Windows Live Essentials Beta Available, Actually Quite Good

Last Updated Jun 27, 2010 11:27 PM EDT

Every year or so Microsoft updates the suite of programs and Web services it calls Windows Live Essentials, and the beta version of Wave 4 is now available. You can think of Windows Live Essentials as a set of programs and utilities that didn't ship in the box with Windows, but round out its capabilities nonetheless. There are e-mail and IM clients, for example, along with a photo editor, cloud storage, and more.

While these kinds of add-ons are often considered extraneous filler, the reality is that many parts of Windows Live Essentials are pretty, well, essential. I've rounded up the components that you should definitely consider installing.

When you install the beta of Windows Live Essentials, you can choose which components you want. Personally, I skip Messenger since I don't IM much. But here are a few Essentials you should definitely consider installing:

Live Sync. This is the underdog of the suite, the sleeper hit. No one seems to say much about Sync, but is an awesome app that has a ton of business potential. Sync lets you keep one more folders in sync across multiple PCs. You can specify your Documents folder, for example, and then install Sync on your desktop, laptop, and home computers. Sync will make sure the files stay in sync and it even gives you offline access to the most recent versions. You can also remotely access files from any connected PC via Sync's Web interface.

Microsoft Office Outlook Connector. This add-in hooks into Outlook and lets you manage your Hotmail inbox, Windows Live Calendar, and Windows Live Contacts all within a single integrated inbox.

Windows Live Photo Gallery. The last version of Photo Gallery was good, but this beta version is like a whole new program. It has a richer set of photo editing tools, including something called Photo Fuse which lets you combine the best bits of similar photos (to ensure everyone in a group photo is looking in the right direction, for example). It also has face identification, which makes it easier to tag and find photos with people in them. Add in the best panoramic stitching around plus easy sharing to YouTube, FaceBook, Skydrive, and other services, and it's a minor miracle this program is free.