Windows Live Essentials 2011

Microsoft's decision to strip out certain capabilities from Windows and make them available separately as a free downloadable application suite called Windows Live Essentials remains controversial. Indeed, the original justification for doing so--Microsoft says it can update the Essentials applications more quickly if they're not part of the titanic Windows infrastructure--has not been borne out by reality. The company expects to ship the new version of Windows Live Essentials, the internally named "wave 4" release, by the end of 2010, well over a year and a half after the wave 3 release. That's not exactly timely.

\[ See my overview of Windows Live Essentials wave 3.\]

And it's not just the timing that leaves a rather unfulfilled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Today's wave 3 version of Essentials certainly contains a number of valuable and useful applications, and for this reason it's one of the very first things I install on my own PCs when I'm reinstalling the entire system from scratch. But it's also big on promise while not fulfilling some very basic integration pieces. The current Essentials, for example, offers no way to directly access SkyDrive-based cloud storage. You can't sync or even access Windows Live Calendar with Windows Mobile devices. And so on.

Windows Live Essentials 2011
Windows Live Essentials adds several useful applications to Windows.

 

But it's so darned close you can taste it. And with wave 4, the broad mission statement is the same: Windows Live Essentials consists of "rich applications that 'light up' Windows," in this case Windows 7, though the suite will also work with Windows Vista. (Sorry, XP fans. Microsoft is using the new Windows Live Essentials as one of many ways in which it hopes to convince you to upgrade.) This time around, the integration is deeper, and the functionality even more full-featured than before. Microsoft has standardized on the useful ribbon UI, instead of the awful light-blue Windows 7 toolbar from the previous version. And it finally consolidates some tools that, before, were confusing and separate.

I can tell you right up front that I will continue installing Windows Live Essentials immediately each time I install Windows, and that its value has only increased in this release. But the wider question, the more pertinent question, is whether Microsoft has finally filled in those whole and provided a suite of applications that seamlessly bind Microsoft's desktop OS with its online services. That's the question I hope to answer in this review.

Note: At the time of this writing, Windows Live Essentials 2011 is available as a near-final public preview that is very representative of the final product from functionality, reliability, and performance perspectives.

Windows Live Essentials 2011
The new Windows Live Esssentials 2011 installer, called Windows Live Essentials Startup.

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