I have been a long-time critic of Microsoft for its past software offerings and business practices, but as of late they’ve been making up a lot of ground.

It started with Windows 7. I can honestly say, that it is the first time since Win98 SE & Windows 2000 that I have been happy and even proud to be a Windows user. It’s stable, fast, and pretty damned secure. Then they introduced Office 2010, which builds on the successful framework of Office 2007, but with more integration and some features that should have been around from the beginning. I know, a lot of people don’t like the interface and layout, but stop whining like pansies and learn it. It’s actually very straightforward and logical once you figure it out. After that, we saw antivirus and security finally done properly in the form of Microsoft Security Essentials. Their replacement for Windows Live OneCare has been a great success in a lot of ways, coming close to, and in some cases, outmatching even the best paid antivirus solutions. And lets not forget the Office 2011 beta for Mac OS X. Finally they’ve gotten rid of Entourage and replaced it with a proper, full featured Outlook for Mac.

But that’s not what this article is about is it? We’ve all been exposed to Windows Live Essentials for awhile now. And while not entirely stunning, it hasn’t been completely horrible either. The tools offered up until now have been disparate and individually lacking in any real substance. That seems to be changing very rapidly however, with the new Live Essentials Beta. I’m not going to cover everything it has to offer in this particular entry, but I will go over the tools I’ve been using from it regularly.

Starting with….

Windows Live Messenger Beta: Out of all the items I’m going to cover on this list, this is the one that’s probably evolved the least amount. I’m actually a touch annoyed with the default clunky, large social networking style interface they tried to implement. It is interesting to link it up with Facebook and have your news feed and such delivered to the messenger window, but it takes up far too much screen to actually be useful as a compact version of the sites. You’re better off just opening your browser. Now with that said, once you switch back to your standard Windows Live Messenger style, it’s still a pretty solid IM program. You can chat with MSN users, Facebook users, and a few other networks as well from the window. But an interesting addition to the Messenger application is the status at the top. As anyone that’s used Messenger for the past few years knows, you can add a tagline-like message in there, and anyone on Messenger can see it. With the new Beta, you can also have that message update posted to Facebook, or some of the other social media type sites it allows connection to. Not ground-breaking by any means, but still interesting.

Windows Live Writer 2011: This is the new Microsoft blogging tool, and let me just say I love it. In fact, since trying it out, I have been writing all my blog entries with it. What’s so good about it? Well to start with, it supports virtually any blogging software you can think of. You give it the root of your blog, tell it your blog username/password, and that’s it. It goes through, analyzes the blog itself to figure out stuff like template, CSS styles, how to post to it, etc.. and then brings you right to a blank entry. The page in front of you, looks pretty close if not exactly the same as it will look on your blog too. No more need for previewing, you can see what it will look like as you go. More over it’s a WYSIWYG editor. This is great for me because, instead of having to manually upload images to my web server then post them into the blog’s editor, I can grab them right from the hard drive and insert them, and Writer does all the background work. Now I realize some of these features are readily available in other blog applications, but this is coming from Microsoft, in a free package. But fuck me with a dead fish if it isn’t fast. On my Core2Duo laptop it takes less than 5 seconds to load and start typing. User experiences will vary depending on how stupid you are with your computer, and how clean you keep it.

Windows Live Sync Beta: I started using normal Live Sync a few months ago, and it was basically just DropBox with a 2GB Online storage box. But with the new Beta of the program, syncing has been streamlined much more. They also have settings to specifically sync Internet Explorer favourites and settings, as well as Outlook templates and signatures. But the feature that I really like, is the Remote Access. Basically it is Remote Desktop using Live Sync, which means, as long as Sync is running, you can remotely access any of your computers even if it doesn’t have the RDP port routed to it. This is a fantastic feature for me, as I regularly forget my laptop at work, and need to grab info or files off of it. Despite having a corporate firewall to get through, I just open the sync tool, and tell it to connect me to my lappy. I should caution you though, through firewalls and routers, the speed that the remote connection runs at can be painfully bad. But hey, this is a Beta right? Not expecting perfection… yet.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here of what Microsoft is offering with this package, mostly because I haven’t a use for the rest at present. But goddamn it, if they aren’t doing some great work these days over in Redmond. If they keep this up, I might actually consider them more than just an ally of convenience against Google’s fowl demonic presence.

Of course Windows ME came after Windows 98 SE.. So I’m not holding my breath.

UPDATE – Since this article was published, this has moved out of Beta. Windows Live Essentials 2011 is available for download now.

Since this Beta, there are a few little changes. Not big enough to mention here of course. Things like Windows Live Sync is now called Windows Live Mesh. I would highly recommend downloading and taking advantage of these free applications. Even if you’re not going to use them very often, they don’t take much space and can come in handy at surprising times!