Critics of Windows 8 have a point when they argue that Microsoft’s new OS is shipping in a semi-incomplete state. But this isn’t unprecedented: Even Windows 7 lacked core applications for email, photo editing, and the like, and the advice then was that you could complete the Windows 7 experience by adding Windows Live Essentials. For Windows 8, the advice still rings true, especially for desktop users: You will want to install the new Essentials to fill some gaps in Windows 8’s core functionality.
The new version of Essentials is now called Windows Essentials 2012. You may recall that as part of its brand consolidation strategy, Microsoft is eliminating Windows Live. I previously wrote about this product in Windows Essentials 2012 Preview.
Windows Essentials 2012 is a nicely refined version of previous Essentials suites like Windows Live Essentials 2011. And it drops more than just the Windows Live brand: The Bing Bar, Outlook Connector (which is not necessary for Outlook 2013), and Windows Live Mesh application have all disappeared from this version, as have Family Safety (which is now the brand used for Windows 8’s built-in parental controls) and Messenger Companion (sort of replaced by Web Messenger in Outlook.com).
There are other changes. Most (but curious not all) of the applications have been rebranded with simpler names. So Windows Live Photo Gallery becomes … just Photo Gallery. Windows Live Movie Maker? Movie Maker. And Live Mesh has been replaced by the SkyDrive application, so be forewarned: If you still rely on Live Mesh, the Windows Essentials 2012 installer will uninstall that application.
While all of the applications in Essentials 2012 are not necessarily core to Windows 8, some definitely are. These include:
Photo Gallery. Windows 8 ships with a Metro-style Photos app that provides decent slideshow and photo viewing features, connectivity with online services and your other (via SkyDrive) connected PCs, and very basic photo acquisition functionality. But Photo Gallery offers vastly superior photo acquisition functionality and full-featured photo editing capabilities. Given how limited Photos is, you’re going to want Photo Gallery, regardless of whether you intend to stick largely with Metro or on the Windows desktop. My recommendation is to configure Photo Gallery for both photo acquisition (what happens when a camera or memory card is connected to the PC) and for photo viewing.
Messenger. Windows 8 includes a full-screen, Metro-style Messaging app that lets you connect with your friends on both Facebook and Microsoft’s Messenger network. But I find this app to be intrusive and non-efficient, since I like to switch back and forth between active chat windows and what I’m currently working on, which invariably will be another full-features Windows desktop application. Messenger isn’t perfect—it’s still far too busy with silly features I don’t want or use—but it’s also still better than the Messaging app or, for text chat especially, alternatives like Skype.
Movie Maker. The Windows 8 Xbox Video app is fine for viewing your own videos or browsing Microsoft’s Xbox Video Store, but it doesn’t offer anything in the way of editing. (A separate Camera app does let you capture still images or video clips from your PC’s cameras, however.) This is where Movie Maker steps in, and this always-excellent solution has gotten a nice update in Essentials 2012, with an overdue move to H.264 as the default format, better editing tools (especially for audio), video stabilization functionality (a key feature for shaky home video), and integration with free background music sources.
SkyDrive. The SkyDrive application adds File Explorer-based access to your SkyDrive cloud storage so you can easily sync critical files to the cloud as well as to your other connected PCs. I’ve quickly made this application a key part of my workflow and rely on it heavily. Windows 8 does include a Metro-based SkyDrive app, but that’s just a mobile app that lets you view what’s online. What you really need is the desktop-based SkyDrive application, which provides the aforementioned syncing capability as well as an option feature called Remote Fetch that will make the contents your connected PCs available to you via the SkyDrive web site.
Other applications. The Windows Live Mail application is a nice, if oddly named, desktop replacement for three Metro-style apps in Windows 8: Mail, Calendar, and People. It hasn’t really changed since Essentials 2011—indeed, the name still retains the Windows Live brand for some reason—but it’s still there if you need it. Likewise, Windows Live Writer continues forward in Essentials 2012 with nary a change: This blog editor is beloved by its relatively small user base, and I suspect Microsoft would have faced a PR disaster if it had killed it.
Every Windows 8 user should download and install Windows Essentials 2012, and then configure the SkyDrive application for syncing, as soon as possible. It really does help complete the Windows 8 experience but, more to the point, it also fills some curiously gaping gaps in Windows 8’s core functionality.