And there's new QuickTime support, so you can preview any videos mixed in with your pictures. As you mouse over pictures in the gallery, larger thumbnails will pop up to provide a better view. However, we couldn't figure out why this feature worked sometimes and failed at other times. Plus, it was hard to see the folders where the images were stored, and you only see image file names when you roll over or open the image. And while we could easily crop a photo, we couldn't find a way to resize it before sending it in an e-mail to a friend who wanted to receive a ready-made thumbnail rather than the full 2,048x1,536 pixels.
There are also tie-ins to e-mail from Photo Gallery, which we wish operated without a speed bump. When we highlighted pictures and hit the E-mail button, we weren't taken to any e-mail service. This feature is supposed to pop up the default e-mail client you've set within Microsoft Windows. Apparently we had not set that on our testbed, but Windows Live Photo Gallery left us hanging and didn't tell us what to do. It would be nice if E-mail at least took you to Windows Live Mail or Hotmail in such a case.
Windows Live Writer hasn't changed much since beta testing. This blog-post-composition tool enables you to post to multiple blogs at third parties including Google's Blogger and TypePad. We like the uncluttered look and feel of this time-saving tool, which has improved its handling of videos.
Windows Live Family Safety is not selected by default when you download the Windows Live apps. Don't bother with it unless you have kids. If you are a parent, this tool lets you block a child's contacts in Hotmail, Spaces, and Messenger within a Web-based interface. Parental controls within Windows Vista do not offer these features (Windows XP offers no parental controls), nor will they point users to Family Safety. In addition, Family safety enables you to monitor which sites a child surfs and block dodgy online destinations.
Setup and interface
In our tests on Windows XP, the download took several seconds, and installation took another 10 minutes. Before you install, make sure to tell Microsoft not to change your browser and home-page settings if you like them the way they are. Once installed, Windows Live apps will appear in your Programs list under the Start menu of Microsoft Windows. We wish, however, that there was a unified, local interface listing all the programs. For now, when you click on Windows Live Home, you'll be taken to the Windows Live home page in your default Internet browser.
Microsoft's latest mobile offerings for checking e-mail works with Wap2.0, iMode, and HTML phone browsers. Windows Live works on Windows mobile phones as well as Nokia series 60 and 40 models. You can add Exchange and Windows Live credentials to the phone, pooling contacts on the device. Plus, you can upload cell phone photos to Windows Live Spaces.
The Windows Live services remaining in beta testing include Windows Live Calendar beta, released November 8, and Windows Live SkyDrive.
Service and support
Unlike most free software, Microsoft is throwing in live chat support and e-mail help for free to users of the Windows Live apps. You can also access a searchable, online knowledge base that we found helpful in addition to user forums.
Overall, we like the relative ease of use and rich features within Windows Live apps. We find this free package worth a spin for those seeking to manage their e-mail accounts, blogs, photos, and children's surfing habits from the Windows desktop rather than the browser.