Windows Live Photo Gallery and Digital Frames–A Match Made In Heaven

This post may be a little late for the holiday season, but there’s always another one coming up. I’ve written before about Windows Live Photo Gallery and its promise when it was in Beta. It’s been out for several months now, and my opinion on it hasn’t changed – it’s an excellent photo organizing tool. It has some light editing capabilities, but I work frequently with RAW images, and I use Adobe Photoshop with Bridge for my picture processing tasks. However, once processing is complete, Live Photo Gallery takes over for tagging and organizing.

One of the things that I really like about the product is its integration with external applications and galleries. I store my photos in Windows Live and Facebook (for sharing with others) and in Flickr for both sharing and full size image storage. Live Photo Gallery makes this very easy. Once the pictures are tagged, you simply select the ones that you want to send (I also like to tag them with a destination/album name like “Flickr – 2009 General” so that I know what I’ve saved) and then click the relevant destination in the Share section on the tab.

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Once configured, for each selection, you’ll get a dialog box prompting you for the album and other metadata, and in the case of Facebook, for people. Remember that Windows Live and Facebook are tightly integrated,so that people you tag with Photo Gallery will automatically be reflected on Facebook. In the case of Facebook,the dialog looks something like below:

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This makes sharing photos online really easy to do. However, I have always found that digital frames were much more difficult. Being in technology, I of course have given digital frames to my parents, grandparents and in-laws. It’s a great way to get photos to them, but managing the content can be a bit of a nightmare. I have run across two major stumbling blocks doing this.

The first problem is the limited storage capacity of the frame itself. With cameras boasting higher and higher megapixel counts, their file sizes are increasing exponentially. Many older frames have storage capacities below 256 MB, which just doesn’t cut it. Even modern frames have a typical capacity of 1 GB and while that can be increased through expansion cards, it’s really only prolonging the inevitable.

The solution to this is to convert the images. Most frames are relatively low resolution, most being in the 640×480 or 800×600 range. If you’re counting, that’s 0.3 and 0.5 megapixels respectively. Converting the images to the native resolution of the frame will result in drastically lower storage requirements without any loss in displayed quality. The problem with this approach is that conversion software is a little above the heads of most casual users users, and it generates yet another group of pictures to manage.

The other problem is randomization. Believe it or not, most frames that I’ve encountered do not automatically randomize image play, leaving you to watch the same sequence over and over again. Since they’re usually sorted on filename, you’re often stuck watching things in chronological order. The way around the order is to get some sort of file renaming utility and rename all of the files before copying them over.

Those are the problems. However, Windows Live Photo Gallery supports plug ins for its destinations (Flickr, SkyDrive, Facebook, YouTube are all out of the box), and there is an excellent plug in written for digital frames written by Leo Lie. Essentially, it treats the frame, or any SD drive as a source such as Flickr, etc. Once you select the photos you want, you simply press the button, select whether or not you want the files resizes, and to what degree, and if you wish, it will randomize your photos for you. This solves the two problems (almost) in one fell swoop. If I tag the photos with the name of the frame, and I continue to be religious about tagging, very time grandma comes over, she can bring her SD card, I can erase it, and reload it. Simple.

You can get the plug in by clicking on my link above, or from within photo gallery, you can check out all of the available plug ins. It’s not obvious how, so I’m including a screenshot below. There is a scrollbar to the right of the Share section on the Home tab of the ribbon. At the bottom of that scrollbar is a drop down. Click it, and click Add a plug in, and you’ll be taken to the plug in gallery. There are several good ones.

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I should also mention that while I use this for all of my relatives. I recently purchased a Kodak Pulse wireless frame for my use at home. If you have wireless, it’s a very good way to go. With it, you can send pictures directly to it, you can use Kodak’s file share, and you can email pictures directly to it. However the real value here is that it integrates with Facebook so that any pictures you post to Facebook (configurable) will show up on the screen. Since Facebook stores low resolution pictures, this is perfect. I simply use the Windows Live Photo Gallery integration to send the pictures to Facebook, and I’m done. I’ll be going on a diving trip by myself (more on that later) in a few weeks, but the family will be able to see my pictures as I post them.

Now I just need to keep up with my tagging.

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Windows Live Essentials “Wave 4” And Windows Phone 7 – Why You Should Care

A few weeks ago Microsoft made available the latest Beta version of Live Essentials. Most people I know use Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger), and that’s all that Windows Live is to them. However, it’s much more than that. If you’ve installed Windows 7, you may have noticed that it no longer ships with a number of productivity applications (for example Movie Maker), All of the missing applications are available through Windows Live. There is a big difference though, in that these applications are all very much “Live Aware”, which is to say that they’re tightly coupled with your Windows Live profile and Live ID. I’ll dive into why that’s a good thing below.

To start with, Essentials Wave 4 consists of 9 Primary Components:

  1. Messenger – This is of course the one most are familiar with. However, it’s very much new and improved, and I’ll talk about this in a bit more detail below.
  2. Photo Gallery – Photo Gallery is the Microsoft application for organizing, tagging and cleaning up photos. This, to me is the absolute standout product of the suite,and I’ll explain why below
  3. Mail – This replaces Windows Mail,which no longer ships with Windows. It allows you to hook in multiple email boxes (of course Hotmail is one option). If you currently use Outlook, you likely won’t use this, but it does work well, and it’s free for the non Office users.
  4. Movie Maker – This application allows you to put together pictures and videos into a video presentation. It’s rudimentary (I personally use Premiere Pro from Adobe – but that’s WAY overkill for most users, not to mention difficult). It’s easy, slick, and will do the job in most cases.
  5. Writer – This is the best blog authoring tool that I’ve come across. I’m using it right now to write this. It can author blog content for a very wide variety of blog providers, and this version brings in the (now) familiar ribbon interface. Connecting to Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc is an absolute snap now, as it benefits from the new integrated features of your Live profile.
  6. Family Safety – From the site: “Manage and monitor your children”s Internet activity so they can surf the web more safely”. I personally don’t use it, so I have no comment, but it’s there.
  7. Bing Toolbar – I hate toolbars – they’re allowed nowhere near my PC. If you like them, I’m sure this one is wonderful, but I wouldn’t know.
  8. Messenger Companion – This is a little plug in to IE that lets you know when any of your friends share a link (they don’t need to be Messenger or Live friends). It’s also a quick way of sharing a page that you happen to be viewing.
  9. Sync – If you’ve ever hear of Live Mesh, this is it. This allows you to take a folder on your PC, and keep it synchronized with a SkyDrive folder and/or a folder on another PC that you may use. This works seamlessly in the background, and is excellent for sharing with teams, working with multiple computers, or just making sure that you always have access to current data wherever you are. It is however limited to 2 GB, which to me, is pretty low. I would expect to see that increased in the future. SkyDrive itself allows for 25 GB, so why can’t I use some of that allocation?

These applications are great, in and of themselves, but the real power lies with their tight integration with your live account, and correspondingly, its tight integration with other social networks. Windows Live is Microsoft’s consumer facing social networking offering, but they seem to have taken a different approach than you may have expected from them in the past. They know that they’ll never get as many subscriptions as Facebook, and that the value of a network lies primarily with the number of its nodes, so they seem to have taken an “embrace, not replace strategy. Sure, all of the basic social network capabilities are there, a friends list, news feed, photos, etc. However if your friends use Facebook, no problem – we’ll just incorporate them. MySpace? Flickr, Linked in? No problem, they’ll come in too, and you get one big friends list, and feed that is relatively source agnostic.

Windows Messenger hooks right into that list. So now, instead of a relatively dead list of names, here’s what the new Messenger screen looks like:

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You can seen that your friends news feed is there, from every network that you are connected to. You can update your status, which again gets broadcast to all connected networks. You have access to all of your Live content via the Social menu at the top, and all of your friends are brought in on the right, and if they use Live Messenger, you can see their status or initiate an IM session, just like you used to.  

 

Another stand out application is the new Photo Gallery. Yes it gets the nice ribbon interface, but it’s got a few VERY nice features. I’ve always struggles with getting my photos tagged with people efficiently (I’m currently working with a base of about 10,000 pictures), but this makes it a snap. Photo Gallery contains built in facial recognition algorithms, so that it can detect that a picture has faces in it, and that they need to be tagged. It will then extract the faces, and prompt you for who those people are.

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Where does the list of available people come from? Why your amalgamated friends list of course. One interesting thing to note is that internally, if your friends names are slightly different between networks, it maintains an internal map to keep everything straight, so when you post to pictures to Facebook for example, users are all tagged correctly.

The real power though comes from the fact that not only does it recognize faces, it recognizes particular faces. Once you tag the same name a few times, the software can offer suggestions, if you go into batch people tagging mode

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The recognition is amazing, and while not perfect, it nails it most of the time. It’s interesting to see it recognize the same face over a number of ages, or to see it get confused by look alike relatives.

Tagging is a breeze this way, and all of the tags are respected when sending to any of the social networks. Which networks? Well, any of the ones that you have linked your Live profile to that support pictures. You can really see the power of the integration features here, and the addition of another service will only bring that much more value to th
e platform. This is the beauty of the embrace not replace philosophy. Windows Live is really a solid social mashup platform, filling in gaps where any exist.

To take it one step further, Microsoft will be introducing its new Windows Phone 7 platform later this year. It promises to be an innovative product that changes the way we work with our content, and the way that your personal and business lives integrate. Many of the same concepts discussed above apply to the way that the Windows Phone 7 operates, and its primary means of integration will be your Windows Live profile. Paul Thurott of the SuperSite for Windows is currently writing a book on Windows Phone 7, and has shared his experiences of working with a development prototype. Simply logging in with your Windows Live ID brings all of the content discussed above right down to your phone, no muss, no fuss.

I don’t think that the new Live features, and the new Phone capabilities are a coincidence.I really like what I see developing in this space, and I’m very excited about trying out one of these new phones as soon as I can. In the meantime though, I have a few photos to tag and to post.