Never has such a good idea been so badly bungled. Microsoft originally envisioned Windows Ultimate Extras as one of many differentiators for its high-end Windows Vista Ultimate edition. Of course, back in mid-2005, when these plans were unfolding, Microsoft was still struggling to define the various Vista product editions. It planned a Small Business edition, for example, but ultimately decided against it. And for Windows Vista Ultimate, Microsoft originally planned to include a number of features that never came to fruition, including a Game Performance Tweaker, a podcast creation utility, online "Club" services, extended A1 subscriptions, free music downloads, free movie downloads, Online Spotlight and entertainment software, preferred product support, and custom themes. (I first revealed these plans in my September 2005 article, Windows Vista Product Editions Preview.)

Alas, with none of these planned differentiators ever appearing, Windows Vista Ultimate is no longer the "no compromises" version of Windows. But it's still the best version of Windows Vista. And one of the few differentiators that remain between it and its many siblings is Windows Ultimate Extras.

What is Ultimate Extras?

Microsoft describes Ultimate Extras as "cutting-edge programs, innovative services, and unique publications [that] provide a richer computing experience for Windows Vista Ultimate users." Or at least they used to. Beginning with Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), Microsoft has removed every mention of Ultimate Extras from the Windows Vista Ultimate Web site and almost every mention of Ultimate Extras from Windows Vista Ultimate itself. Now, instead of a multi-paragraph promotion for Ultimate Extras, you'll see the following detuned message in the Ultimate Extras control panel:

And in case I haven't driven home how bad this is, the second link in the image above, the one that says "for more information"? When you click that, it goes to a Web site that does not mention Ultimate Extras even once. (If you visit Windows Help online, you'll discover that Ultimate Extras are designed to "extend Windows features or just make using your computer more fun.")

So what is Ultimate Extras really? Clearly, what Microsoft is trying to do is replace the old Plus! packs that it used to ship for other Windows versions. Like Ultimate Extras, these Plus! packs were a motley collection of fun and useful utilities and games, products that typically didn't have a lot to do with each other. Unlike those Plus! packs, however, Ultimate Extras are only available to users of the most expensive Vista version, Vista Ultimate. So they're designed as a differentiator between Ultimate and other Vista product editions.

Windows Ultimate Extras are made available to customers via the Windows Update utility. If you have Windows Vista Ultimate, you'll see an additional call-out for Ultimate Extras, like so:

The problems with Ultimate Extras are many. First, when Microsoft initially shipped Windows Vista, there were only a small handful of extras available. Microsoft promised to ship more in the coming months, but never did, and after numerous customers complained, it was discovered that there wasn't even a single Microsoft engineer dedicated to keeping the Extras up-to-date. The software giant promised to rectify this situation, but the release of Extras has been sporadic over the two years since Vista first appeared, and the collection of Extras remains esoteric, with little sense of planning or design. In short, it's a pretty lousy perk for those people who spent their hard-earned cash on Vista Ultimate.

A tour of the Extras

Since Vista first appeared in November 2006, Microsoft has shipped the following Extras.

BitLocker and EFS Enhancements

Windows BitLocker provides full-disk drive encryption and security functionality, has been improved dramatically in Windows Vista SP1, and is a hugely useful feature. There's just one problem: You have to manually configure your hard drive's partitions at install time or you can't use it. Why Microsoft doesn't include an automatic disk partitioning feature with Vista for this purpose is beyond me.

Well, Microsoft has seen the light and released the Windows BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool. It provides a way to automatically resize your existing system partition and add a new partition of the exact size required by BitLocker. And it will do so without requiring you to wipe out your Vista install and start over from scratch.

The Windows BitLocker Drive Preparation tool works wonderfully. But I just have one concern: Why the heck isn't this just part of Windows?

Microsoft has also provided a second BitLocker (and EFS)-related utility via Ultimate Extras. The Secure Online Key Backup (SOKB) utility provides a way to backup BitLocker's recovery password and, if you're using EFS, the recovery certificate for the Encrypting File System as well. These items are backed up to a secure Microsoft Web site called Digital Locker.

This is basic backup stuff, essentially, but given the importance of backing up these passwords and certificates--if you need them and lose them, you might not be able to access data stored on a drive that's been encrypted with either BitLocker or EFS--this is a handy addition. It also makes BitLocker more approachable to individuals who might have otherwise been scared off by this overly technical and potentially scary feature.

Hold 'Em Poker

Hold 'Em is, of course, based on the popular Texas Hold 'Em poker variant, which swept the nation (and, presumably, the planet) a few years back and shows no sign of letting up. Of course, this electronic version of the game dispenses with the sillier elements of the TV versions--i.e. the wrestler-like player personas and mountain-sized piles of chips--and instead provides a faithful rendition of the game. I'm not a huge fan of Texas Hold 'Em per se--I prefer more variation, as well as beer and pizza, when I actually play poker--but I suspect this game will be a hit with lots of people.

In Hold 'Em, you play against up to five computer-controller players in three levels of difficulty, and you start off with $1000 of faux gambling money. You can also customize a wide range of other options, including the names of the players, the look and feel of the card deck and table, and various options that would only make sense to Texas Hold 'Em devotees. One nice feature: You can automatically save the game on exit and continue at a later time.

What's missing, of course, is multiplayer capabilities, which, combined with Microsoft's Live service, could have made this game an absolute must-have. As it is, Hold 'Em will likely only benefit those who are looking for a way to improve their gaming skills while offline.

Secret: Former Windows chief Jim Allchin told me that Hold 'Em was originally going to be included in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate as one of the so-called Premium Games. But the game was pulled because of its gambling theme, which is rated "T" for "Teen" by the ESRB; Vista's built-in Premium Games are all rated "E" for "Everyone."

Language Packs

Users of Windows Vista Ultimate can choose from 35 language packs, which are sometimes referred to as Multilingual User Interface Packs (MUIs). These language packs convert the Windows user interface into the selected language, and you can install multiple language packs and switch between them on the fly.

As Microsoft notes, MUI is particularly useful in multilingual homes where multiple people use a single computer and choose different languages for their primary use. People who wish to learn a new language will also find MUI to be a particularly useful feature.

Microsoft Tinker

Microsoft Tinker is a surprisingly engaging and addictive puzzle game in which you navigate a cute robot around a 3D maze, bypassing obstacles and safely reaching the end point. The game comes with three sets of 20 levels each.

Secret: Microsoft Tinker was created by a company called Fuel Industries. They supply a free level editor which you can use to build your own Tinker levels. The level editor can be downloaded from the Fuel Games Web site. They also promise "regularly released level packs to expand the experience." Hopefully, they'll be timelier than Microsoft has been with other Extras updates.

Ultimate Extra Sound Schemes

One of the first things I do when I install Windows from scratch is remove the default Windows sound scheme, which is what's responsible for that mind-numbing "thunk" sound you hear every time you click on a hyperlink in Internet Explorer. But apparently some people actually enjoy these sounds schemes--which can include sound effects that attach to virtually any action in Windows--and you may be surprised to discover there's even a Windows Sound Team at Microsoft that comes up with this stuff.

"The default Windows Vista sound scheme was designed with the same principles that were used in designing the Windows Vista visual elements and desktop experience," says Windows Sound Team program manager lead Steve Ball. "It was an explicit goal to re-orchestrate the default Windows Vista sounds to complement the softer, cleaner theme and user interface elements in Windows Vista."

The default Windows Vista sound scheme consists of a "sonic palette" that was created out of two recording sessions with guitarist Robert Fripp, the co-founder of the prog-rock band King Crimson. Two years later, the Sound Team excavated those sessions and created two new sound schemes, Ultimate Extras Glass Sound Scheme and Ultimate Extras Pearl Sound Scheme, which it then provided to Vista Ultimate owners.

A third sound scheme, Ultimate Extra Sounds from Microsoft Tinker, was released in tandem with the Microsoft Tinker game.

Secret: Microsoft has released videos of its two sessions with Robert Fripp. You can view them here and here.

Windows DreamScene

The Windows DreamScene utility allows you to assign an MPEG or WMV video file as an animated desktop. And while you're free to use that less-than-stellar home video from Disneyworld if you're so inclined, Microsoft supplies a number of more professional animated desktops that are designed to be seamlessly repeated.

When you install DreamScene, you'll see a new section in your Desktop Background control panel called Windows DreamScene Content. Here, you'll see the new videos Microsoft added with DreamScene. You can also select any compatible videos from Videos, Public Videos, or other shell locations. Note, however, that most homemade video is less than ideal as a desktop because of the shaky nature of such video.

Since first shipping Windows DreamScene, Microsoft has also shipped three additional Windows DreamScene Content Packs. All told, there are now 14 DreamScenes available.

Secret: Windows DreamScene was previously codenamed Motion Desktop.

Final thoughts

Windows Ultimate Extras has never lived up to the promises Microsoft first made about the service and it's certainly not a reason to consider paying extra (ahem) for the most expensive Vista version. That said, if you do have Vista Ultimate, some of the Extras are worth investigating. The BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool is particularly useful if you're going to implement that technology, and Microsoft Tinker is a fun and addictive game. What do these two things have in common? Not much, of course. And that's part of the problem with Ultimate Extras. Sure, some of them are fun and some of them are useful. But there doesn't seem to be a cohesive plan behind this collection of tools, let alone a release schedule of any kind.