Windows Live (Wave 4) beta: Oh dear, oh dear

The beta Wave 4 bits of the new Windows Live services and products are... just plain awful. Avoid like the plague, with the exception of maybe one of their rebranded marvels.

Microsoft has within the last hour released the new beta versions of their next generation Windows Live products, nearly a year since the last refresh. So far, it's like I've been watching a clown run across a minefield.

Annoyingly after the first shot at installing the new bits, not only did the installation program crash, but second time around it asked me to force reboot. After a successful second attempt, I realised that the user did not actually have control over what will be downloaded and installed. For those who just want to quickly download Messenger, this can be done but is not so obvious from the download page.

Gallery To see a screenshot gallery of Windows Live (Wave 4) in action, pop along over here and take a look before you try it out.

It feels that the "out of box experience" - that being the first few interactive steps the user engages with - doesn't make a concerted effort to connect with the existing user. I get the impression that it treats me as somebody entirely new to the products and that I should be almost forced into registeration to access their 'Facebook equivalent' social web pages.

Messenger has a very Windows Phone 7 feel about it, spliced in with the Zune and you'll have this crazed, socially addicted love child. It is sluggish, it feels clunky and complicated, and it churns up the memory like you wouldn't believe. It feels like a children's toy of which everything you touch must be interactive in some way; one could only describe this as sensory overload.

Though the silver lining is that tabbed conversations make the interface feel a lot easier to manage

Mail offers a very simplistic Outlook perspective, which I assure you is a good thing. For those who struggle with Outlook, Mail (Wave 4) gives you the Ribbon but the simplicity that you would need when just writing an email and "being done with it".

Annoyingly, it seems to have no connection to Live@edu so when you whack in your Windows Live-enabled university username and password, it doesn't recognise it forcing you to manually add the settings.

Within the first few moments of configuring the client, it will animate pretty much everything and anything, meaning your eyes jump around the screen without knowing exactly where you should be looking. But worst of all, and tested on a couple of machines now, you can't even access half the things you should be able to. Quite critically, the "email account properties" button on the Ribbon sporadically refuses to open - which means I can't configure my server addresses properly. It's a good job they have a right-click backup.

Just as with Messenger, the program is clunky, sluggish and feels like it's been thrown together by an angry child at best. For all intensive purposes, though it may be a beta, Mail is useless.

Photo Gallery seems to hold your screen hostage with the number of pop-up's and notifications it gives you on the first start-up, but nevertheless I have a quiet admiration for this program. Sure, there's so much going on it detracts from the value, but the ability to do very complex things with the touch of a button - first seen in Wave 3 - is quite incredible.

The panorama picture creator works absolutely tremendously, and the Photo Fuse technology baffles me. Regardless, the social features and the ability to create and share are very clear and obvious in this version.

Family Safety: nobody cares about; Movie Maker: just as crap as it ever was, use Camtasia instead; Writer:only good for bloggers and let's face it, student's generally don't because they're too drunk to care and they've gone far beyond the angsty levels of the average teenager...

And so very annoyingly, the Bing bar was installed without my knowledge. On the rare occasion that I use Internet Explorer (it was definitely a result of this installer as I sneakily used it this morning), bang - there it is. I like to keep my browsers bare bones and without clutter, crap or toolbars - and this has totally screwed up my e-feng shui.

You can individually download elements of the suite of applications, but it's hidden away on the other side of the page and it's not exactly obvious to the eager user.

Ah. Sync. What was Live Mesh (I believe), Sync connects computers together quite well, allows shared folders between machines and includes remote desktop to view your screen away from home. It'll sync your Internet Explorer tabs (though no other non-Microsoft browser) as well as your Microsoft Office documents. It doesn't ask what to sync at first and just goes straight in for the kill, which frankly worries me as it doesn't allow me to really hold onto my data before it's potentially vulnerable to the Patriot Act...

I'll use this for a bit longer and report back, but I strongly suspect that Sync will be the wild-card which turns Wave 4 around for me. The rest of the applications, albeit in beta, should be tied to a post and shot.

You can download the Windows Live (Wave 4) Essentials beta here. After you install, come back and have your say. What are your first impressions?