Preview: Microsoft Windows Live, Part One

By Wayne Kawamoto | Posted June 15, 2006

Microsoft's Windows Live lineup of services promises Web-based tools to handle e-mail, instant messages, schedules and maps, manage RSS feeds, Web searches and much more. In part one of this two-part review, we evaluate pre-release editions of Windows Live Mail, Microsoft's newest Web-based e-mail service and Windows Messenger, the successor to MSN Messenger.

If this preview is any indication, there's a lot to like about Microsoft's next-generation lineup. As long as Redmond delivers (relatively) bug-free and secure versions of these tools, most people will probably welcome them. At this point in time Microsoft is still accepting user feedback, and the tools are subject to change before release. In other words, the following reviews offer a snapshot of various works in progress.

Live E-mail
Windows Live Mail is an all-new, Web-based e-mail service that's radically different from its predecessor, Hotmail. Most notably, the service now resembles and works like Microsoft Outlook.

The interface offers three "pane" sections that house folders and messages that let you preview e-mail messages without loading a new Web page or leaving the inbox. It's a lot like working with Outlook, letting you simultaneously view and select from a list of incoming messages in a pane and quickly see the content of each individual message in another. The reading pane may be adjusted to appear on the right or bottom of the screen — your choice. Most people will likely welcome this efficient new approach to Web-based e-mail.

Live Mail offers convenient single-click options for messages — simply right-click on a message to access options such as reply, delete or forward. The service also offers right-click options for folders. At this time, however, you can't collapse and nest folders as you can when using Outlook.

You can organize messages quickly and easily by dragging and dropping them into folders. Like Google Gmail, the service offers a generous 2GB of space for your personal e-mail. According to Microsoft, when you come within 50MB of the limit, you'll receive notification via e-mail. However, most people should find 2GB of storage enough to hoard a year's worth of e-mail and attachments before any deletions become necessary.

The service offers one-click control over junk and scam e-mail. When such e-mail arrives, a single click lets you delete the message and report it as junk mail, or you can tell Windows Live to accept e-mail from the address in the future. The service identifies and deletes e-mail that is "phishing" for data. It also blocks attachments from loading until you clear them for download.

An added convenience, as you're typing a recipient's name, the service suggests possible recipients from those in your contact list, and you can click the one that you want to use. The service offers convenient search options to find recipients and, real plus, Windows Live Mail can share contacts and calendars with Outlook.

Convenient keyboard shortcuts let you quickly send and manage messages and effectively speed up your e-mail sessions. Simply press "]" to view the next message, "Delete" to erase a message, "Esc" to return to the in box, "Ctrl-]" to view the next folder or contact group, etc.

Support for rich text editing lets you dress up messages — adjusting fonts and such — as you would like them to appear to your recipients. You can also select from a collections of emoticons.

The only real potential drawback is the service's use of embedded advertising in the form of the new Active Search feature. Similar to the way Google displays text-based ads in its Gmail service, Active Search displays text links based on a message's content.

Unfortunately, you can expect advertisements to become more of a dominant theme as Microsoft moves to a service-based system for its core Live programs, with Active Search just the first of likely numerous examples of how online ads will be tied into the new Windows Live platform.

Preliminary results indicate that Live Mail is faster than Hotmail, but this could change as the program nears completion and ultimate release. For now, Windows Live Mail Beta works only with Internet Explorer version 6.0 and above (i.e., as is customary with Microsoft's online Web-based offerings, Mozilla Firefox users need not apply).

It's the Message
Windows Live Messenger is Microsoft's new and improved replacement for MSN Messenger. Like its predecessor, the program offers chat functions so you can converse with friends and contacts via text and video, but the Windows Live edition adds voice to the mix, as well as a new and innovative way to share documents and files.

Like MSN Messenger, Windows Live Messenger makes it possible for you to conduct real-time text conversations and to use customizable fonts, emoticons, animated winks, a white board and more. If you currently use Hotmail, your contact list is available through Messenger, which supports up to 600 contacts.

Powerful new options for voice conversations let you make free PC-to-PC calls with other people using Messenger or call friends via their mobile or land-line telephones if you sign-up with the Verizon Web Calling service. The service lets you use your PC as a phone by clicking on a "handset" icon that resides in the program.

In this program, however, you can't receive inbound calls from landlines or cell phones — something that competitor Yahoo offers. Despite this, voice capability is a first-rate and welcome addition to the chat mix.

A concept called "Sharing Folders" offers a new way to share digital photos and other documents with Messenger contacts. You create a Sharing Folder by dragging files onto a Messenger contact name, which creates a Sharing Folder on both your own and your contact's computers. Each folder holds exact copies of the same files. Any time you add, modify or delete a file in a Sharing Folder, the change is also made in your contact's corresponding Sharing Folder.

This innovative concept is a lot easier than using e-mail to share files. And even if you're offline, you can still access and use Sharing Folders that reside on your desktop. Microsoft has even taken the step of scanning Sharing Folders for viruses and other threats.

Video conversations have been improved as well, with live, full-screen video (640x480) that serves synchronized audio. Of course, you and your contacts will need compatible Web cameras, microphones and speakers (or headphones) to use this feature.

To run Windows Live Messenger, you must have Microsoft Internet Explorer version 6 SP1 or later installed on your computer.

In part two, we'll take a look at three additional services in the Windows Live line-up: Windows Live Toolbar, Windows Live Safety Center, and Windows Live Favorites.

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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