that accordingly.

This sync issue occurs with Windows Live Hotmail-based email as well. I can't even count the number of times I've organized email out of the Inbox and into folders on the client only to later visit the Inbox via the Web and discover all those old emails still sitting there unfiled. Microsoft needs to sort that out. It's really irritating.

With regards to heavily-used email accounts, I've seen some performance issues with Gmail (via IMAP), most likely related to the fact that I have tons of email stored up there. Windows Live Mail wants to copy everything locally so you can work offline, and this can be painfully slow if you've got an email account that's as badly overused as mine.

OK, these complaints aside, Windows Live Mail is actually an excellent email, contacts, and calendaring solution. You can use it to access multiple email accounts simultaneously (including multiple Hotmail accounts), and it works with all of the important email standards. In fact, one of the best things about this application is that you don't even have to use it with Microsoft's online services. You could use the Calendar mode locally, for example, and not in tandem with Windows Live Calendar if you wanted. Ditto for Contacts.

Windows Live Mail is very much a viable replacement for Windows Mail, Contacts, and Calendar. I just wish Microsoft would make that a bit more obvious.

Windows Live Messenger

Rating:

If you've read my Windows Live articles over the years, you know that I'm no fan of instant messaging. And yet, I use Windows Live Messenger every single day. Reconciling these two facts is difficult, but let's just say that I've come to the understanding that being able to instantly connect with close friends, family members, and coworkers is extremely valuable. So Windows Live Messenger does that, of course, as does any modern IM application, I'm sure. What really sets Messenger apart from the competition is the way it integrates with all of the other products and services in the Windows Live ecosystem.

In fact, in many ways, Windows Live Messenger acts as the central PC-based hub for your Windows Live activities online. When you're signed on to Windows Live Messenger, that status and availability is broadcast throughout the network, alerting your contacts about your availability. From this application, you can configure information about your Windows Live Profile as well as view information about your contacts. And a new Whats's New feed streams along the bottom of the main application window, giving you an animated overview of what's going on with those in your Windows Live network.

Windows Live Messenger picks up a bunch of obvious but appreciated improvements and refinements. You can skin the application (or "change the scene," as Microsoft says) by mousing over to the top right corner of the main application window; when you do so, the corner peels back to indicate something is possible. An email notification graphic--using the new Windows Live Mail icon, of course--indicates when you have new mail to read; clicking it will launch Hotmail in IE or Windows Live Mail, depending on whether you have the latter configured. And best of all, when you click your display picture, you actually get a window offering to help you change it to something else; in previous versions, this option was buried deeper in the UI. Also, Messenger is now more of a "normal" Windows application, with standard Aero glass frames in Windows Vista and 7.

Windows Live Essentials 2009
Windows Live Messenger is far more configurable and integrates nicely with many Windows Live products.

If the new Messenger has a problem, it's performance. For some reason, this application locks up fairly regularly now, and that's true whether you're using Windows 7 or Vista. Hopefully, Microsoft will get that little bug fixed soon, but in the meantime, Messenger occasionally prevents you from typing into a conversation window, as if it were mediating your time chatting.

Also, it's worth pointing out that Microsoft has dramatically changed the default Messenger display behavior in Windows 7: Whereas in previous Windows versions, the main Messenger window minimizes to the system tray, in Windows 7, it acts like a normal Windows application and takes up valuable real estate in the taskbar with one or more extraneous buttons. You can overcome this by reconfiguring Windows Live Messenger to run in Vista Compatibility Mode. (See my Windows 7 Beta Compatibility article for more information.)

Continue to Part 2...

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