announced a major update to its Windows Live Essentials tools for the Windows desktop. The updated applications include the Windows Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Mail and Live Writer. In addition, Microsoft also released a new synchronization client based on the company's experience with Live Mesh, and will allow PC and Mac users to keep their documents, pictures and music in sync across multiple computers. While there are a lot of feature updates to these apps (and the Ribbon now features prominently in these apps), the big story here is that these apps are now more intimately connected to the cloud.Microsoft just
While bloggers will surely appreciate the new version of Windows Live Writer, Microsoft has also added a few nifty features to all the other Live Essentials apps. The new version of Photo Gallery, which now supports multitouch screens and Windows 7 libraries, also features built-in photo recognition. The real wow-factor, however, comes from a new feature called Photo Fuse, which allows you to combine the best parts of different pictures into one composite image. This is a great tool for making sure that everybody in a group photo is smiling, for example. You just select the best parts from multiple images (preferably all taken at the same height, distance and zoom range). Photo Gallery's new retouch feature should also make it easier to fix problems in your photo.
In addition to these features, the Photo Gallery app now also allows users to send their photos on Facebook and - more importantly - comments from your Facebook friends will be imported back to the desktop app.
Windows Live Mail now features a Gmail-like conversation view - and unlike in Hotmail, this feature will be turned on by default. Just like Hotmail, Live mail now features "quick views" that allow users to organize and filter their mail.
Thanks to tighter integration with the calendar, Mail now feels more like Outlook.
Mail has also inherited some features from Windows Live Writer. Users can now, for example, create small image galleries inside an email and perform some small image editing tasks in the app.
Movie Maker also got a nice update and now allows users to easily share their videos on Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Microsoft's SkyDrive. In addition, Microsoft added a number of new themes, and you can now easily import photos from the Photo Gallery and create an animated slideshow with just a few clicks. The new movie even highlights captions.
The question, of course, is how these apps compare to Google's and Apple's offerings. Google's Picasa and Apple's iPhoto offer some of the same features as Microsoft's Photo Gallery (face recognition, retouching, online galleries), but Microsoft, of course, has the advantage of offering a tool that is more closely integrated with the Microsoft ecosystem. Microsoft also makes it easy to upload images to multiple third-party photo services and gives users a more generous allotment of free space for sharing pictures than Google. (Apple charges for these features.) The ability to sync Facebook comments back and forth between the cloud and the desktop is also a welcome addition to Live Essentials.
We haven't been able to get our hands on the Windows Live Movie Maker, so we will have to withhold judgement of how well it compares to iPhoto. In the last version, the app got a major makeover and compared very well to Apple's iMovie.
Microsoft is clearly trying to create a better connection between its desktop and online tools. While there used to be a lot of confusion around Microsoft's syncing tools, for example (at one point, it felt like the company offered 10 tools that all performed similar functions), Sync now feels like the glue that will hold all of these tools together. While geeks generally tend to overlook Microsoft's offerings (besides maybe Live Writer), this new suite of tools is worth another look.