Microsoft pushed out a new build of the Wave 4 release of its Live Essentials this week. If you're already using the beta, you'll be able to update using Windows Update. Otherwise you'll need to download from the Live Essentials Beta site.
While many of the updates are focused on performance, there are some significant new features. Probably the most obvious is support for Facebook Chat in Windows Live Messenger. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Facebook has its own IM service, and making it part of Live Messenger simplifies using Facebook as a communication platform – no need to have a web page open just to chat with a friend or a colleague. Facebook Chat is initially only available in the US, UK, France, Brazil, Germany and Russia, and needs to be enabled on the Live web site, as it’s a change to Live's Facebook integration settings.
There's no change to the chat experience when you're using Facebook – it's the same familiar MSN Messenger experience that goes back so many years. It's interesting seeing a mainstream IM platform taking this federation approach, building on the work done with Yahoo! Messenger. Multi-IM used to be the province of third-party IM clients like Trillian, not something from one of the main IM networks – and we'd like to see more support for this type of connection in future.
Like IE 9, Live Messenger is starting to use the GPU, and the beta refresh offloads much of its video chat. If you've got a supported GPU that should save up to 30% of CPU during a video conversation – letting you get on with your work while collaborating with colleagues.
Another tool to get a significant boost is Live Photo Gallery. As well as the welcome return of calendar view, and improving its facial recognition algorithm (to the point it can now identify people from hairstyle at different angles), it also gains improved tools for linking images to real world places – using Bing maps. We did have problems with this feature, as it seems to be a one-way process at the moment. You can set a location and show it on a map, but you don't seem to be able to deliver updated and corrected locations back to the Gallery on your desktop. It's not quite the two-way "software+services" vision we were hoping for - but there's still several months to go before final release.
Live Photo Gallery shares features with Live Movie Maker, and the two are now able to deliver short videos to Flickr. It's a useful feature, and one that makes it a lot easier to share movies with friends and colleagues. Movie Maker also gets improved editing tools, and you can use it to extract snapshots from your videos. With HD video now standard on many compact and DSLR camera, it's a useful option to have, letting you take video and still have photographs to share.
Bloggers get an update to Live Writer, which is still one of the best blog editing and publishing tools around. The main improvements here are to the UI, especially around working with older postings.
Microsoft's working hard on its Windows add-on bundle. There are lot of features here, many of which would look good in a pay-for product – so getting them for free is a big win. The beta refresh mixes adding features and improving performance, as well as improving integration with changes to the Live web services. If you're using Vista or Windows 7, the Live Essentials Beta is already a must-have set of tools.