On January 7, 2003, Microsoft will release the second Plus! pack for Windows XP, Plus! Digital Media Edition (Plus! DME), which the company bills as the ultimate photo, music, and movie enhancement pack for its best-selling XP operating system. Plus! DME follows Plus! for Windows XP (Plus! XP), which itself included several digital media-related components that were among that product's strongest selling points (see my review of Plus! XP for details). However, Plus! DME is a far stronger effort than Plus! XP, with fewer filler-type features. And with an incredible price of only $20--just $15 if you pre-order the package online starting today--Plus! DME is almost a no-brainer for digital media enthusiasts such as myself.

Here's what you get in Plus! Digital Media Edition.

New digital photo experiences

According to Microsoft, over 25 percent of US households own a digital camera, and yet consumers still believe that it takes expertise to mange digital photos. Microsoft's solution to this problem was to imbed advanced imaging software in Windows XP that auto-detects the connection of a digital camera or scanner to the PC and asks the user if they'd like to use XP's excellent bundled Scanner and Camera Wizard to input the photos, name them as appropriate, and organize them in the special My Photos shell folder, which also gains a prominent position in the new XP Start Menu. This solution works amazingly well because it doesn't require any proactive application launching to initiate the photo transfer process. It also alleviates a problem from previous Windows versions, as users were often unsure where the system placed their copied pictures.

Once photos are copied to your XP system, you can view them or launch an editing application from the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer, view a slide show of a collection of photos, order prints of your photos online, print one or more photos using an incredible Photo Printing Wizard, set an image as the desktop background, copy pictures to CD, or share photos via email and the Web, all from the My Photos window (Figure of Picture Tasks). XP offers users a complete solution that encompasses virtually every phase of digital photo management: Capture, storage, viewing, editing, and sharing.

Plus! Photo Story

To give users a more interactive way of sharing photos, Microsoft is debuting the revolutionary Plus! Photo Story application as part of Plus! DME (Figure). If you're a digital photo enthusiast, this application will be reason enough to plunk down your hard-earned cash for Plus! DME; Indeed, several months ago I purchased a similar, but much less refined application for Mac OS X, that offers fewer features and horrible performance than Plus! PhotoStory.

So what is Plus! Photo Story? Essentially, it is a wizard that creates zooming and panning movies or movie slideshows out of one or more still images. You can create a short movie that pans across and/or zooms into a single digital photo. Or, you can create a slideshow of these zooming and panning photos. But it offers far more functionality than that: You can also choose to manually define the ways in which each image is panned and zoomed, and even narrate the "story" behind each photo, as you might have in the past when showing print photos to a friend or relative. You can even mouse over each image as you narrate the story behind that photo, and the Plus! Photo Story wizard will use your mouse movements to determine the ways in which the resulting movie pans and zooms. In the past, you might have physically pointed to an interesting element in a photo as you described it; now you can do that digitally if you'd like. You can also add titles and background music if you'd like, and the wizard will fade it out appropriately at the movie's end.

Plus! Photo Story is an awesome application. I used it to create several movies out of groups of photos, and experimented both with its automatic and manual panning and zoom effects. One particularly compelling movie I created involves 11 photos I took of my son playing in the yard last month when we got our first snowfall of the season (Figure). I added some nice titles and background music, and the effect is almost mesmerizing.

Here's how it works. First, you import the photo or photos you'd like to turn into a story. The Photo Story wizard places these images into a timeline in which you can reorder the photos, delete specific photos, or import more photos (Figure). In the next phase of the wizard, you can preview the automated story that Photo Story creates, or record narration (Figure). If you're interested in fine-tuning the story, select a photo from the timeline, click Advanced, and you'll be presented with Advanced Options (Figure), which allow you to determine the starting and ending position of the pan and zoom effects manually. You can also change the default length of the resulting animation (the default is 5 seconds), opt to skip narration for this image, and preview the animation before committing (Figure). While I did experiment a bit with the narration capabilities, I'm personally more interested in setting these movies to music, so I've generally opted to skip the narration phase. In the next phase, you can add a two level title with various font and positioning possibilities, and an optional background image (Figure). Then, you can select optional background music, the length of each animation for which no length was manually specified, and preview the final story (Figure). In the final phase of the wizard, you determine the quality settings for the audio and video used in your story (Figure). My 11-photo movie, with a 10 second duration on each image animation, 640 x 480 resolution, and CD-quality audio music, occupies less than 4 MB on disk; XP reports that the movie is a 389 Kbps WMV 9 file. A more Web-friendly 320 x 240 version with FM-quality sound occupies 1.75 MB on disk; it is an 80 Kbps file. In both cases, the image and sound quality is unbelievable, especially when played back on a large screen TV with a Media Center PC. It would be easy to create a vast collection of these stories for inclusion on a CD/VCD or DVD movie as well. In fact, I'll probably do just that.

In the background, Plus! Photo Story takes advantage of the excellent new Windows Media Video 9 Image codec, which I describe in my Windows Media 9 Series Review. This is exactly the application I've been waiting for, perfectly implemented. Kudos to the Digital Media Team at Microsoft for making this available so cheaply.

New digital music experiences

Windows XP's digital audio and music experiences are unparalleled in the world of personal computing. Out of the box, Windows XP includes Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), an outstanding upgrade to the company's previous Windows Media Player versions, integrated shell support for digital audio and MPXP through the My Music folder, and optional support for non-Microsoft audio technologies such as MP3 encoding. And though MPXP and the stock XP install were already unrivaled, Microsoft raised the bar yet again with the release of Windows Media Player 9 Series (WMP9), which debuted as a beta in September 2002. Microsoft followed up the beta with a release candidate build in November 2002 and the final version will ship publicly on January 7, 2003.

As noted in my extensive review of the Windows Media 9 Series technologies, WMP9 offers numerous enhancements for XP digital media fans, including a mini-player mode that hides in the XP task bar, new Info Center views for getting more information about the current clip or artist, further shell integration, and support for the industry-best WMA 9 and WMV 9 formats.

Thanks to the extensible nature of WMP9, many of the tools in Plus! Digital Media Edition build off of this incredible player. Here are the Plus! DME tools for digital audio and music.

Plus! Alarm Clock

For college students (and, apparently, other people that inexplicably fall asleep next to their computer), Microsoft is offering the Plus! Alarm Clock (Figure), which turns your WMP9-enabled PC into an alarm clock. You can use Plus! Alarm Clock to wake you up gently to a specific playlist, for example, and set alarm options such as snooze, type of alarm (music, sound, or desktop notification). On that note, perhaps my introduction to this tool is a bit facetious: You can actually use Plus! Alarm Clock in a typical desktop setting, as a reminder of any event. Here's how it works.

Plus! Alarm Clock is a wizard-like application, like most other Plus! DME tools, that steps you through the process of creating and managing alarms (Figure). To create an alarm, you first select the name, occurrence frequency, and start time and date of the alarm (Figure). Then, you select the music or sound you'd like to play for the alarm (Figure); this can be a built-in playlist consisting of a particular artist, album, genre, Smart Playlist, or whatever, or it can be a playlist of your own making. Interestingly, you can also choose other options, such as playing the music on a CD in your CD-ROM drive, play a specific audio file, or play the default alarm sound, among others (Figure).

When the alarm triggers, a small Messenger-like notification window appears in the corner of your screen (Figure), letting you snooze or turn off the alarm, or the wake up options. Whenever you select an option on this notification window, the music fades out smoothly; this is a nice effect.

Plus! Alarm Clock lets you configure numerous alarms, and contains options for specifying the snooze interval, number of times to repeat the alarm playlist, and so on. I have absolutely no use for this tool, personally, but it's a much gentler alarm that most alarm clocks and I could see people using it in lieu of the reminder feature in Outlook for certain tasks.

Plus! Analog Recorder

Now here's a tool I will definitely use regularly: The Plus! Analog Recorder is another wizard-like application (Figure), and this one lets you easily record from analog audio sources, such as LP albums and cassette tapes, while removing problematic artifacts such as the pops and hisses that often accompany such recordings. I'll be converting an Elvis Christmas album for my father in law in the coming days (don't ask), but to test the tool I used an excellent cassette tape of 80's Metal Power Ballads, and an old VHS copy of a live Van Halen pay-per-view concert.

Typically, one will create analog audio recordings on the PC using the Line In port on your sound card. This is how I tested the tool, and the results were similar on the laptop and desktop Line In ports I used. This type of connection requires a bit of wiring, naturally, as you'll have to get the analog source connected to the PC somehow. I used a Sony stereo component receiver connected the cassette and VHS players, and a microphone-plug-to-RCA adapter to get the sound out of the receiver, and to the PC, through the receiver's cassette monitor out connection. Here's how I did it, using the VHS tape as the audio source.

Analog audio recording requires far more hand-holding than recording an audio CD digitally, and the Plus! Analog Recorder includes tools to make this process less painful. First, you need to adjust your recording level to avoid digital clipping, where the recorded sound is distorted because the recording level was set too high. To do so, simply play back a representative portion of the audio source you'll be recording, and the first phase of the wizard will analyze several seconds of the source (Figure) and then note when it's detected an acceptable recording level.

Next, you record the analog audio source (Figure). However, Plus! Analog Recorder also includes some advanced controls, which could be of interest, depending on the source. Here, you can automatically detect and split tracks from the source recording, which worked well on the cassette tape but, predictably, not so well on the live recording. You can also specify the total recording time in minutes, which is nice for hands-off recording of an entire album.

During the recording process, Plus! Analog Recorder graphically displays the levels left and right audio channels and counts down the elapsed time (Figure). You can also optionally choose to mute the sound during recording. When recording is complete, you're prompted to review and name your tracks (Figure), which will provide the resulting files with the meta data needed to accurately display in WMP9 and other players. You can also split tracks here, or re-combine tracks that were erroneously split by the wizard. Once this process is complete, you can optionally remove the pops and hiss from the tracks you created (Figure) and then choose various content protection options, which I'm sure most people will ignore (and rightly so). Then, you choose where the tracks will be saved, the quality level of the tracks, and whether they should be added to a WMP9 playlist (Figure). The tracks are then saved (Figure) and you're good to go.

Unfortunately, Plus! Analog Recorder isn't perfect. I'd like to see more advanced post-processing tools so that I might, for example, be able to fade in and out crowd noise on live recordings, which will be one of my primary uses for this application. However, you can use the free Windows Movie Maker 2 (WMM 2) tool to fade in and out the audio, and then export the edited file as a high-quality WMA. This process works surprisingly well though you can't control the length of the fade to my knowledge; perhaps Microsoft might make a note of this solution in the wizard. Overall, this tool is highly recommended, and you can't beat the price. Another excellent reason to consider Plus! DME.

Plus! Audio Converter

Microsoft Plus! for Windows XP (review) includes the Plus! MP3 Audio Converter, which was designed to convert existing MP3 audio collections (and WAV files) into WMA format. You could also use the tool to batch convert (or transcode) WMA files to a lower quality setting, perhaps for use with a portable audio device. This tool worked well, but was limited in its one-way conversion: You couldn't use it to convert back to MP3 format, for example, and it doesn't support some of the newer WMA 9 formats, such as WMA 9 Lossless.

To answer these complaints, Microsoft created the Plus! Audio Converter, which is part of Plus! DME. Audio Converter is now a general purpose audio conversion tool that supports WMA 9 (and older), MP3, and WAV formats fully, meaning you can now perform complete roundtrip conversions from and to any of these formats. But Plus! Audio Converter is even more exciting because it's intelligent about how it performs conversions; I'll explain that in a bit. Here's how the tools works.

Like other Plus! DME tools, Plus! Audio Converter is a wizard-like application (Figure). You can select a folder of audio files for conversion or selected files only. If you select the folder option, you're prompted to select the folder, whether to include sub-folders, and the file types you'd like to convert (Figure). After you select the folder structure to convert, Plus! Audio Converter will let you remove individual files if needed (Figure), and then prompt you to select conversion options (Figure). These options include the destination file format and quality level, whether to use volume leveling, the target directory, and whether these new files should be added to the WMP9 Media Library. Intelligently, it also can skip files that already exist, which can dramatically improve the performance of a batch transcode operation. During the transcoding process, the wizard displays progress bars next to each song that's being converted to keep you up to date (Figure).

If Plus! Audio Converter has any weakness, it's that you cannot use the wizard to convert the resulting files into a new file name and folder structure. This is related to a limitation in WMP9 itself (and previous) versions, in which the player doesn't allow you any advanced file naming capabilities. That said, the tool works well for what it does, and is certainly more useful than the MP3 Audio Converter.

Plus! CD Label Maker

Plus! for Windows XP included a basic audio CD label maker called Plus! CD Label Maker, and, predictably, Plus! DME includes an updated version also called (dramatic pause) Plus! CD Label Maker. This version is almost identical to the previous one, with a single major improvement: It now supports MP3 and WMA data CDs, and the vast number of tracks such a CD would include.

I don't really spend a lot of time creating CD labels these days, because most of my mix CDs end up in my car's trunk-mounted CD changer, but the Plus! CD Label Maker seems to offer a complete solution for anyone interested in this sort of functionality.

Plus! Dancer

When David Caulton, the Lead Product Manager of the Windows Digital Media Division called me a week ago to discuss Plus! Digital Media Edition, I laughed out loud when he tried to describe Plus! Dancer, a hilarious little screen goodie that's sure to find fans somewhere. "It's hard to explain, you'll just have to see it," Caulton finally said, giving up. Oddly, it's exactly what I imagined. And I still laugh, looking at it now.

Basically, Plus! Dancer adds a small character (or two) to your desktop which dances in rhythm to the currently playing music in WMP9 (Figure). Plus! ships with 11 different small dancers, and Microsoft will be making available another 12 small and large dancers to customers through a Web site, I'm told (these extra dancers were found on the Plus! DME evaluation CD I received). Each dancer has his and her own dance style, such as hip-hop, disco, salsa and so on, and you can customize Plus! Dancer to use the appropriate dancer based on the genre of the current song, randomly supply a different dancer with each song, or you can manually choose your favorite dancer. Dancers can be positioned anywhere on the screen. All of the dancers are of surprisingly high quality, and some are pretty damned funny (Figure).

OK, obviously, I'm a bit too old to enjoy this toy properly, but like the Plus! Alarm Clock, I'm sure some people will really enjoy Plus! Dancer. As Caulton noted, you'll just have to see it yourself.

Plus! Party Mode

For college students and other digital media enthusiasts that might use their PC as a jukebox during a party, Microsoft supplies the Plus! Party Mode for Windows Media Player in Plus! DME. This tool is essentially a new full-screen mode for WMP9 that provides an interactive guest book, visual effects, and playlist access to your audio collection, while preventing unwanted intrusion into your personal files and other PC-based information.

When you launch Plus! Party Mode, a wizard-like application appears (Figure) and steps you through the process of setting up a party (Figure). You can configure numerous options, including whether guests are blocked from accessing other parts of your PC, whether crossfading is used and what the duration is, visualization settings, track display information, guest book marquee options, the skin style, and so on.

The full screen Plus! Party Mode interface is interesting, if a bit difficult to decipher at first (Figure). It offers a large visualization area with option track and artist display, standard media player controls for moving forward and back through the playlist and buttons for various visualization and player settings. At the bottom of the display are two weird little controls, which require a mouse-over to understand. The first toggles the marquee text; when enabled, a stream of text appears scrolls across the bottom of the screen (Figure). The other button lets you "speak your mind," popping up a text entry box in which you can type (Figure). Whatever you type is added to the scrolling marquee text, and you can use the pop-up window to edit the list of displayed text if you'd like.

In the top right of the interface there is a playlist toggle and a "+" button that lets you add tracks to the playlist.

Plus! Party Mode for Windows Media Player isn't exactly an application I'd ever use, so I'll reserve judgment on this tool. Like many of the tools in Plus! DME, I suspect the younger generation will be far more interested than I.

Plus! New digital video experiences

As I've often noted, digital video is one of the coolest tasks you can experiment with on a PC, especially one running Windows XP, but it's also one of the hardest. The high barrier of entry is caused by several factors, including the time and effort it takes to import video the PC, and the difficulty of editing video into something palatable. Microsoft addressed the ease of importing issues with Windows Movie Maker (WMM), which shipped in Windows XP, and then hit a home run in the editing category with WMM 2, a free download for XP users that will also ship January 7, 2003 (See my exhaustive review). Still, it's going to take time to educate users that Windows XP is such an ideal tool for digital video. Based on previous bad experiences, people still believe it's just too hard.

More cool video effects and transitions for Windows Movie Maker 2 (UPDATED!)

Plus! DME takes a small stab at making the digital video experience simpler by including 50 new video effects and transitions for Windows Movie Maker 2 (WMM 2). As I noted in my WMM 2 review (link), the product is already well-endowed with professional video effects, transitions, and titling choices. Not surprisingly, the new video effects and transitions in Plus! DME aren't quite as exciting as what already comes in WMM 2.

The new video effects are clearly labeled with names that begin with Plus!, such as Plus! Color Warp1, Plus! Desaturate, Plus! Noise White, and so on (Figure). Most of them are fairly useless, though I could see making use of the color-based effects, such as Plus! Exotic Green, which tints the selected video clip green, naturally.

Likewise, the new transitions are similarly named and most are fanciful rather than useful (Figure). Plus! Fire Iris is a cool effect, however, with the second video clip burning through into the first (Figure). Overall, I appreciate what Microsoft is trying to do here, but I think most consumers are well served by the calmer effects in transitions that come out of the box in WMM2.

New mobility experiences

Being able to manipulate digital media on your PC is wonderful, and it opens up a vast array of new possibilities, not just for enthusiasts, but for anyone interested in music, video, or photos. But what about those people who travel frequently or want to enjoy their PC-based digital music away from the PC?

Plus! Sync & Go for Pocket PC (UPDATED!)

Microsoft's Pocket PC platform has always offered a Windows Media Player version, making it possible to take MP3, WMA and WMV tracks on the road. But the process of managing digital media for use with a Pocket PC has always been rather mind-numbing, primarily because it's such a manual affair. For example, you might want to create 160 Kbps WMA files for use on your PC, but files of that quality are prohibitively large for a Pocket PC, forcing you to create and manage a second set of smaller WMA files for the portable device. And there's no easy way to use your Pocket PC as a target for videos created with a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) such as Windows XP Media Center Edition or downloaded from a Web site.

Plus! Sync & Go for the Pocket PC (Figure) doesn't address all of these issues, but it does let you synchronize supported audio and video content between your PC and Pocket PC, including a new generation of forthcoming Web-based content from MSNBC, CBS MarketWatch, NBC Nightly News, and others. This will let you time shift Internet-based audio and video content automatically, so that you might set it up to download content automatically in the morning before you to go work, and then listen to it or watch it on the Pocket PC during the morning commute. You can also use Plus! Sync & Go to synchronize audio content with the Smart Playlists in Windows Media Player 9 (WMP9). However, this feature is somewhat flawed, as I'll discuss below.

The Plus! Sync & Go interface provides two "groups," News and Music, by default (Figure), each stocked with 5 slots for playlists. You can't add more than five playlists to each group, but you can add more groups if you'd like, though of course you're going to be limited by the size of the memory cards you've installed in your Pocket PC. Indeed, Sync & Go requires an external memory card, and the product will not work with the built-in memory of your Pocket PC. However, it does support multiple memory cards, so if you swap out CompactFlash cards or have a unit that supports, say, both CompactFlash and SD expansion, you can load them up with content if you'd like. From a management standpoint, you can reorder groups and playlists within groups if you'd like, but what's the point? Most users will simply set up the content they want synchronized, and then let the application work in the background, updating their Pocket PC when needed. Depending on the content, that might be hourly, daily, or weekly.

To add synchronized online content to your Pocket PC, simply click an empty channel; this brings up the Plus! Sync & Go Content Selection Wizard (Figure), which provides options for downloadable Web content, Windows Media Player playlists, or Windows Media Player tracks. After selecting the first option, you're presented with a list of content providers, which currently includes MSNBC (hourly video or audio headlines), Today Show (daily video), NBC Nightly News (daily video), CBS MarketWatch (daily audio and video and weekly audio and video), CBS MarketWatch Radio (daily audio), GolfSpan.com Tips & Drills (weekly video), KenRadio World Tech Roundup (daily audio and video), NPR News (hourly audio), Warner Music (daily and weekly video), and the Digital Book Channel (weekly audio) (Figure). The wizard will describe the estimated size of the download and duration, graphically show you the space remaining on your Pocket PC's memory card, along with the space taken up by the new content, and allow you to synchronize immediately (Figure).

After you've synchronized, you can view or listen to the content on the Pocket PC. The Plus! Sync & Go Pocket PC application sports a busy interface with title area, timeline, group navigational controls, and various media playback controls (Figure). When you select a video to play, it appears in a small window (Figure). Plus! Sync & Go also supports a few additional skins (Figure), but they don't seem as nice to me as the default skin. If you click the video window, you can view the current clip full-screen in landscape mode (Figure).

In addition to the online content, you can synchronize Plus! Sync & Go with audio content in your WMP9 Media Library, using Smart Playlists, manually created playlists, or individual tracks. The WMP9 Smart Playlist feature is pretty powerful, and you Plus! Sync & Go provides a UI to add such playlists as "Favorites - 4 and 5 star rated," "Fresh tracks," and "Low bitrate media in my library" (Figure). However, one crucial feature is missing: Transcoding. Because most Pocket PC memory cards are fairly low capacity, it'd be nice if this product could transcode my 128 Kbps WMA files down to 64 Kbps (or whatever) during synchronization. Unfortunately, it won't do this, so if you want to use low bitrate files on the Pocket PC, you'll have to transcode them yourself (you can use Plus! DME's Plus! Audio Converter product to do this, of course). And if you your playlists are too large to fit on the memory card, you'll have to deal with that manually as well.

If you choose to select individual tracks from your WMP9 Media Library, Plus! Sync & Go presents a logical navigational interface for doing so (Figure). These files will be copied into a new playlist on the Pocket PC, which you can name, and that Playlist will be added to the Music group in the PC version of Plus! Sync & Go (Figure).

Despite its limitations with PC-based audio files, Plus! Sync & Go is a very desirable application, especially for commuters that would like to view up-to-date video news content or listen to audio news content before or after work each day. Because Plus! Sync & Go works in the background and automatically synchronizes the content as required (hourly, daily, or weekly), you won't have to do a thing to keep your content current. Isn't that what computers are all about?

Availability and system requirements

Plus! Digital Media Edition will ship January 7, 2003 and will include the final version of Windows Media Player 9 Series. It requires Windows XP and, optionally, a Pocket PC 2002 hardware device (for Plus! Sync & Go), a printer (for Plus! CD Label Maker), and Windows Movie Maker 2 (also available as a free download beginning January 7). Plus! DME requires a 400 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM, according to Microsoft. As usual, I'd double these requirements for best performance. Other required hardware includes 205 MB of free hard disk space, a CD-ROM or DVD drive, a modem or broadband Internet connection, and a sound card with a microphone.

Plus! Digital Media will cost $20 and be available electronically for download and in standard retail packages, but you can save $5 by preordering it from the Microsoft Web site. Microsoft's decision to sell Plus! DME electronically is sort of a watershed moment for the software company, and a test of technology it will use more in the future. One bit of information, however, might alarm people: Plus! DME uses Microsoft's Product Activation technology, so if you try and share it with friends, the application will prompt them to order it online and get their own Product Key. At a paltry $15 a pop, however, I don't see this as a huge problem.

Conclusions

My view on Microsoft's Plus! packs, in general, has never changed: Anything that makes the overall computing experience more enjoyable is a good thing. But Plus! Digital Media Edition (DME) really sets itself apart from previous Plus! packs by foregoing the fluff and delivering a compelling set of tools that will be desirable to a wide range of users. If you're interested in digital photography, music, or video, you owe it to yourself to check out Plus! DME, a product I recommend highly. I will be using at least two of these tools--Plus! Photo Story and Plus! Analog Recorder--on a regular basis going forward, and either one of them would be worth $15 or $20 on their own. Plus! DME is a unique value, and yet another reason to embrace Windows XP and its wonderful digital media experiences.