Computer essentials

In previous columns I’ve mentioned a suite of free Microsoft programs called Windows Live Essentials and new versions have just been launched for 2011.

The programs in the suite include Writer, Photo Gallery, Messenger, Movie Maker, Family Safety, Mail and a few other things. One new and interesting addition is Windows Live Mesh which allows you to synchronise folders between a number of PCs connected to the Internet and/or folders stored on Microsoft’s online SkyDrive storage facility.

2010-10-16_210232 Windows Live Writer

What this essentially means is that you can work with the same files on a number of computers in different locations with any changes you make in one location, being copied to the other location as well. Even if you only work on one computer, you can use Live Mesh as a backup and synchronise up to 5 GB of files to your SkyDrive folder.

To use Live Mesh, you need a Windows Live account, which you can get for free at windowslive.com, and then it’s just a matter of installing Live Mesh on the computers you plan to use. On starting Live Mesh, you get the option of synchronising a folder (or folders) and you get to choose whether to synchronise it with another computer or with SkyDrive.

Windows Live Photo Gallery seems to be, potentially at least, a useful program to have around for working with digital images. I had never installed it until this new version came out and I must say I was a bit disconcerted at how long it took to get it up and running.

It apparently is able to recognise faces in pictures but, the first time you start it up, it goes off and checks every single picture that you own to see if it can some. In my case, with a lot of pictures in My Pictures folder, the process took an awfully long time, with no opportunity being offered to abort the process.

One of my pet peeves is programs that do their own thing without asking my permission but, that major quibble aside, Photo Gallery does look fairly promising. It can create a panorama picture out of a series of overlapping shots and it has a fun feature called Photo Fuse which allows you to create a new picture using the best bits of a number of others.

You can select an area of the picture, such as a person’s face, and the program will show you the same person in the other pictures. You choose the best expression for each person and repeat the process until everyone is smiling and, with luck, has their eyes open.

Photo Gallery also has tools for adjusting the colour balance and exposure of pictures as well as a rudimentary retouching facility for removing marks and blemishes. It can also be used to crop, remove red eye and apply a couple of different special effects, such as black and white and sepia.

It can be used to upload pictures to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and photo albums on SkyDrive and can insert pictures in a blog, using Live Writer, or send them by e-mail.

I have discussed Movie Maker before and can’t see that much has changed. It is still a pretty decent way of combining still photos, video clips and music into a movie for display on a number of different-sized screens. The e-mail client Mail and bog composer Writer are also pretty much unchanged with the only major change I can see in Writer being the addition of the dreaded Ribbon interface.

I think that Windows Live Essentials shows a lot of promise but there is still a lot of room for improvement. I found an instance in Writer, for example, where an option had been left off what used to be known as the File Menu.

The facility for opening blog posts already posted on the web is not in the File Menu area where Help says it should be. The option becomes available if you happen to enter the keyboard shortcut for Open (Ctrl.+O). That’s just careless.

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