Yesterday Microsoft released the first beta version of Windows Live Mail, a free download that will replace Outlook Express in Windows XP and Windows Mail in Windows Vista. While Windows Live Mail looks interesting and polished, it's still a true beta, with a number of bugs and missing features.

Microsoft says Windows Live Mail in features from both of the previous Windows mail applications. We spent a few hours with Windows Live Mail and got a first look at its design, its ability to pull messages from webmail and other accounts, its photo email composition option, and other new features. Windows Live Mail comes hot on the heels of the new Hotmail, which launched earlier this month.

Overall Windows Live Mail looks good and runs well after some initial setup and tweaks; but as is to be expected with a first beta version of any software, some of the features seem incomplete and buggy. Unless you enjoy testing new, unfinished software, you may want to wait to download Windows Live Mail.

Mostly clean install

If you do try Windows Live Mail, one of the first things you'll see after installing the 15.4MB download from the Windows Live Betas site is a window asking whether the app may change your default home page in Internet Explorer to MSN Home. Not a great start; it's pretty well established that the vast majority of people don't want programs mucking with their home page.

Aside from that annoyance, Windows Live Mail installed cleanly in both Windows XP SP2 and Vista. In XP, Outlook Express vanished from the Start menu, but the program still existed (clicking Start, Run and typing msimn.exe got it going). Likewise, Windows Mail disappeared from the Vista Start menu, but remained accessible (as winmail.exe).

On our first run at Windows Live Mail, we were prompted to set up an email account. For a Hotmail account, Windows Live Mail automatically took care of server names and settings when we supplied our email and password. For a Gmail account, we had to fill in the server information.

Ugly default layout

For both accounts, Windows Live Mail left the messages on the server instead of deleting, a smart default setting that allows you the option to read your Gmail or Hotmail messages with a browser. But the initial layout for the message list and preview pane wasn't as smart, squashing four vertical columns into the program window. Three are standard options showing folders, the message list and a message preview.

The fourth is an Active Search option with a search box at the top of the column and search results below it. Windows Live Mail will automatically scour the web through Windows Live Search for keywords it pulls from messages you read. For example, Windows Live Mail searched for "Outlook Express" after finding the term within the body of the initial welcome message.

If you don't like Active Search, you can turn it off by heading to the unlabeled Show menu icon in the upper right, choosing View, and deselecting Active Search. You can also move the preview pane below the message by choosing View, Reading pane, Bottom.

To search messages in Windows Live Mail, a well-placed 'Find a message' box sits above the message list. But while it can search as you type, it doesn't seem able to search for content within the message body. The 'Search folders' option in the folder list is even worse, and doesn't seem to be able to find anything at all.