With the exception of one possible problem--sites like YouTube are designed to prevent the use of copyrighted music, which is likely all that most people have on their PCs--you should be able to create a finished video in just minutes. (We'll look at video sharing via YouTube in a bit.)

Manual editing

If you are willing to dive a bit deeper into the Windows Live Movie Maker user interface, you'll be rewarded with a rich set of functionality. You can do things like add captions, which can be handy when you want to describe the location or subject of a particular photo or movie clip. Movie Maker's captions aren't static, however. They come complete with optional special panning effects, custom fonts, transparency settings, and even fine-tunable start and end times.

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

The collection of video transitions--which work with photo clips as well, of course--has expanded greatly since the beta. Now you can choose between over 60 different transitions, and can edit their duration. If it's a photo, you can determine whether (and how) it pans and zooms while onscreen, in a nod towards Ken Burns. (Heads-up, Apple fans: Microsoft had it first.)

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

In addition to simple brightness control, Windows Live Movie Maker also sports 20 visual effects, and if you want you can easily use two or more on the same clip using a Multiple effects tool. Visual effects range from the expected grayscale filters to some horizontal and vertical mirror images.

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

There are some nice additional editing features. You can choose between 4:4 and widescreen 16:9 aspect ratios for your project, fine-tune audio tracks, rotate clips, edit the audio mix (between the background audio of video clips and the underlying soundtrack), and perform other useful functions.

Sharing

For most people, of course, the real fun begins when you share your creation with the world. And as you might expect, Windows Live Movie Maker does a great job with this as well. In keeping with the evolving worldview of video sharing, you'll see three default choices in the ribbon, in this order; YouTube, high-definition (1080p), and DVD. That's pretty forward-leaning and, in my opinion, smart. But you can choose between a variety of other sharing types by expanding the tab group. Here's the full range of options available to you...

YouTube

You may be surprised that YouTube is the default sharing choice in Windows Live Movie Maker, though I should mention that Microsoft's own video sharing site, MSN Soapbox, was very recently cancelled due to lack of interest. YouTube, of course, is one of the most popular web sites in the world and, by far, the most popular video sharing site. So there it is.

Saving a movie to YouTube is a piece of cake assuming you already have an account there. You pretty much just click the YouTube button, fill in some information about the video, and then click Publish. Windows Live Movie Maker will create the video--which could take several long minutes, depending on its length--and then upload it to YouTube (which could also take a while).

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

What's interesting about this process is that Movie Maker actually creates and uploads a 720p (1280 x 720) HD movie, so people who view the movie online will have the option of doing so in HD. That's pretty sweet, and removes the silliness of needing two separate YouTube sharing buttons, one for standard definition and one for HD. The resulting movie is in WMV format, by the way, so it will work fine on Windows PCs, Zune devices, Xbox 360s, and various set top boxes as well. (What you can't do, and it's a problem, is create a version that works on Apple's products.)

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

On the downside, you can't use Movie Maker while it's making and uploading this video. And, as hinted at earlier, YouTube doesn't allow you to use copyrighted music in the videos you upload. So if you made a soundtrack to your vacation video using your MP3 collection, chances are YouTube will block the audio. It'd be nice if there was some kind of free background music collection included with Movie Maker, but, hey, it's free.

Anyone who has uploaded video to YouTube knows that the site takes a while to do whatever processing it is that YouTube does, so this process is still pretty time consuming. But Movie Maker does provide a fairly seamless environment for importing content, editing it into a finished product, and then uploading it to the site everyone is actually using. Kudos for that.

High-definition (1080p)

The second sharing option, High-definition (1080p), creates a local video file, also in WMV format, at 1920 x 1080 resolution, or what's commonly called 1080p. This is a high-quality video, with an 8 Mbps bit rate, and will look fantastic on the HD televisions that are now quite common around the world.

Burn a DVD

The third default sharing option, Burn a DVD, also creates a local WMV file, this time a 720 x 480 movie with a bit rate of 3 Mbps. Once the file is created, Windows DVD Maker fires up and starts a new project with your video as the sole content entry. (You can add more of course.)

Other ways to share movies

In addition to the three default sharing modes, you can also save your movie in 720p HD (at 6 Mbps), 480p widescreen (720 x 480, 3 Mbps), standard definition (640 x 480, 3 Mbps), for a portable device or phone (320 x 240, 1.7 Mbps) or via email or instant messaging (320 x 240, but at a significantly lower bit rate of 291 Kbps). All of these modes offer WMV format. I'd like to see some form of H.264 output in a future version, however, as that is absolutely the de facto standard for video, not WMV.

Finally, Windows Live Movie Maker provides an extensibility model so that enterprising users can build support for other sharing sites. Some are already available and you can now download plug-ins for sites like Facebook and SmugMug if you'd prefer to share your creations there. More are coming, Microsoft tells me.

Availability and timing

Microsoft will make Windows Live Movie Maker available as part of the Windows Live Essentials suite soon. It is compatible with both Windows Vista and Windows 7, but you should understand that the application provides support for additional video formats--including QuickTime MOV and QT, AVCHD, and various MPEG-4 formats--on Windows 7 only. (Windows 7 provides native support for these formats.) Windows Live Movie Maker does not run on Windows XP. Those users can continue to run the previous version of Windows Movie Maker.

Speaking of Windows 7, Windows Live Movie Maker has the distinction of being the first Microsoft application built for that new OS. It features a full ribbon UI, as previously discussed, and builds on the format support inherent to that release.

One thing that's missing, of course, is a way to post your video creations on a Microsoft service. Since Microsoft killed the Soapbox service, there's been a void, and while the company has nothing to announce at this time, suffice to say they will be adding Windows Live-oriented publishing capability in the future.

Final thoughts

Windows Live Movie Maker is a surprisingly full-featured video editing and sharing solution that should prove valuable to virtually any Windows user. There are a few missing pieces, like H.264 output and the lack of a Microsoft video sharing service. But I expect those to be addressed in a future release, and neither is a glaring issue. If you were looking for a quick, easy, and professional way to share your photos and videos online, Windows Live Movie Maker has you covered. This is quality software, regardless of the price. That it's free just makes it all the better. Highly recommended.