Microsoft will today begin testing an enhanced version of its search engine featuring an improved image-seeking service, a redesigned user interface, tools to refine query results and a different name: Windows Live Search.

This beta version of the engine will be open for testing at the portal, the home page of the Live-branded initiative Microsoft launched in November to boost its software-as-service offerings.

Windows Live Search will be in beta phase for several months. When testing is complete it will replace MSN Search and become the search engine of Microsoft's web portal, said Justin Osmer, MSN senior product manager. "This is the next generation of our search engine," he said.

At that point, Windows Live Search will have all of MSN Search's functionality, plus enhancements and new features. The test engine will have new tools to organise and preview search results, and it will give users the option to view all results on a single page.

Windows Live Search's new image search will let users determine the size of photo thumbnails and view full-size images without navigating away from the results page. Windows Live Search will also let people create macros to save queries and search parameters, and share them. MSN Search now licenses technology from a third party, Picsearch, for its image search.

"Conceptually, the changes all sound pretty good. The test will be the execution. We'll see how everything works," said Joe Wilcox, a JupiterResearch analyst.

Microsoft's MSN Search is in a distant third place in search-engine usage. In January, Google ranked first in the US with 41.4 percent of all queries, followed by Yahoo with 28.7 percent and MSN with 13.7 percent, according to comScore Networks.

But Microsoft believes these are early days for the search-engine market, and that it will be able to catch up to Google. Osmer said: "We see this as a long-term problem to solve. A lot can be done in search to make it a better experience."

However, Wilcox argued that to say that the search market is in its infancy is highly debatable. He added that internet search tools existed even before the development of web browsers; what's relatively new is the revenue tied to search engines. However, it's also incorrect to say that the game is over and Google has won, he said.

"The real test for Microsoft is whether it can take search to the next level," Wilcox said. This would mean developing a search engine that can help users find information easily employing natural language queries, not keywords, he said.

Microsoft, which will unveil Windows Live Search at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, California, will also introduce at the show a new test version of its MSN Toolbar called Windows Live Toolbar. The new test toolbar will feature technology for saving and sharing web content through technology from OnFolio, a company Microsoft recently acquired.

Also debuting today is a revamped page with a new design and features for users to add and customise content. Other new features are the ability to subscribe to content syndication feeds directly from search results and new 'gadgets' such as search history, which keeps a log of visited websites, a clock, a notepad and an 'infopane', which contains shortcuts to content on the MSN portal.