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12/22/2006
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Review: Windows Live Writer Beta Makes Blogging Better

Microsoft's free application offers bloggers some convenient tools and freedom from their browsers' limitations.

If you're a blogger, chances are you do most of your writing directly in a Web browser. Microsoft has now rolled out a standalone blogging application, Windows Live Writer, which not only works with the Live family but with Blogger, LiveJournal, and any blogging system that supports one of a broad range of APIs.

So why use a standalone program to do your blogging, when almost every online blogging service out there already has a fairly powerful WYSIWYG interface that runs in your Web browser? After working with Windows Live Writer, I think the answer is pretty self-evident. For one, Live Writer offers a more consistent and less browser-dependent way to blog, especially if you're dealing with many blogs hosted on multiple services. It also provides you with an interface that's not shackled to the limits of what can be presented in a browser without plug-ins or add-ons.



Windows Live Writer lets bloggers get by the interface limitations of a browser.
Click image to enlarge.

Officially, Live Writer is still in beta, but it's solid enough at this point that I could use it for production work without any major hitches. Once installed, it can be immediately configured to work with many common blogging systems, including Blogger, LiveJournal, TypePad, WordPress, and, of course, Windows Live Spaces. If you don't know what your blog runs, you can simply point Live Writer at the blog's homepage, submit your user name and password, and Live Writer will automatically discover the necessary data. I have blogs set up through Movable Type, another popular blogging and content-management system, and Live Writer was able to figure it out without much trouble.

Live Writer gives you a fast and well-behaved interface that lets you add rich formatting, links, and pictures to a post without hassle. The default editing mode is a kind of draft view, with the title at the top in an isolated box and the body of the post below. Press F11 and you'll see the post as it would appear with the formatting and styling of your blog. Press F12 and you'll see the post in context on your blog itself -- a really wonderful feature if you have complex formatting on your blog and want to make sure a given post doesn't break it. Shift-F11 brings up the raw HTML, which you can edit manually or paste in from another source.

Taking Care Of Images
One thing that in-browser blog interfaces usually can't handle well is images -- you're often at the mercy of your browser's capabilities. Live Writer, being a standalone program, doesn't have these limits, and the way it handles images is a lot more flexible. To upload a picture, just drop it into a post, and the program automatically creates a thumbnail of the image with a link to the original. Both the thumbnail and the original are uploaded as part of the publishing process. You also can configure presentation defaults for images on a per-blog basis, so if you just want to display the original image in a given blog with no link, you can set it to do that automatically. Aside from inserting images, you also can add tags for sites like Technorati or del.icio.us, and even maps from the Windows Live Local / Virtual Earth service. One minor irritant is that you can't edit the URL of an embedded picture by exposing its properties -- only by editing the page's source.

The behavior of many individual features depends on what your blog can support. For instance, LiveJournal (at least the basic, free version) doesn't support image uploading, but you can have images uploaded somewhere via FTP and referenced automatically as needed. There's also no way as yet to submit a post to multiple blogs at once, but I worked around that by simply composing a post, uploading it to one blog, then switching to another blog and re-posting it. The only side effect is that you have multiple copies of the post in the program's Recent Posts list, but they're just stored as files in the program's "My Weblog Posts" folder and can be easily removed. Finally, whatever functionality isn't native to the program right now can be changed: a small and expanding gallery of plug-ins for Live Writer can add support for many other features, like "current mood / current music" tags.

Impromptu HTML
A nice side benefit to Live Writer is that it also can work as an impromptu HTML editor if you don't already have one and don't need to do much more than basic HTML creation. Even if you copy from Word and paste into Live Writer -- an action which ought to generate horribly bloated HTML -- the resulting code is remarkably clean and can be reused almost anywhere.

Live Writer's major downside for bloggers is that it is a standalone program. If you're constantly hopping from one computer to the next, you'd need to install it on each of those machines, and it's not that easy to synchronize blog settings between multiple copies of the program in different locations. But I was more than happy to install multiple copies of it on my desktop and laptop, and at this point it's hard for me to imagine blogging without it. I'm looking forward to what's in store for this.


Windows Live Writer Beta
Microsoft Corp.
www.Microsoft.com
Price: Free
Summary: A free and remarkably powerful blogging tool that works with multiple blog systems at once and has expandability via a plug-in architecture.

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