Making Sense of Windows Live Wave 3, Part 3: Windows Live Essentials

While the scope and reach of the new and improved Windows Live services that Microsoft plans to ship over the next few months is somewhat daunting, understanding the Windows Live applications coming as part of Wave 3 is far more manageable. While there are a few exceptions, virtually all of the native Windows applications that Microsoft ships under the Windows Live umbrella come as part of Windows Live Essentials. This application suite debuted a year ago, and the Wave 3 version shipped in a beta version a few months ago. By the first week of December, you can expect to see a near-final version of Windows Live Essentials Wave 3 ship. And this version of the suite, amazingly, will deliver even more new functionality. Yep, it's an exciting time to be a Windows Live user.

For an overview of the applications and features that Microsoft debuted in the beta version of Windows Live Essentials, please refer to my earlier article, A Look at the Windows Live Wave 3 Applications. This article will focus only on the changes that will first appear in the near-final release candidate version of the suite that will be available soon. This update will appear as the third of five phases that make up the Wave 3 release schedule. Phase 1 included the Essentials beta release. Phase 2 was the initial release of Windows Live Hotmail Wave 3. Phase 4 is the second Hotmail update, which includes universal POP access to the service, and the final release of Windows Live Calendar. And phase 5 is the final phase, with Hotmail gaining POP3 aggregation functionality and unlimited storage, and the Essentials suite being finalized.

Windows Live Mail

What it is: Email, contacts, calendar, RSS feed, and USENET newsgroups management
Key competition: Mozilla Thunderbird, Web mail solutions
Key integration points: Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live People, Windows Live Calendar

Overview: Windows Live Mail is the successor to Outlook Express (Windows XP) and Windows Mail (Vista), and if you're still using either one of those sorry excuses for an email application, you should upgrade immediately to Windows Live Mail instead. Like its predecessors, Windows Live Mail supports multiple email accounts (including Hotmail-style Web mail accounts), USENET newsgroups, and contacts management. But unlike its predecessors, Windows Live Mail is a high quality application, and it bundles a slew of additional functionality, not the least of which is its Calendar component, which is compatible with the new Windows Live Calendar service.

Secret: I can now confirm that Microsoft will not be updating Windows Calendar in Windows 7, so Windows Live Mail's Calendar module replaces that application going forward as well.

New in Wave 3 RC: Windows Live Mail will integrate with the Windows Live People service, providing you with offline access to your entire contacts list. Windows Live Calendar will be finalized, and the Calendar component in Windows Live Mail will be the perfect offline counterpart to that service. Likewise, users who take advantage of the POP3 aggregation feature in Windows Live Hotmail will be able to send and receive mail from all of those accounts via Windows Live Mail as well.

The calendar component in Windows Live Mail will replace Windows Calendar going forward.

Windows Live Messenger

What it is: Microsoft's consumer-oriented instant messaging (IM) application
Key competition: AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk
Key integration points: Windows Live Profile (What's New Feed), Windows Live People, Windows Live Hotmail

Overview: Windows Live Messenger is the successor to Windows Messenger (Windows XP) and MSN Messenger. It is the most popular instant messaging (IM) application on earth and one of the centerpieces of Windows Live Essentials and services integration.

New in Wave 3 RC: The Wave 3 version of Windows Live Messenger is the most extensive update yet of Microsoft's popular IM client, and it is being refined to form the Windows-based hub for the social features in Windows Live. Windows Live Messenger will integrate with the Favorites and Groups features in Windows Live People. The biggest change, however, is the What's New feed, which in RC will work with the new consolidated What's New feed that's available across all of your Windows Live and third party services.

The What's New display in Messenger integrates with your wider Windows Live What's New feed.

Windows Live Movie Maker Beta

What it is: A video editing application, including movie versions of photo slideshows
Key competition: Windows Movie Maker (XP, Vista)
Key integration points: Windows Live Photo Gallery, MSN Soapbox, Windows DVD Maker

Overview: Windows Live Movie Maker is a simplified successor to the Windows Movie Maker applications from Windows XP and Vista that is more oriented towards creating videos that you will share on the Web via services such as You Tube and MSN Soapbox.

New in Wave 3 RC: Windows Live Movie Maker will still be in beta form when the other Essentials application hit the release candidate phase and Microsoft says that this one application will remain in beta when the others are finalized. Unlike the broken version in the Essentials beta, we will finally get a usable version of Windows Live Movie Maker Beta in the RC version of the suite. This will include various editing features, effects, transitions, and themes, as well as numerous ways to share the movies you create via the Internet, optical discs, or your TV, cell phone, or portable video device. Windows Live Movie Maker Beta will also support a new plug-in model, similar to other Windows Live applications, so that third parties can provide other capabilities and format/codec support.

Windows Live Movie Maker Beta retains most of the functionality of its predecessors and adds a few unique features of its own.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

What it is: A photo and home movie management solution
Key competition: Google Picasa, Web services such as Flickr
Key integration points: Windows Live Photos, Windows Live Movie Maker, Windows DVD Maker, third party services such as Flickr, Google Picasa Web Galleries, and others

Overview: Windows Live Photo Gallery is the successor to and a vastly improved version of the Windows Photo Gallery application that debuted in Windows Vista. It includes all of the photo management and editing functionality you'd expect, and can manage short videos taken with digital cameras as well. The Wave 3 version adds a ton of new features, including face detection, animated slide shows, enhanced third party photo service compatibility, new editing options (including panoramic photo creation), and photo printing services integration.

New in Wave 3 RC: In release candidate form, Windows Live Photo Gallery will integrate strongly with two Windows Live services, Windows Live Photos (naturally), and Windows Live Sync, the latter of which can be configured to automatically sync your entire photo library between all of your PCs. A wide number of third party services will also integrate with Windows Live Photo Gallery, so if you don't use Windows Live for online photo sharing, you'll be able to use this application with the service you prefer instead. Windows Live Photo Gallery's people tagging feature is compatible with the similar feature on Windows Live Photos. Windows Live Photo Gallery will work with over 71,000 print services partners worldwide.

The People Tagging feature in Windows Live Photo Gallery carries through to Windows Live Photos as well.

Windows Live Toolbar

What it is: An Internet Explorer (IE) toolbar that provides quick access to key Windows Live services
Key competition: Google and Yahoo! browser toolbars
Key integration points: Windows Live Search, Windows Live Profile, Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live Photos, Windows Live Calendar, MSN, Windows Live Local Search, MSNBC News, Windows Live Translate, and other Microsoft and third party services

Overview: Browser toolbars are aimed at users who spend most of their time online on a single service such as Yahoo!, Google, MSN, or Windows Live. Frankly, the Windows Live toolbar is the weakest of the Essentials solutions, and the least necessary. This is the one part of Windows Live Essentials that isn't a true standalone application.

New in Wave 3 RC: Windows Live Toolbar will work with all of the applicable Wave 3 services that are shipping in December.

Windows Live Toolbar is compatible with the new Wave 3 Live services.

Windows Live Writer

What it is: A WYSIWYG blog editor, compatible with dozens of different types of blogs
Key competition: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live Spaces

Overview: Windows Live Writer may not seem like an interesting application but it is the most welcome surprise in the Essentials. Sure, it works just fine with Windows Live Spaces, as expected. But it also works amazingly well with a host of other blog providers, and it makes adding photos, videos, and other content into a blog a seamless affair.

New in Wave 3 RC: Most of the new functionality in Windows Live Writer has already shipped in various pre-RC releases, but with the release candidate, Microsoft is dramatically changing Windows Live Spaces to be more blog- and personal Web site-centric. The big deal in this release is that you should rarely need to leave the application when you're preparing a blog post or other Web site update: Everything you need to write, and add rich content like photos, photo slideshows, and video, is available from directly in Windows Live Writer.

It's easy to add photos, photo slideshows, and videos to blogs without hand editing code in Windows Live Writer.

Windows Live Family Safety

What it is: A parental controls service for family members
Key competition: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live People, Windows Live Profile, Windows Live Messenger, Internet Explorer

Overview: An extension of the parental controls functionality in Windows Vista and 7, Windows Live Family Safety provides parents with the tools they need to protect their kids online. One complication: To work properly, everyone in the family must have their own Windows Live ID.

New in Wave 3 RC: Windows Live Family Safety RC will be compatible with all of the relevant Wave 3 services that ship in December.

Windows Live Family Safety provides parental control functionality for families.

Final thoughts

While most of what's happening in the Wave 3 version of the Windows Live Essentials suite is already well-known, I hope a few of these revelations have surprised you. I'd point to the theme support in Windows Live Movie Maker, which simplifies the process of creating a professional-looking movie you won't be embarrassed share online. The What's New feed in Windows Live Messenger, which is annoying in the beta release but will be suddenly useful and desirable in RC form. And the appearance of calendaring in Windows Live Mail, which, in concert with Windows Live Calendar, will ultimately replace the Windows Calendar application from Windows Vista. Windows Live Essentials is so good, it's the first thing I install after getting Windows up and running. I can't wait to play with the final release of the Wave 3 version. It's shaping up nicely.

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