I have been on an extensive preview of improvements to Windows 7 and major services Microsoft is planning to release to customers for free through its Windows Live wave 3 suite. Our first preview looked at Windows Live Messenger 9 which includes major improvements to social networking and personal identity, you can check that out here. Now we have come to one of the core experience tools in the Live suite, Photo Gallery, which is a combination of digital asset management if you like, photo and video viewer, light weight image editor and a key to sharing your digital memories with family and friends. Windows Live Photo Gallery was initially released as Windows Photo Gallery with the release of Windows Vista in January 2007 succeeding Microsoft’s Digital Image Pro software. It was a great addition to Windows that has seen one major update since, the Windows Live Photo Gallery 2008 release which added major integration and online publishing features with Windows Live and third party online services such as Flickr. Photo Gallery has always included third party support through online photo services for printing your images, but with a lot of value and popularity through social sites such as Facebook and Flickr, sharing your memories is exceptionally easier and more fun to use.
Installing Windows Live Photo Gallery 2009 (click to enlarge)
Live Photo Gallery is installed as a part of the Windows Live Wave 3 suite. You will find Windows Live Photo Gallery located under the Windows Live suite folder in All Programs. Opening the Program for the firs time, a dialog will appear asking for permission to support or import different image file formats. Live Photo Gallery supports a range of image formats, such as .JPEG, .PNG, .GIF, Bitmap, and .TIFF. Images added to your Picture explorers such as Personal or Public Picture folders are automatically populated in Photo Gallery. If you have images stored in another location you can easily add them by going File > ‘Include a folder in the gallery…’ and navigate to wherever it is located on your hard drive. Microsoft has made some changes to the menu structure, Live Photo Gallery adopts a iconless menu bar which is also a change to Windows 7’s Explorer shells. The interface has seen some renovations in key areas, the Photo Gallery controls located at the bottom of the window for quickly viewing a slide show and navigating through your photo library have been reduced to a set of conservative status buttons. Slide show has been cut down a bit though in functionality, previous versions of Photo Gallery displayed collages which is missing in this release. Its something I liked and was even expecting it would be be improved with additional functionality and integration with even the slide show feature in Windows Live Spaces Photo Galleries. I like the change and makes the interface feel less cumbersome. I understand that Microsoft was trying to create consistency across applications in Windows Vista, but it does not apply to every scenario it seems. This move gives users more real estate to view your photos with no loss in functionality. The interface is much cleaner with less frames and elegant separators with drop shadows.
Windows Photo Gallery UI changes, Vista release (top) and Live Photo Gallery 2008
Windows Photo Gallery 2009’s new iconless menus
The new conservative Library Controls, old version (below)
New Menus and Options
Going back to the menu bar area, Live Photo Gallery has added and rearranged some of its options over the past couple of releases. Open has now been replaced by Extras with familiar links to further edit and view your images in default programs such as Microsoft Word (you would be surprised how many image editing options there are in Word 2007), and now Windows Media Center directly from Photo Gallery. Slideshow, once a player control, is now a part of the menu structure. The library controls themselves have been consolidated into status bar buttons which are actually more pleasing, in fact, the ‘Zoom in or out’ slider is more accessible instead of having to click in previous versions to invoke the function. The sorting area has been significantly cleaned up, columns such as ‘Name, Date, Rating etc..’ have been consolidated into ‘Arrange by auto’ menu with additional filters such as Tag and Person (the tagging gallery is now off by default). The Rating feature displays a 5 star options with filtering tools for displaying a specific set based on your personal rating. The fundamentals of Photo Gallery remains the same, and users should feel right at home upgrading to this release.
People Tagging Features (click to enlarge)
Meta Data Features
A core part of managing your digital library, meta data gives the user detailed information about a particular photo or video. This area of the Photo Gallery interface, has not changed significantly in version 2009, but adds new options for users that are sure to impress. The expandable hierarchical view of folders, tags and calendar dates are more subtle with the expandable indicators only appearing when your mouse pointer is hovered within the area. The latest feature that has been added is People tags. The basic idea is to have human recognition in your photos. Its a tradition to take group photos, whether its a couple, family or friends. Its similar to features found on social networking sites such as Facebook or Flickr which allow you to tag people or objects in a photo which either links you to more information about the person or item. People Tags is quite impressive, when you click on a photo with multiple persons in it, the image is immediately identified as having persons found. What is also impressive is the software’s ability to identify a face in a photo. If you hover over the Person found buttons in the Tag Gallery a square is automatically generated over a persons face. The level of accuracy is quite amazing. Of course, you can create your own identities if Photo Gallery 2009 does not discover an individual in a photo automatically. If you are not signed in, when the ‘That’s Me’ tag is selected, a Windows Live ID dialog prompt appears asking you to sign in to access services such as Windows Live Spaces and MSN Soap Box. You also get richer tagging capabilities, persons in your Photo’s you know can be linked to your Windows Live Contacts (this kind of remind of when Smart Tags were first introduced in Office XP). Powerful stuff, definitely love it.
Beyond photos, users can now publish videos to MSN soapbox, you can download a free plug in Uploader for YouTube by William Duff. An issue I discovered about videos in Photo Gallery 2009, when you are previewing them, there is no support for real time seeking. Videos also depend on GPU acceleration. I am currently running the software on Windows 7, but my nVidia Geforce is not supported yet, so when previewing video, there is constant stuttering. This is not the case on other systems of course where your hardware is properly setup. Other issues I discovered include preview of photos and videos being in half.
A small glitch when previewing photos and videos.
Two new editing effects: Straighten and Black and White (click to enlarge)
Photo Gallery includes some new features for basic photo editing. These include, Black and white effects such as Orange, Sepia, Yellow, Red and Cyan. The No Filter option seems to be buggy right now since it does not turn off the filter effect when the option is selected, I had to CTRL + Z or undo out until the original colors re-appeared. Photo Gallery does give you the ability to revert back to an original though, even after a photo has been edited and saved, this based on Vista’s Previous Versions shadow copy feature. I am not sure if this is available to Windows XP users. These are basic Photoshop functionality users who are familiar with the program will find in Photo Gallery 2009 and they are free! The ‘Straighten photo’ is also new and just as the name says aligns your image using a gridline while you simply use the slider to control the accuracy. Don’t look at the slider, the gridline is the key to ensuring that the photo appears straight based on your personal satisfaction. A new Photo-stitching feature lets you easily build panoramic views from a collection of photos. The panorama must be based on an actual scene, you can’t just use a bunch of unrelated photos. The other areas such as Auto adjust, exposure, color, detail, cropping and red eye have remain unchanged.
Print dialog, circa Windows Live Photo Gallery 2007
In addition to its strong support for photo-sharing services, you can order prints directly from over 70,000 worldwide printer services partners. The printing dialog looks a bit out of place in this release, especially on 7, hopefully that gets updated before the final release.
Integration Across Windows Live and Services
Photo Gallery 2009 focuses on making it easy to share your images with the help of services in the Windows Live Suite. Emailing photos is just a click away, I selected 3 images from my library and immediately a Windows Live Mail window popped up. The ‘Attach files’ dialog is now handled by Live Mail, such as resolution and size, images sent can be reduced to 512 K or the highest 5 MB for best quality. You can add photo effects such as a frame, color border and even choose how your photos are presented to the recipient in different layouts.
Email Options for Photos (click to enlarge)
Publishing your photos has been a feature of Photo Gallery since the 2008 release, with support for Flickr and Windows Live Spaces. Users can obtain additional plug ins for services such as Facebook and YouTube, I hope these come by default with the final version, it just seems like the right out of the box experience thing to do. The two upload plug ins for YouTube can download here and Facebook here were created by William Duff, for users of Google Picasa, you can find that here by Mark Steeves. So, Photo Gallery provides a very open platform that enables third party developers to further enhance the program beyond what the Windows Live Team delivers. Images published directly to your Live Space are now directly stored on your Windows Live Skydrive. The Windows Live Team has also promised to continue to updating the program regularly so no more tying releases to Windows OS schedules which means, expect innovative updates.
Uploading Photos and setting permissions (click to enlarge)
With the recent roll out of the new Windows Live Home (http://home.live.com) which focuses on improved social networking, sharing your photos is even easier. A feature called ‘Home Page Photos’ displays a collection of photos you have uploaded from your hard drive. There could have been better integration across the online services, by simply linking to existing galleries of photos that have already been published from Photo Gallery to your Live Space and have them streamed on the users Windows Live Home Page.
The end result.
The upload process is very easy though, simply browse for the photos you would like to add using the browse fields or install the ‘Upload Photos Add’ which provides drag drop ease for uploading multiple photos at the same time. Once your photos are uploaded, you can set permissions to share with your friends, since the default is just you, add more photos, create a folder or view a slide show and even order prints. Permissions themselves is federated across your Contact list or your Social Network. For instance, I have my Windows Live Messenger list setup in different categories, they show up as groups within the category of permission with Public being everyone that visits your Windows Live Home page and Networks being those within your social group. You have the option of setting options for users such adding photos, editing details or even deleting. If you have friends that are not in your contact list, you can adding them by simply entering their email address and click Save. Photos are displayed in a neat little animated slideshow.
Windows Live Photo Gallery is more than the photo manager we have come know since its inception as one of the multimedia features of Vista. It has evolved over the years into a mature product that integrates tightly with the web through innovative services such as the new Windows Live Home and Windows Live Essentials suite. Its support for add-ons will further enhance the products qualities and give users unique and cool ways of sharing their digital memories. Its a complete end to end experience, its not smooth in some areas, but its off to a definitely great start.