The split-screen layout of Windows Live Local beta features an array of tools on the left side and a map with drop-down menus of features on the right side. Keyboard shortcuts make navigation handy; for example, just press the plus or minus keys to zoom in or out, or right-click on a location to plot directions to or from that spot. You can close the left pane for a wider map view, and show road maps or satellite imagery or a mix of both. In our tests, we saw aerial images of urban areas that were sometimes close enough to distinguish specific models of cars on the road. And for 100 U.S. cities and some U.K. locations, Windows Live Local provides a unique, 45-degree-angle "bird's-eye" view that lets you circle landmarks from near the ground in any of the four directions. Satellite views of rural areas and other countries are a mixed bag.
Once you find a destination, Windows Live Local's business listings can connect you to nearby services in North America and the United Kingdom. For example, we found CNET's offices, then typed auto in the top text field, which let us narrow down our search to mechanics. Windows Live Local then instantly marked 10 car shops near work. The left-hand pane listed more options, as well as several unobtrusive text ads.
We're glad that Local beta doesn't force you to sign in with a Passport or Windows Live account, but you'll have to log in to save and share searches. Once you do that, Local displays the map of your area by default. It can also pinpoint your location without demanding that you sign in, either by identifying your IP address or through its Location Finder, a free download.