I've always been a fan of Windows Live Photo Gallery, and if I had to guess, this is likely the Essentials application that I use most often. It's always offered basic image editing capabilities--tools that satisfy the needs of all but the most needy photographers--but in this new version, that functionality is dramatically expanded, as is the product's integration with other Windows Live products and services and, notably, with third party solutions as well. And if you're a Windows 7 user, Photo Gallery utilizes the underling Pictures library for image management, as it should.
As with most other Essentials applications, the first thing you'll notice is the new ribbon UI. And as with Mail, the sheer number of options available here makes the ribbon highly desirable.
Where the previous Photo Gallery version supported People tagging, the new Photo Gallery adds facial recognition, so that when you tag a person, you can have it automatically find other pictures with that person. This process gets more accurate as you add tags, but I found it to be extremely accurate--and thus, very useful--right away. (As before, tags stick with photos and are not application-specific.)
One of the more impressive changes in this release is the sheer number of editing tools that are now available. As before, you can simply auto adjust a photo and hope for the best. But you can also select which adjustments occur when you use this option (I find the application's incessant need to straighten every picture unnecessary, for example), perform proportional cropping, reduce red eye, and adjust color and exposure, as before. New to 2011 is blemish and glitch removal via a Photoshop-like Retouch tool (though it's a bit simplistic) and noise reduction, which can cut down on JPEG artifacts.
On the left, an unedited image, on the right, the results of Retouch and Noise Reduction.
Photo Gallery also supports various batch editing capabilities, which could prove interesting, though I recommend testing this feature first. (All changes to photos are reversible by default, but you can override this option if you're not careful. So be careful.) You can batch people tag, as described previously, and also perform actions like Auto Adjust on multiple photos.
Where the previous Photo Gallery added a neat Panorama function, the new version added Photo Fuse, another Photoshop-like feature that lets you take the best parts of two pictures and combine them into a single image. So if you're taking a group photo, for example, and someone blinks in one photo, you can substitute them with imagery from another photo. Again, it's not perfect, and I've seen a bit of ghosting on the composited images I've created. But it's not too shabby for a free tool.
Photo Gallery has gotten improved sharing capabilities as well, and here you'll see some nice integration capabilities come into play. You can create a Photo E-Mail from Photo Gallery, or simply send selected photos as an email attachment. (Either way, a Mail new message window opens.) You can create a new blog post using selected photos, opening Windows Live Writer with the option to place the images inline (upload them to the selected blog) or to a SkyDrive-based album, much like Photo E-mail. You can create a photo slideshow, using Windows Movie Maker.
Like competing products, Photo Gallery is starting to dip its toe in the waters of geo-tagging, and while the integration here--with Bing Maps--is basic at best, it's a start. If you do have geo-tagged photos, you can perform a number of tasks, including removing the tag, renaming the location, and seeing the location in Bing Maps. Unlike with Picasa's similar feature, however, this latter action occurs in a separate browser, and not in the application itself. I'd like to see deeper integration with geo-tags, including the ability to browse photos with a map.
You can also share photos via a variety of online services. Flickr, SkyDrive, Facebook, YouTube, and Windows Live Groups are built-in, and available directly from the ribbon, but as before you can add a number of other alternatives, like Google PicasaWeb, using free plug-ins. (The YouTube capabilities apply only to videos; if you want to upload photos to YouTube, you must first make a slideshow video in Movie Maker and then upload to YouTube from there.)
Overall, the new Photo Gallery is a fine update to an already excellent program. Some of the new features--Photo Fuse, Noise Reduction, and Retouch, especially--will need to be closely watched because they're not as customizable as their Photoshop equivalents and can make unintended changes. But the people tagging and facial recognition are excellent, as is the integration with other products and services, whether they come from Microsoft or not. (If you're a Flickr user, for example, you should seriously consider using the new Photo Gallery.) I'll be using this application regularly going forward.