Microsoft Attempts to Enhance Your Online Experience

Microsoft once held pride of place for making hard things easier. So why does the new Windows Live Suite seem bent on making easy things harder?

This free suite of services (many still in beta) includes a raft of browser-based Web applications complete with dozens of buttons and bars, avenues, and accesses. But we can already do most of this stuff in ways that are familiar, comfortable, and convenient.

The suite delivers a group of applications that lets you access Hotmail and other e-mail accounts. It also includes a messenger application and photo sharing. It’s got an elaborate search engine, blogging tools, and free password-protected online storage.

The free storage is a nice touch. But other than that, don’t we already have most of this stuff neatly arranged on our desktops?

To take a test drive you’ll need to download and install the app from, then get a Windows Live ID (or use an existing one), which also functions as an email address. (If you already have a Hotmail, MSN or Messenger email address, this serves as your Windows Live ID.)

Now let’s look at the integrated instant messaging client in the suite, Windows Live Messenger, which was recently re-released to mesh comfortably with the WindowS Vista OS. The new version includes spiffed-up emoticons and a new look for application images. A “roaming identity” capability carries your name and personal image from one computer to another. You can also send messages to a friend’s mobile phone

Messenger also has button that links you to a seemingly random array of services. Xbox updates, eBay, online dating, GoPets’ digital puppy farm — all these buttons and more are unobtrusively displayed via a thin bar down the left side of the screen, so that’s okay. Then again, why exactly are they here at all?

Then there is Windows Live Mail, which has a simultaneity feature that we like. Hotmail is available in the same window as our Yahoo account, so that switching from one account to another is effortless.

But in testing we experienced issues with using our Yahoo account through Windows Live Mail. We were able to see our Inbox, junk, and trash folders, but the Saved folder and all of our other custom folders were mysteriously absent. If they are available through Live Mail, they are extremely well concealed.

Worth playing around with is the Windows Live Mail photo email option. Composing in this mode (accessed through the New button) will bring up a visual catalog of My Pictures virtually instantaneously. Click on a photo, and it’s immediately placed in the email. No waiting for an attachment to attach itself, even with multiple pictures. This is what we like to see — a formerly time-consuming function steamlined — but it’s something not seen often enough in the Windows Live Suite.

One quick note on this function, though; in use your recipient will see a discreet one-line plug for Windows Live Mail at the bottom of the message. Well, nothing is ever really free.

On the topic of photos, let’s check out Windows Live Photo Gallery.

First, Windows Live Photo Gallery won’t run unless Windows Desktop Search is running. That search function is wrapped up in the full Windows Live Suite and it automatically replaces your existing search tool.

We don’t like Windows Desktop Search (complicated and too few search options, but that’s for another day), so we uninstalled WDS, only to discover that we would be forced to use it if we wanted to use the Windows Live Suite Photo Gallery feature. Maybe this is what Microsoft calls “integration,” but it is just the kind of thing that gets us steamed.

In defense of integration: Windows Live email and photo gallery and messenger all cross-pollinate, with links connecting one to the other. We’ve found this to be about 10 percent more convenient than whatever we were doing before.

You can use messenger to make phone calls at “incredibly low rates” from Verizon (yes, it actually says that in the app). Or just use your phone with the rate plan you already spent three months trying to understand.

Back to Photo Gallery: It does what it says. It will find the photos in your My Pictures folder, put them on the screen and facilitate some basic editing: Fine-tune the lighting, crop, rotate. To work with another folder you’ll need to import that folder into the gallery, a quick and simple procedure.

The Photo Gallery has an especially attractive preview feature. Position your mouse over a thumbnail for a couple of seconds and a preview emerges, smaller than a full-sized picture but bigger than a thumbnail. Now move the mouse along the gallery’s rows of thumbnails, and previews spring up each time the mouse crosses over a picture. Convenient, and it saves squinting.

Finally there is the Windows Live Toolbar, arguably either the worst or the best of the Windows Live components. The toolbar parks itself at the top of your Internet Explorer window. It lets you manage pop-ups, pick up RSS feeds and fill in Web forms instantly.

You can customize the toolbar with a dazzling array of stuff you already have bookmarked: eBay, Amazon, maps, MSNBC, YouTube and more.

In fairness, some of these buttons do go beyond the usual. Get the news from the Liverpool Football Club. Find that elusive Zeppelin riff in Chord Finder. Listen to streaming screaming via Portland’s live police scanner.

This is the best of Windows Live, delivering a wealth of Web content through a discreet toolbar and a collection of straightforward buttons. It’s also the worst of this conception. Try as we might, we just don’t see the need for most of this stuff.

All these functions, all this content — it all is readily available and most of it stares at us from our desktop even as we type. If the Windows Live Suite interface is neither especially more convenient nor significantly more exciting than what we already use, what exactly does Microsoft have in mind? Of course, many of the Windows Live apps are still in beta, so perhaps there is more and better yet to come.

The suite currently includes the following apps and services: Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Writer, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Toolbar, Windows Live OneCare Family Safety, and the Windows Live Sign-in Assistant.

Pros: Offers access to a range of helpful (and free) Windows Live functions and features, easy-to-use installer for picking and choosing the Windows Live components you wish to run on your PC

Cons: Delivers a lot of existing apps but without any discernible improvements

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