Microsoft Windows Live Essentials is a grab-bag of useful, if often unrelated, applications that offer a variety of services for doing things such as managing photos, creating videos, checking email, doing instant messaging, writing blog posts and synchronising data among PCs.

The beta of Microsoft's latest update of its free Windows Live Essentials line of online applications - which Microsoft calls Wave 4 - was recently released to reviewers and beta testers; the final release is expected sometime this summer.

Whether you'll be impressed with this newest version of Microsoft Windows Live Essentials will depend on whether you view it as a single, coherent product line or as a group of disparate applications. As a coherent product line, there's no clear theme tying everything together. But the individual products are useful, solid pieces of work and often quite powerful, given that they're free. In fact, they're some of the best free applications you'll find anywhere and are well worth the download.

Microsoft Windows Live Essentials: A quick overview

The Wave 4 release of Windows Live Essentials comes about a year and a half after the Wave 3 release. The new release has a lineup of applications that is almost identical to that of its predecessor: Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Movie Maker, Windows Live Sync, Windows Live Writer, Windows Live Family Safety and the Bing Bar (which replaces the previous Windows Live Toolbar).

Windows Live Essentials works only with Microsoft Windows Vista and Windows 7, so Windows XP users are out of luck. Some features have been optimized for Microsoft Windows 7 - for example, Windows Movie Maker can make use of codecs built into Windows 7.

Some of the offerings in Windows Live Essentials are applications that originally shipped with Windows but were stripped out in Windows 7, such as Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker. Other applications, such as Windows Live Sync and Windows Live Writer, are unique to Live Essentials.

In this review, I'll look at the changes in this beta version of Windows Live Essentials compared to Wave 3.

Microsoft Windows Live Essentials: Windows Live Sync

The sleeper of the group that has received very little notice is Windows Live Sync. That's a shame, because for people with multiple PCs, this little app may be the best of the bunch. Beyond that, it could provide an important syncing foundation for many other Microsoft products in the future, including the web version of Office.

Windows Live Sync does exactly what the name implies - it synchronises files and folders among multiple PCs, Macs as well as Windows PCs. (Note: While previous versions of Windows Live Sync do work with Macs, I was unable to get the Mac version of this beta to work.)

As with previous versions of Windows Live Sync, you install the software on each computer that contains folders you want to synchronise. The application finds other computers that have Windows Live Sync installed; you can then choose the folders that you want to synchronise, and on which computers you want them synchronised. The software does its magic in the background as you work.

This new version of Windows Live Sync has a new client interface for controlling synchronisation; it now shows you more detail about all the folders on a computer you want synchronised - which device they synchronise to, synchronisation status and so on. You can also choose to share the folders with other users.

How? Well, with this version you can sync your folders not just from computer to computer, but also to the free Windows Live SkyDrive web-based storage service, where you get 2GB of free storage space. That means that Windows Live Sync doubles as a simple backup service. It also means that you'll be able to get access to your files from any internet-connected computer.

You can also synchronise your Internet Explorer Favorites and a variety of Microsoft Office settings, including templates and email signatures, among multiple computers.

An especially useful new feature, taken from an older Microsoft service, Windows Live Mesh, is the ability to take control of one of your Windows computers via a remote internet connection. I tried it out and found that it was quite easy - I was able to control a remote PC as if I were sitting at its keyboard. Anyone who has struggled with setting up Windows' built-in Remote Desktop Connection will welcome this new tool.

Windows Live Sync is so useful that it's surprising that Microsoft hasn't baked it into all of its products, such as Microsoft Office and the web-based Microsoft Office Web Apps. Perhaps that will come in the future.

Microsoft Windows Live Essentials: Windows Live Mail

When Microsoft decided to kill the Windows Mail desktop client back in 2007, not everyone was pleased. Windows Mail had been an update to Outlook Express, was built into Windows Vista and was a nice piece of work, although not as powerful as full-blown Outlook. Microsoft subsequently made it available as a free download under the name Windows Live Mail.

This latest version of Windows Live Mail represents a significant improvement over the previous version. The big change here is the addition of the Ribbon interface, found in Office 2007 and 2010 applications, and a calendar pane (which gives you access to the calendar that is in Windows Live Mail). This makes Windows Live Mail much more Outlook-like. In fact, at a first, quick glance, you could almost mistake it for Outlook.

Also useful is the new Conversation View, similar to the one introduced in Outlook 2010, which makes it easy to follow threaded conversations with one or more people. Every email with more than one message has a small triangle next to it. Click the triangle to see a chronological list of every message in the conversation; click any message to jump to it. It's a fine time-saver.

Windows Live Mail also lifts several features from Microsoft Windows Live Hotmail. As with Hotmail, if you want to share photos with others via email, you can send a photo album.

Create your email, click the "Photo album" icon, and choose your photos. Windows Live Mail then formats your images into a nice-looking album (using thumbnails) in your email, and also stores the photos on your Windows Live SkyDrive account. Recipients can click the thumbnails and be sent to the full-size images on SkyDrive. This solves the problem of ISPs blocking messages with too-large attachments.

Also welcome are Quick Views, which appear on the left-hand side of the Live Mail screen, and which are especially useful for people who use Windows Live Mail for multiple email accounts. For example, if you want to see all of your unread mail from all accounts combined, click "Unread email." To see unread mail just from your contacts, click "Unread from contacts." And to see all the RSS feeds you haven't read yet, click "Unread feeds."

NEXT: Windows Live Messenger and Photo Gallery >>

Click here for our review of Microsoft Office 2010 Web Apps.