The Windows Live apps package is a free download of six tools that manage e-mail accounts, chatting, blogging, photos, and parental controls for children surfing the Web. This download includes Windows Live Mail, Messenger, Photo Gallery, Writer, Toolbar, and OneCare Family Safety. Rather than serving as a portal to and promotion for its makers' various Web-based consumer services alone, Windows Live apps integrate with some third-party services. Therefore, you can use Windows Live Photo gallery to upload to Yahoo's Flickr, and use Windows Live Mail to read Gmail messages.
Windows Live Mail is the desktop successor to Microsoft Outlook Express. It enables you to stream messages and contacts from Hotmail as well as POP and IMAP e-mail services. That means there's free integration with Gmail and Comcast accounts, although you must pay Yahoo $20 to enable POP. The interface of Windows Live Mail drops messages into a roomy central pane while listing various accounts on the left above RSS feeds for your custom news, as well as Newsgroups and Windows Live Messenger. You can tailor Mail to reflect your favorite colors, too.
The prominent Add an E-mail Account button is a constant reminder of Microsoft's hopes that you will use its new Mail client as a portal for third-party e-mail. Mail's strong points include its Photo E-mail feature, found under the new drop-down menu. It has the capability to attach multiple photos, integrating with Windows Live Photo Gallery. You can also create a blog entry from the message composition window.
By default, Windows Live Mail is set to the highest spam-blocking and anti-phishing filters. You can change these settings and create lists of blocked and safe senders for extra protection. Windows Live Mail also enables digital signatures and encryption.
Windows Live Messenger, which we've reviewed separately, hooks into both Windows Live Mail and the online Hotmail. Mail will reflect when your IM contacts are online and then take you to Messenger's chatting interface when you want an instant conversation.
Windows Live Photo Gallery enables photo management and quick fixes, such as red-eye removal, exposure adjustment, and cropping. When you import photos from a camera, Photo Gallery will auto-rotate them to display upright. It will also cluster pictures taken within a day of each other, similar to the Events feature within Apple iPhoto '08. If you haven't set the time on your camera, however, prepare for headaches. You can tag pictures by topic and upload them to Flickr, Windows Live Spaces, and MSN Soapbox. You can stitch together photos for a panoramic effect.
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.