Microsoft has delivered a preview version of its Windows Essentials 2012 suite, the follow-up to its Windows Live Essentials solution. As expected, the suite and the bundled apps are losing the Windows Live branding. But unexpectedly, these apps aren’t just continuing, some are being improved. And the preview versions we see today are pretty nice indeed.

Windows Essentials 2012 is somewhat stripped down from Windows Live Essentials 2011. The suite now includes Microsoft Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, SkyDrive (desktop application), Writer, and Messenger. You can find the download on the Microsoft web site in both a traditional installer and a web installer. It runs on both Windows 7 and Windows 8.

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Note: When you install Windows Essentials 2012, Live Mesh is uninstalled and replaced with SkyDrive. This isn’t surprising, but should answer any lingering questions about the future of Live Mesh.

I’m on the road this week, so I’ll provide a more complete overview in the days ahead. For now, here’s a quick rundown of each application.

Microsoft Mail

In the Windows Essential preview, Mail oddly still carries the Windows Live name, perhaps to avoid confusion with the Metro app called Mail in Windows 8. It doesn’t appear to have changed much beyond the name change, but I’ll need to dig deeper before I can be sure. It includes support for Mail, Calendar, Contacts, news feeds, and USENET newsgroups as before.

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Microsoft Messenger

Microsoft’s instant messaging solution works as before with the Messenger and Facebook networks, providing text, audio, and video chat services as well as photo and document sharing and other features. Its still ad supported.

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The new Messenger now appears to integrate with Lync too.

Microsoft Movie Maker

Movie Maker is in some ways the most updated application in Windows Essentials, at least in this preview. The UI looks almost identical to the previous version (at least in this version), and Microsoft is now being very upfront that this solution is aimed mostly at consumers who wish to take photos and short videos from their digital cameras and turn them into a sharable video clip.

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The big changes are under the hood: Movie Maker picks up video stabilization capabilities, integrates with free background music sources such as AudioMicro, Free Music Archive and the Vimeo Music Store, provides more advanced audio editing tools (waveform editing, a narration track, and Emphasize narration/video/music options), includes cool new text effects, and works with H.264 video by default. Excellent.

Microsoft Photo Gallery

Microsoft’s excellent photo editing and management solution carries forward with all the advanced functionality we’ve come to expect, including photo panorama creation, people tagging, superior photo acquisition, and online services integration.

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New to this version is Vimeo support (in addition to Facebook, SkyDrive, YouTube, and Flickr) and Auto Collage (previously a separate paid Microsoft product).

Microsoft SkyDrive

The SkyDrive application included with Essentials is the same as the standalone version and provides Explorer integration with your cloud storage on Microsoft SkyDrive.

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Microsoft Writer

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Writer, Microsoft’s blogging utility. And today, I can report only that Writer will continue forward. It’s still unclear, however, whether the 2012 edition includes any new functionality. As with Mail, Writer retains, for now, the Windows Live branding. This could be because the application is deprecated in some way.

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Final Thoughts

From what I can tell, the big news here is Movie Maker and Photo Gallery, since these applications provide key functionality that’s not available in the Metro style apps included with Windows 8. But I’ll keep looking at Essentials over the coming days and see if there’s more going on with this preview release.