Hands On: Microsoft's Windows Live Essentials

Windows Live Messenger

Microsoft has also given its instant messaging application, Windows Live Messenger, a facelift -- most notably by integrating it closely with social networking sites.

There are now two views in Windows Live Messenger: a compact view, which looks very much like the old Messenger interface, and a new (and default) full view. The full view is designed to make Messenger not just an instant messaging application, but instead a central hub for your electronic communications, with a full view of activities on your social networks and the ability to interact with them without having to actually visit those networks.

At this point, Live Messenger only partially fulfills that promise, because it integrates with onlyFacebook and MySpace, and leaves out other important social networking services such asTwitter. So, for example, you can see Facebook and MySpace friends and their updates from within Windows Live Messenger, and share your status with your Messenger contacts. You can make comments on your friends' Facebook posts from within Messenger, view videos they've posted, and so on.

(Click to view larger image. For a slideshow of Windows Live visit Computerworld's image gallery)

Will these changes be enough to make you begin using Windows Live Messenger if you don't already use it? Not likely. But existing Windows Live Messenger users will be very pleased by what they see, especially if they're also users of Facebook or MySpace.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

The previous version of Windows Live Photo Gallery was a solid piece of work -- a good tool for organizing and viewing photos and for performing basic photo editing tasks. This new version juices it considerably, not only redoing the interface but adding some very clever new features such as face recognition.

As with Windows Live Mail, the primary change to the interface is the addition of the Ribbon. (Notice a pattern?) The Ribbon is particularly welcome here, because a considerable number of new editing tools have been added, and without the Ribbon interface, they would have been difficult to reach.

(Click to view larger image. For a slideshow of Windows Live visit Computerworld's image gallery)

These tools include a Retouch feature for removing blemishes, scratches and similar glitches. You can also auto-adjust batches of photos at a time, changing color balance, sharpness and exposure.

The new Photo Fuse feature is nifty and will be welcomed by everyone who has ever taken group photos. It works this way: Let's say you have two photos of the same group of people. In one photo, two of the people are blinking, and in the other photo, two other people are yawning. With Photo Fuse, you can replace the faces from one photo with faces from another and come up with a photograph in which no one is blinking or yawning. The resulting image doesn't come out absolutely perfect -- you may notice a bit of ghosting -- but it will be better than either of the original photos.

Also new is a face recognition feature. When you tag a photo of someone in Windows Live Photo Gallery, you can ask the software to look through all of your other photos, and find pictures of that person in other photos so that you can tag those as well.

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