Windows Live Essentials 2011
More Windows Live Essentials

But wait, there's more. In addition to the aforementioned applications--Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Sync, and Writer--Windows Live Essentials wave 4 also includes a few other interesting additions. There's also one notable absence: Windows Live Toolbar is no more, replaced by the even less interesting Bing Bar.

I won't be using or reviewing these additional items per se, but they're worth mentioning for completion's sake. Here's what else you can expect from the new Windows Live Essentials.

Family Safety

In Windows Vista, Microsoft offered a full complement of parental controls, a major functional plus for that underrated system. In Windows 7, for some reason, Microsoft stripped out many of those parental controls and made them part of Windows Live Family Safety instead. Between the bare-bones parental controls in Windows 7 and Family Safety, security-conscious parents could configure their PCs, and their kids PCs, to ensure their children were safe online.


Windows Live Family Safety 2011

In previous versions of Family Safety, you had to navigate through a bewildering configuration that required you to create a unique, subservient Windows Live ID for each of your kids. That's in the past, however: With Windows Live Family Safety 2011, the kids only need their own user account on the PC.

Bing Bar

I've never really like browser toolbars because they add to the memory footprint, update requirements, and security attack surface of the browser. But I do realize that some people are heavily invested in certain companies' services, be they Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft/Windows Live. So on that note, I at least understand why such toolbars exist; they provide a handy way to access services that some people truly find value.

The Bing Bar, not so much. In this version of Windows Live Essentials, it replaces the old Windows Live toolbar, which at least had links to useful Windows Live services. The Bing Bar has links to Bing Search, sure, which is useful. But most of the buttons in the toolbar are for things like news, weather, stocks, and video, which are borderline worthless. You can, however, add some of the old Windows Live buttons back, like Hotmail and Messenger.

And curiously, there's a version for Firefox too.

Windows Live Writer 2011

Overall, I'm not just interested. It's a big toolbar, taking up even more space than its predecessor, and though it supports some customization around a limited range of colors and season-related themes, it doesn't really "fit" with the browser the way the Windows Live toolbar did.

Outlook Connector Pack

If you have Microsoft Outlook installed, Windows Live Essentials will also offer you the Outlook Connector Pack, which consists of the Outlook Connector itself--which provides compatibility with Hotmail-based email, contacts, and calendars--as well as the Outlook Social Connector bits for Windows Live Messenger. (Separate social networking providers are available for Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace online.)

Availability

The near-final Windows Live Essentials 2011 beta refresh is currently available, and the final version will ship in the next month or two, according to Microsoft.

Final thoughts

Windows Live Essentials 2011 has been a long time coming, too long, in my opinion. It offers some solid updates to virtually all the core applications, and is absolutely still a critical part of the overall Windows experience. I wish it was updated more frequently, however, and that Microsoft would simply add features over time rather than waiting on delivering new versions of the entire suite in a single, fell swoop. As I've noted so many times, if Microsoft is serious about being nimble and quick, and staying up to date with its competitors, it will need to make this application suite, and the accompanying online services, products that are always being improved. Its inability to do so doesn't diminish the value of the new Windows Live Essentials, but it makes me wonder if the company understands the market in which it competes. This is good stuff, Microsoft. But please, keep it coming.