Microsoft on Monday released a near-final version of its Windows Live Essentials suite, which bundles several Windows applications and services into a single installation. The company plans to ship the final version of the suite next month.

"We're getting very close to the final release," the Windows Live team wrote in a blog posting announcing the release. "But before we get there, we're refreshing the beta versions one more time to make sure we've ironed out all the kinks."

In a face-to-face meeting last week, Windows Live Senior Director of Product Management Ryan Gavin referred to this week's update as a "release candidate," underscoring how close to release the products are. The free Windows Live Essentials suite now includes a wide range of applications, including Windows Live Messenger, Mail, Writer, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Toolbar, Family Safety, and Sync, as well as Office Outlook Connector, Office Live Add-In, and Silverlight.

All of the applications in Windows Live Essentials have been update for this near-final release. Windows Movie Maker, the only application to still retain its "beta" tag--Gavin said they would need a few more months to finalize this product as it's been completely rewritten--is now quite serviceable and includes a number of editing features. Windows Live Messenger has been significantly updated. Windows Live Photo Gallery can automatically sync photo libraries from PC to PC. And all of the applications have been spit-shined with new icons and other enhancements.

Windows Live Essentials is part of a wider set of "Wave 3" Windows Live releases, which also includes a bevy of Web and mobile applications and services. These releases are being introduced over time as part of a "rolling thunder" schedule, according to Gavin, which will culminate in early 2009.

I'll be reviewing Windows Live Essentials soon. If you're interested in downloading the near-final beta refresh, please visit the Windows Live Essentials Web site.