Microsoft’s best kept secret

Microsoft does a pretty good job at providing tons of free or low cost tools and applications for both professionals and home consumers. Since Windows XP, they have offered a suite of tools that have carried a number of different monikers, the most recent being ‘Windows Live Essentials.’  The suite has grown to include Windows Live Photo Gallery, Live Movie Maker, Messenger and Windows Live Writer.  Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and Live Writer all are extensible, which means you can functionality to them by visiting the Live Add-On page.   Photo Gallery has both free and paid extensions for everything from creating cool collages to uploading to Facebook and Flickr.  The most useful extensions, however, are those for Windows Live Writer.

If you blog and use Windows, Live Writer should be the only tool you need for blogging.  Not only is it free, but it well done, rarely crashes (unlike other blog tools I’ve tried, for both Mac and Windows) and is compatible with most major blog platforms.  It’s extensibility makes it ideal and there are a number of extensions, including Facebook posting and ‘likes’, Digg buttons and Twitter interfaces.

The latest version, from the 2011 suite, features a fully integrated, Office 2007 like ribbon bar.  The ribbon exposes all of the menu features and is straightforward and easy to use.  In addition,  it features a live preview in the format of your published blog. It will download the style of your blog so you get a pretty good representation of what your post will look like. It does a pretty good job of hiding the HTML from you, but you do have access to that as well, so if you like to tinker or fine tune your posts, it is easy to do.

Another hidden gem in the suite is Live Mesh.  Mesh is a synchronization tool and remote PC tool in one.  It is also one part of the suite that has a Mac OS X piece, though the remote PC functionality does not work with the Mac.  In a nutshell, you tell Mesh which directories on your computer you want to include in your Mesh and the tool will keep them all in sync.  Each device that you log into will sync with the cloud or your other devices to keep it all in sync.  The remote PC function under Windows allows you to remote into any Windows computer in your Mesh so you can, effectively, drive that device from the web.  It all just works, too.

Family Safety, a feature that was literally ripped out of Vista, gives you control over an Windows Vista or 7 machine to prevent users from accessing certain web sites and other things.  This is invaluable if you are a parent and cannot be with your child all of the time.

All in all, the suite is superb.  The tools just work, are very stable and quite useful.  Movie Maker, another hidden gem, is easy to use and, like it’s Mac counterpart, can create rather slick looking home videos in just minutes.  Why it stays hidden is beyond me. In fact, I don’t quite understand why Microsoft does not publicize any of these tools more than they do…which is not much.  They are actually worth paying for, but Microsoft gives them away.  Yes, some were features that were formerly included in Windows (Movie Maker, Photo Gallery, Messenger) but were removed for anti-trust concerns, which just seems like hogwash now.

While I have written about the suite before, I feel it is worth mentioning again since Microsoft chooses not to do so.  You can read more about the suite and download it from here.

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