Yesterday, Microsoft finalised its Windows Live Essentials 2011 suite and made it available for download. The Windows Live Essentials are pieces of software that are designed to compliment Windows and add extra functionality not built into Windows itself. Many of the applications in the Windows Live Essentials are applications that used to be included with Windows (such as an email program, a photo editor, a movie maker, instant messaging program and parental control software). Microsoft took most of the programs that weren't a key part of an operating system (such as all those programs mentioned above) out of Windows 7 (they were all included in Windows Vista) to make the operating system less bloated, to allow them to update them more frequently outside the Windows schedule and probably to avoid another anti-trust case against them. So there is a new version of this suite of software with plenty of changes and many little features and additions designed to make the suite integrate into Windows 7 effectively. I must note now that this software will NOT work on Windows XP because it uses technologies that Microsoft only added in Windows Vista. To install the suite on Windows Vista you must have Service Pack 2 installed and also the Platform Update for Windows Vista that would have come through Windows Update late last year. Basically if your Windows Vista machine is fully up to date, then it will run the suite with no problems. Windows 7 users can install the suite without needing any specific updates, although you should keep your machine up to date anyway. So let's have a look at what new goodies are available in the Windows Live Essentials 2011 suite.
Windows Live Messenger 2011
Windows Live Messenger has featured the most attention in the 2011 version of the program. The interface has been completely redesigned, because the focus of the program has been redesigned. Previously Windows Live Messenger was solely an instant messaging application, but in this version of the suite it has become a full social dashboard designed to aggregate information from various social networks into one screen. For this to work though, you need to connect these social networks up to your Windows Live Profile. I have an article detailing the steps you need to follow to do this (plus a few other things to do to take advantage of all the new features available in Windows Live Essentials 2011) and it's available here. Anyway, once you load Windows Live Messenger for the first time, you'll be taken to the new social dashboard. The big pane on the left will constantly update automatically with new information as it comes in from the social networks you've connected to your profile (you can also update it manually by clicking the refresh button which is the two arrows next to more). The right panel has a list of the contacts which are currently online. You can change this list to just specific categories if you wish. Up in the top right corner is your name (which is a menu to change your availability and access other options). The top left corner displays your current status and allows you to set a new one.
Windows Live Messenger 2011 New Social Dashboard
If you click the nineMSN link (may just appear as MSN in your country, nineMSN is an Australian thing) it will allow you to access the latest news, celebrity goss and video directly from nineMSN.
Windows Live Messenger 2011 News Feed Via nineMSN
If you're not interested in any of the new social dashboard and wish to use Messenger as solely an instant messaging client like it used to be in 2009 then click the little square box icon next to the Inbox link in the top right hand corner and it will switch to the compact view which should mimic the contact list that you're used to. Windows Live Messenger remembers what view you last had and will open to that view when you open it, so for those who never wish to see the social dashboard, you shouldn't see it again.
Windows Live Messenger 2011 Compact (Classic) View
The conversation windows in Messenger 2011 haven't change dramatically in this version. The only major different is that the toolbar at the top and the toolbar around the input box have been merged into one toolbar that's now below the writing box. The other big change (and this has been controversial) is that handwriting is no longer available in Messenger 2011. I personally find this an odd removal, but it's no longer available and so any messages sent from a 2009 client to a 2011 client will not be received. Other than that, there's not too much else that's changed in the conversation window.
Windows Live Messenger 2011 Conversation Window
The most exciting addition personally though to Windows Live Messenger is the ability to chat to your Facebook friends on Facebook chat from within Windows Live Messenger! To make this work it needs to be enabled on your Windows Live Profile (which you would have done before when connecting your services earlier in this article). Once enabled, your Facebook friends will appear in your Messenger contact list when they're signed into Facebook Chat and you can just click them to start a conversation with them. The conversation window for Facebook chat is much more basic because it doesn't support most of Messenger's features but it works quite well. You can tell you're chatting on Facebook chat from the little Facebook icon that appears below their profile picture.
Windows Live Messenger 2011 Facebook Chat
The Messenger Toasts (the messages that pop up in the bottom right to tell you that someone's signed in) have been updated in this version and are now white and slightly bigger. They also tell you if someone has signed via Window Live Messenger, Facebook chat, Messenger on iPhone or Messenger on the Web so you know exactly how you're talking to your friends.
New Messenger 2011 Toast
Finally, if you're running Windows 7, Messenger 2011 supports Windows 7 completely and integrates into the operating system. The Messenger Jump List has been updated and now includes your favourite contacts and the taskbar thumbnail preview now includes buttons to change your status as well as removing that weird icon that used to used to appear with just your display picture when you opened Messenger.
Messenger Jumplist in Windows 7
Messenger Taskbar Preview with Status Changing Buttons in Windows 7
There's one final piece of information I must share with you about Messenger 2011 that probably won't please a lot of you. In this version of Messenger you can no longer set a custom Display Name for yourself (you can still set a Personal Message though, it's now just called a Status). This is designed to work more like Facebook where you are simply refered to by your first and last name throughout the website. So from this version of Messenger onwards, the name that you will appear as on your friends contact list is your first and last name that you have set on your Windows Live Profile. This change has upset many many people and arguably could have been managed slightly differently (by retaining it for those who really did want to keep it) but I personally believe it is a change for the better that people will eventually come to understand. I personally hated all the stupid names that people used to identify themselves on Messenger (I had trouble figuring out who was who a lot of the time) and so having everyone appear as their first and last name makes life so much easier.
Windows Live Mail 2011
Windows Live Mail 2011 has received a few nice features, most notably the Ribbon UI and also the integration with Hotmail's new Photo Albums on Skydrive feature. Conversation view is turned on by default, but is really easy to turn off if you do not like it. There's a new to do bar on the right side of the inbox which shows a calendar and upcoming appointments and the Windows Live Contacts window has been combined into the main window instead of popping out as a seperate one like it used to. You can also now flag messages and have those flags sync up with Hotmail (because Hotmail now supports flags). Live Mail also continues to be a newsgroup reader and feed viewer, but I never use these.
Windows Live Mail Inbox
The biggest change in the compose email window is the way photos are now uploaded. Previously photos were attached to the email and because of this, many emails were rejected by mail servers across the world because they were too big. Windows Live Mail (and Hotmail) now allow you to send up to 200 photos in a single email by uploading them to Windows Live Skydrive when you send the message. The recipient can then simply click the link to Skydrive and view the photos in a slideshow on the website and download them if they wish to.
Windows Live Mail compose window
Windows Live Mail Photo Album Tools
The Calendar in this version of the suite has not received an update other than appearing in the Inbox as a side panel and receiving the Ribbon.
Windows Live Mail Calendar
The Contacts window is no longer a pop up window and now integrates into the mail Windows Live Mail window (which makes a lot of sense). Strangely though, duplicate contacts are not merged in this list (although they are in Messenger and Windows Live Contacts on the website) even though there are buttons at the top of the screen for cleaning up the contacts list. This is an odd oversight.
Windows Live Mail Contacts
Windows Live Photo Gallery
Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011 includes the new Ribbon UI that Windows Live Mail received, but it also includes some new photo editing tools that turn this into a really professional photo editing tool. It is now easier to search for photos by Date, People Tagged, Rating, Descriptive Tags, Flagging or by a text search of captions. You can also now GeoTag photos, although there have been numerous reports that this hasn't been working correctly for many people.
Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011 - Gallery View
The editing tools now available are quite outstanding. No longer is it simply restricted to a cropping or simple red eye removal, you can now retouch, straighten, reduce noise, adjust colour and exposure and apply photo effects such as Sepia. You can also share the photos out to services such as Facebook, Skydrive and Flickr from the Photo Gallery interface in a few clicks.
Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011 - Single Photo/Editing View
Windows Live Movie Maker
Windows Live Movie Maker did not receive many changes in this version. It already had the Ribbon UI from the previous version so that isn't a few feature in this version. What is new is the effects that can now be applied to the videos and also the export and publishing methods available. Movies created in Movie Maker 2011 can be published straight to Youtube, Facebook, Skydrive, Flickr and Windows Live Groups as well as exported into formats designed for Windows Phone, the Zune HD and HD TVs. You can also now use a webcam to record video in Movie Maker, a feature which was available in Windows Movie Maker in Vista, but lost in the previous version of Windows Live Movie Maker.
Windows Live Movie Maker 2011
Windows Live Mesh
This is an interesting product because it comes from interesting beginnings. In the 2009 version of the Live Essentials there was a product called Windows Live Sync, which was just an updated version of a product called Windows Live Foldershare. Windows Live Sync allowed you to browse your computer's hard drive remotely to access files without actually controlling the screen, as well as sync files between computers. At the same time there was a product called Live Mesh beta which was available as a program which could sync files between Windows PCs, Macs and mobile phones and also allowed remote access control to machines as well as offering 5GB of free cloud storage on a virtual web desktop. These products roughly did the same thing so Microsoft decided to combine them into a single product which they were going to call Windows Live Sync, which would allow syncing of files between PCs and Macs, remote access control and syncing to 2GB of cloud storage but without the web desktop. So during the beta Windows Live Sync beta did exactly that. Part way through the beta though, Microsoft decided to rename their Windows Live Sync beta to Windows Live Mesh in the final version and also increase the cloud storage to 5GB (because of complaints of losing 3GB of space if you moved from Live Mesh beta to Windows Live Mesh). So the final product "Windows Live Mesh" includes the following features. You can sync files between PCs and Macs (there's a Windows Live Mesh client for Macs available), you can sync 5GB worth of files to the "Skydrive Synced Storage" area on the Windows Live Devices website, Syncing of Internet Explorer Favourites and Microsoft Office styles, custom dictionaries and email signatures and remote access control to machines with Windows Live Mesh installed on them.
Windows Live Mesh - Syncing Folders & Settings
Windows Live Mesh - Remote Access
Windows Live Writer
This application also didn't receive too many updates this time other than receiving the Ribbon UI and changing the default publishing service from Windows Live Spaces to Wordpress due to the fact that Windows Live Spaces is shutting down in March 2011. It's a great blogging tool if you're using Wordpress and I sometimes use it to update my blog, although it doesn't work with the Wordpress plugins sadly. Also added was the ability to embed Bing Maps into posts.
Windows Live Writer 2011
Windows Live Family Safety, Bing Bar & Other Included Tools
These last tools that are part of the Windows Live Essentials I won't go into too much detail about because I don't use them. The Windows Live Family Safety client is not normally seen so there's not much point posting a screenshot of it here. The major changes in this version include the ability to change all the settings from the website now (not just some of them as was the case in the previous version) and also the fact that each child doesn't need to have a Windows Live ID anymore for the protection to work.
The Bing Bar is the replacement to the Windows Live Toolbar and is only visible if you use Internet Explorer. The Bing Bar is really just another bloaty addon to Internet Explorer that allows you to access the Windows Live services and search Bing. It's a real miss and I wouldn't bother installing it.
The Microsoft Office Outlook Connector is so that those of you who wish to continue using Microsoft Office Outlook can access your Hotmail from Outlook and also sync Contacts and Calendar. If you don't use Outlook, then you don't need it.
Microsoft Silverlight is a must to install. It's a plugin for your web browsers that allows you view Silverlight content (which is getting more popular). It's basically Microsoft's version of the Adobe Flash plugin.
The Windows Live Essentials are certainly an essential part of Windows Vista and especially Windows 7. There are lots of interesting changes in there, most welcome, some will be hard to get used to, but I think ultimately will be for the better. I expect Windows Live Mesh to become more important in the next version of the software as there is plenty of potential for it in the future. This is probably the 3rd thing I will install on any new computer behind Windows 7 itself and Microsoft Security Essentials. A final reminder that this version of the essentials is not available for Windows XP, but that the 2009 essentials are still available for those on XP still.