Continuing the tradition begun with the first Plus! add-on, which shipped alongside Windows 95 six years ago, Microsoft is prepping a similar add-on, Plus! for Windows XP (Plus! XP), for its latest operating system. Like its predecessors, Plus! XP is designed for consumers that wish to get the most out of the new OS. But this time around, Plus! XP dispenses with the sort of dry system utilities that populated past Plus! packs and goes right for the entertainment jugular: All of its features are entertainment related, with a heavy emphasis on digital media features (a personal favorite), games, and look and feel customizations.

The cynical might dismiss Plus! XP as a pointless attempt by Microsoft to siphon even more money out of its customers, but I've always thought that the Plus! packs served a valuable service by making the overall computing experience more enjoyable. And since this release is focused so heavily on entertainment, that's more true with Plus! XP than ever before. That's not to say that Plus! XP is a must-have purchase for all XP users, as it's not. But I suspect that digital media enthusiasts like myself, especially, will want to take a closer look at Plus! XP. And of course, anyone who's interested in beautiful desktop themes and photo-realistic screensavers will want to take check out Plus! XP as well.

Plus! XP is neatly divided into four types of accessories: Digital media tools, games, screensavers, and themes. The digital media tools run a wide gamut, from useful add-ons like the MP3 audio converter and CD labeler, to the truly lame, such as the horrific Windows Media Player skins and visualizations. The games in Plus! XP are similar to past Plus! packs, in that they are limited versions of full games from a variety of manufacturers, but I found this collection to be particularly boring; maybe I'm just getting old. The screensavers are interesting because they're mostly photo-realistic, but the standout is Aquarium, which is simply too beautiful for words: You have to see it to believe it. And the themes... well, the themes are a mixed bag as well. I had hoped to see more Luna-style color schemes and visual styles that dramatically altered the XP user interface. Instead, we're treated to some admittedly nice looking Windows 98-style themes, which simply apply pretty wallpaper, icons, and other on-screen elements to the stock XP appearance. They're not bad, but they suffer a bit from an expectation that more was coming.

Overall, the choice with Plus! XP comes down to whether any of its features are compelling enough to justify the cost, which will be about $35-40 at retail (October 2004 update: Today, Plus! XP costs about $25, or $30 when combined with the highly recommend Plus! Digital Media Edition for Windows XP; see below for details). So let's take a look at the individual components of Plus! XP, so that you can decide for yourself.

Digital media features

Windows XP is the premier OS for digital media--music, photos, and video--and Plus! XP expands on the capabilities found in the base OS and adds some exciting functionality of its own. I feel that the digital media features in Plus! XP are this product's strongest selling point, despite a few gaffs. Here's what you get:

Plus! MP3 Audio Converter

Windows Media Player allows you to copy audio CDs to your hard drive in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format or, with Windows Media Player 10, into MP3 format. However, WMA provides better sound quality and smaller file sizes than the industry-standard MP3 audio format. So what about those of us who already made massive MP3 audio collections before moving to XP? The Plus! MP3 Audio Converter tool (Figure) lets you take individual MP3 files or entire directories of MP3s, and convert them to WMA format, saving disk space.

That's good stuff, but you can also use this tool to batch transcode WMA files to a lower quality setting (Figure). This is a crucial feature, because you might want to copy audio at a higher bit rate for PC-based playback, but need to make the music smaller so you can take it on the road in a portable device with less RAM, like a Pocket PC or portable audio device. And this tool is faster and more automated than Windows Media Player, which offers similar transcoding functionality.

Starting with Windows Media Player 10, this functionality is less crucial than it once was, because that release adds the ability to intelligently transcode music that's copied to portable audio devices and mass storage class devices when necessary. However, the MP3 Audio Converter is still handy when you want to do batch-style transcoding jobs.

Plus! Personal DJ

The Plus! Personal DJ (Figure) answers complaints about the version of Windows Media Player that originally shipped with Windows XP and its ability to make playlists, which is rudimentary at best. With Plus! Personal DJ, you can more easily make category-based playlists based on Albums, Artists, Genres, or Playlists. However, newer versions of WMP, including WMP 9 and 10, both offer this capability right in the player. So this once-necessary tool is a bit less compelling these days. On the other hand, if you're interested in a wizard-like application that really steps you through the process, Personal DJ isn't horrible: It lets you set the duration of the playlist (or the size, in MB), and various options.

Plus! Speaker Enhancement

Using what Microsoft refers to as patent-pending speaker enhancement technology, the Plus! Speaker Enhancement tool (Figure) boosts the clarity and richness of sounds coming from certain desktop speaker systems. Notice I say certain here--this tool did nothing to enrich the sound from my USB-based Microsoft speakers, for example, back in 2001, nor did it help the 5.1 speaker system I'm using now in 2004. But it is designed to overcome a wide range of common distortions in over 30 different speakers, by automatically calibrating sound output for you.

To test this, I turned on the enhancement and checked out my volume and sound settings. Sure enough, it had done some sort of custom configuration for me though, as I said, it was hardly an improvement in my case. In short, I'm not sure what to make of this enhancement, since the type of speakers I use are apparently better suite without it. More important, perhaps: It doesn't appear to have been updated at all over three years to support newer speaker types. Shame.

Plus! Voice Command

Haven't you always wished you could control Windows Media Player by simply speaking? No, neither have I, but the Plus! Voice Command tool (Figure) seeks to make that possible. I'm not going to waste much time on this one, but it responds to over 35 commands and supports switching views, changing skins, and showing/hiding visualizations in addition to the expected playback functionality. Yawn.

Plus! CD Label Maker

I'm sort of surprised that this functionality isn't included with Windows Media Player, but here it is in Plus! XP, a basic CD label maker that works with color and black and white printers, and a variety of CD label templates from Avery, Fellowes, and others. The Plus! CD Label Maker uses a simple wizard (Figure) to guide you through the process, and it launches from a new File menu item in Windows Media Player, which was a nice touch.

Plus! Media Player skins

Plus! XP ships with four new custom skins for Windows Media Player, all of which are based on the new Plus! XP themes. So you get skins for Aquarium, Nature, Space, and Leonardo da Davinci. And they all stink, bad (Figure). The sad truth is that the majority of Media Player skins stink, and while I have no idea why that might be true, it is. These are no different.

Plus! Media Player Visualizations

Windows Media Player 8 shipped with a great new visualization called Battery in 2001 (which was my favorite until Energy Bliss for WMP 10 debuted in 2004), so I had high hopes for the Plus! visualizations. I shouldn't have. Plus! XP ships with three new 3D visualizations, and they're as bizarre as they are unexciting. These include a character from the Xbox game Oddworld: Munch's Odyssee, which is, as far as I can tell, a sea creature of some sort moving around in a wheelchair. Yes, seriously (Figure). The other two are Maxx's Kingdom, featuring a 3D ball of jelly in a Mario-like world (Figure); and Plus! Undersea Wonders, which features jellyfish and other sea creatures undulating to the music (Figure).

Maybe I'm just a year or ten too far past college to appreciate these things, but I really can't get excited about the visualizations in Plus! XP.

Note: If you're interested in Plus! XP's digital media features, be sure to check out the Plus! My Pictures screensaver as well, which is discussed below.

Games

Like its predecessors, Plus! XP ships with a few games. But unlike its predecessors--which included the addictive Pinball (Plus! 95), Golf 1998 Lite (Plus! 98), and Lose Your Marbles (Plus! 98) titles--none of these games are particularly entertaining. The games in Plus! XP were chosen because they show off new features in the DirectX gaming libraries that are included in XP, with 3D effects and complex rendering techniques. They should have simply chosen games that are fun to play.

Hyperbowl Plus! Edition

Hyperbowl Plus! Edition (Figure) is a light version of a video gaming console title that lets you bowl in a classic bowling alley or follow the escapades of the bowling ball as it rolls through a Roman-themed environment containing urns and other obstacles.

The Labyrinth Plus! Edition

The Labyrinth Plus! Edition (Figure) is one of those maze games where you tilt the entire board to move the ball that's trapped within: There are holes and other pitfalls along the way, 12 different mazes, and 12 different balls.

Russian Squares Plus! Edition

Russian Squares Plus! Edition (Figure) is yet another Tetris-like puzzle game in which you must match lines of blocks. The game features different visual themes and sound schemes to keep it interesting.

Again, maybe this is just an age thing, but I didn't get into any of these titles, though I love games as diverse as Quake III Arena and Mahjong.

Themes

Windows Themes first debuted in Plus! for Windows 98, so it's somewhat fitting that Plus! XP would include its own suite of new UI themes. But given the massive UI changes that Microsoft wrought in XP, one might have expected the company to include some Luna-style color schemes or new Visual Styles in Plus! XP. Sadly, this is not the case. What we get instead are a set of four admittedly beautifully rendered themes that incorporate unique 3D screensavers (discussed separately below), wallpapers, icons, sounds, pointers, and Windows Media Player skins (briefly mentioned above).

Here's what you get.

Plus! Aquarium

An undersea theme that makes your PC resemble an aquarium (Figure). It's attractive enough, and utilizes the standard blue XP visual style.

Plus! Nature

A direct descendent of the Nature theme that debuted in Plus! 98, this theme uses the Olive Green color scheme and features some stunning Corbis images (Figure). The Windows Media Player skin is among the weakest available, however.

Plus! da Vinci

Another nice looking scheme with wallpaper featuring the great inventor's many designs on a parchment-like backdrop (Figure). The Windows Media Player skin that goes with this theme is actually kind of cool in that it resembles a wooden da Vinci creation.

Plus! Space

A standard space theme with views of earth from space and planet icons (Figure).

Screen savers

The Plus! XP screensavers are mentioned separately for two reasons: Some of them are unrelated to the themes we discussed above, and some of the ones that are related--notably Aquarium--are so good that you might want to check them out even if you're not using a theme.

The screensavers in Plus! XP all utilize impressive 3D effects and are generally quite stunning. If you do get Plus! XP, be sure to check them out.

Plus! Aquarium

Your computer screen becomes an aquarium with throbbing lights, bubbles, bright corral, aquarium sounds, and three fish (Figure). If ever there was a showcase for XP's graphics capabilities, this is it.

Note: If you're interested in Plus! Aquarium, the full version of this screensaver is available from SereneScheme for $20. The full version features more fish, randomization capabilities, and other features not available in the Plus! XP version.

Plus! Nature

A less successful 3D stream floats by with reflecting light and falling leaves (Figure). The camera view can be rotated, which is a nice touch, but it just doesn't look as real as the aquarium.

Plus! da Vinci

Animated 3D versions of da Vinci's most popular inventions fly by, rotating and moving in space (Figure). Featured are the da Vinci Codex Leicester and various stone, wood, and metal objects.

Plus! Space

This could have been one of the more interesting screensavers, given the topic, but instead, we're treating to rather pedestrian rotating, floating objects above the earth (Figure).

Plus! Robot Circus

With the exception of Plus! My Pictures (below), the non-theme screensavers are universally weak. Robot Circus features robot acrobats in a variety of 3D arenas (Figure).

Plus! Sand Pendulum

It just gets uglier from here. The Sand Pendulum screensaver is exactly what it sounds like, just uglier than you'd expect (Figure).

Plus! Mercury Pool

Easily the worst of the lot, the Mercury Pool screensaver shows ripple effects on a pool of mercury. It's set in a stunningly bad backdrop (Figure).

Plus! My Pictures

This one is kind of interesting, and it arguably qualifies as a digital media feature as well. Basically, the screensaver renders photos and other images in 3D, warped and animated into various shapes (Figure). You can configure which photos to display, of course, but you can also configure the music that plays. Nice!

Conclusions

Like previous Plus! packs, Plus! XP isn't bad at all, and it may be a decent purchase if you're interested in any of its components. As I said previously, I'm partial to the digital media features (including the excellent Plus! My Pictures screensaver) as well as the photorealistic Aquarium screensaver, which needs to be seen to be believed. Power users will likely be uninterested, but fear not: Microsoft has a set of free PowerToys for Windows XP to serve that particular crowd.

Plus! XP won't set the world on fire, but it's a capable companion to Windows XP. It's available for Windows XP Professional and Home Editions, and went on sale October 25 for $39.99. Today, you can get Plus! for Windows XP for about $25 or combined with the excellent Plus! Digital Media Edition for Windows XP in a special package called Plus! SuperPack for Windows XP for just $29.95, which is a bargain.