Late last year, I reviewed Plus! Digital Media Edition (Plus! DME) for Windows XP, an excellent, low-cost XP add-on offering new digital photo, music, and movie applications. Plus! DME, I felt, was destined for greatness, especially its Plus! Photo Story tool, which lets consumers easily create animated movies out of digital photo collections. My one fear, however, was that Plus! Photo Story, like the wider Plus! DME, would get lost among all the other free add-ons that Microsoft was releasing for XP in early 2003, including Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series and Windows Movie Maker 2.

I needn't have worried. In the first five months of its availability, over 1 million XP users coughed up $20 each to download Plus! DME, making Microsoft's first foray into paid software downloads an immediate success (Plus! DME is also available in boxed retail packaging [figure] at such places as Best Buy and CompUSA). More important, many people have latched onto the wonders of Plus! Photo Story, which has become the clear breakaway hit of the package for many Plus! DME buyers.

At Microsoft's annual financial analysts meeting in late July 2003, Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin presented a talk called "Sustaining Windows Client Momentum," in which he discussed the ways in which the company would continue to grow Windows sales during the four year downtime between Windows XP and Windows Longhorn, the Windows version due in late 2005. XP has been an incredible success for the company, he said, with over 130 million licenses shipped, 70 percent of which are XP Professional, the more expensive, high-end version. To bolster this success, Microsoft has steadily released improvements and updates to XP over the past two years, including consumer-oriented offerings such as Plus! DME.

As part of his presentation, Allchin demonstrated what he called Photo Story 2, an update to the version of Plus! Photo Story that shipped in Plus! DME. When I queried Microsoft about this release, I was told that it would ship in an updated version of Plus! DME later that year and be made available, for free, to existing Plus! DME customers. In mid-September 2003, I finally got my hands on the Plus! DME Update beta, as it was called, and began thinking about how I would review this product, which will become widely available on October 14, 2003. I'd already written up a full review of Plus! DME, and this update would give me a chance to revisit my original opinion of the product and see what had changed and how the various apps had held up over time.

Plus! Digital Media Edition Update: What's in the box, er, ah, download

Plus! Digital Media Edition Update is a refresh of the original Plus! DME that will feature a new Plus! Photo Story version, 10 new Plus! Dancers (and an 11th mystery Dancer dedicated to the launch of Office 2003; I'll have more information about that below), and all the product updates that Microsoft released since January. Effective on that date, all new Plus! DME downloads will automatically get the new version, and existing Plus! DME users will be able to download the new Plus! Photo Story and the new Plus! Dancers for free. Sometime soon, the retail boxed copies of Plus! DME will be replaced with the new version, which will include a circular yellow sticker indicating that it's a new version.

New features

The fall 2003 Plus! DME Update includes a new application, Plus! Photo Story 2, and 10 new Plus! Dancers, 5 of which are characters taken from Xbox video games. In this section, I'll examine these new features.

Plus! Photo Story

Plus! Photo Story 2 retains the familiar iterative user interface from the first version but starts with an introductory page that is visually distinct from its predecessor's, featuring a new graphical treatment and new options for editing an existing Photo Story Project, creating Video CDs (VCDs) and configuring your PC's microphone (figure). The two major new features in Plus! Photo Story 2 are revealed here. First, Photo Story can now optionally create projects so you can go back and edit your Photo Story movies later if needed. Second, it's possible to create Video CDs of your Photo Story movies easily from within Photo Story, a huge request from users. Let's see how these new features work.

Before you can edit a Photo Story Project, you must create one, which means you can't somehow retroactively create a project from an existing Photo Story movie you made with the original Plus! Photo Story. Creating Photo Stories hasn't changed much. First, you import and arrange your photos. Here, Plus! Photo Story 2 employs the new Microsoft File Browser (figure) in lieu of the standard File Open dialog. This cool new dialog, also used in Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9, presents tabs for All files (your file system), MSN Groups (for pictures you may store online if you're an MSN customer) and, optionally, Digital Image Library (which will display only if you've also purchased Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9 or Microsoft Digital Image Suite 9). But the big improvement here is that the File Browser is designed to display picture thumbnails at a variety of sizes, using an Apple iPhoto-like slider. As you move the slider closer to the "+" button, the thumbnails in the File Browser get larger (figure), and the reverse is also true, of course. This feature lets you find the right images before loading them into an application, and it works well.

The next several steps haven't changed since the first version. In the next step, you record your Photo Story: You can add narration and manually configure each picture's animation using the Advanced button. Then, you can optionally add a title and description, configure how long they'll display onscreen, and add a background image. After that, you can optionally add music and preview your Photo Story. And finally, you select the video and audio quality options.

In the last step of the wizard, you can now choose to save a Photo Story Project file along with the final movie (figure). This project file will be saved to the My Videos folder by default and appears to be a self-contained archive that includes all the original source material (photos and audio) needed to reconstruct the original Photo Story; that is, it's not a text file with pointers to the original file as I had expected. Photo Story Project files are pretty big: In a simple test, I created a Photo Story with 14 photos, and no narration, background music, or title page. The resulting movie was just 1.47 MB, but the associated project file consumed a whopping 7.39 MB, almost exactly the same size as the original photos. Not a big deal, but something to keep in mind.

To edit an existing Photo Story, you can double-click its project file in Explorer or launch Photo Story 2 and select Edit a Photo Story Project. This option displays a standard File Open dialog, letting you navigate to the appropriate location. Once the project is open, the wizard display the first step, "Import and arrange your pictures," this time with the appropriate pictures pre-loaded. Nice.

To create a VCD, select "Play a Story or Use a Story to Create a VCD" from the main page of the Plus! Photo Story Wizard. The resulting dialog now includes a Create VCD button (figure) which launches the "Create a Video CD" window (figure). Here, you copy your masterpiece to VCD (just one movie per disc, sorry), optionally including the project file and original photos. You can use any CD-R or CD-RW disk, and the results should play in just about any DVD player (you'll get better results from CD-R disks, from what I've seen). Photo Story VCDs can contain approximately 60 minutes of full-motion video, according to Microsoft. The quality is decent, too, if not inspiring: I tested the VCDs I created with this tool using various DVD playback applications on Windows PCs and on a standalone DVD player, though Apple's OS X-based DVD Player application refused to work. The quality is best described as sub-VHS-quality: The resolution is there, but the inherent pixelization of VCD playback is exacerbated by the animation effects, which occasionally send portions of the display into a kinetic frenzy of garish blurry squares. It's not horrible, but it's not DVD quality either. And fortunately, these movies look better on a TV than they do on a computer screen: Played back through a Media Center PC or a standalone DVD player, many of the more annoying jitters were minimized. Either ways, it's a low-cost way of sharing your Photo Stories with others, especially those without Net connections or PCs.

New Plus! Dancers

In my original review of Plus! DME, I had a bit of fun at the expense of Plus! Dancer, which I described as "a hilarious little screen goodie that's sure to find fans somewhere." That's for sure: Customers downloaded over 1 million additional dancers from microsoft.com in the first five months of Plus! DME's availability, which isn't too shabby for what is essentially a fun little desktop hack.

This time around, there are a number of dancers--Amanda, Arkantos, Ben, Chanel, Cobey, Daniel, Evan and Michele, Exile, Hawk, Jade, Jarvis, Jen and Dave, Jerome, Josh, Kenny, Nickole and Marcelo, Q-Taro, Seth, Shermin, Taryn, and Wade--some of which are characters in Xbox games. There will also be a special "Clippy" dancer to commemorate the Office 2003 next week; this dancer immortalizes the Office Assistant with which Microsoft is so taken and it will be made available as a free download from the Microsoft Web site starting October 14, 2003.

Anyway, the Plus! Dancers are again of high quality and are, again, of little interest to me. But there's a large group of people out there, apparently, who are into this stuff. And I suspect they'll be delighted at the new professional dance moves and styles. Enjoy.

Looking back: Revisiting the other Plus! DME applications

It's been several months since my initial review of Plus! Digital Media Edition for Windows XP first appeared, and the release of the Plus! DME Update naturally caused me to go back and look over what I had written up the first time around. It's interesting to go back and revisit reviews like this after the fact, and I've often entertained the notion of doing "One Year Later" follow-ups to reviews, to add the sort of perspective that only the passage of time allows (Drop me a note if you're interested in this kind of thing). I can't guarantee I'll do this for other reviews, but what the heck. Now that I've been using Plus! DME for a significant amount of time, have my opinions changed?

Plus! Alarm Clock

I never use this tool, but I predicted that happening: "I have absolutely no use for this tool, personally, but it's a much gentler alarm that most alarm clocks," I wrote in my original review, "and I could see people using it in lieu of the reminder feature in Outlook for certain tasks." That still applies.

Plus! Analog Recorder

In my original review, I noted that this was "a tool I will definitely use regularly." That hasn't happened. But it's not because Plus! Analog Recorder isn't any good; I just haven't gotten around to it yet. I have a huge collection of legacy analog audio and video tapes that I've been meaning to convert to digital for a long time. This summer, I started the arduous task of converting my massive VHS library (including over 100 Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes) to WMV format. I'll get to the audio tapes, eventually. I hope.

Plus! Audio Converter

I don't really use this tool all that often, because I maintain separate MP3 (Mac) and WMA (Windows) versions of my music library and have little need to move files between the two formats.

Plus! CD Label Maker

Ditto. "I don't really spend a lot of time creating CD labels these days," I wrote. It's still true: A Sharpie marker works just fine for my purposes.

Plus! Party Mode

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

Windows Movie Maker 2 video effects and transitions

When it comes to video editing, I tend to prefer the basics, and the occasional cross-fade is pretty much all I look for. Otherwise, videos have a tendency to look like animated versions of the "ransom note" desktop publishing documents designers used to make when laser printers and Aldus PageMaker first appeared with all their suddenly exciting new fonts. Likewise, Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 2 is an excellent product, and it ships with a massive collection of professional video effects and transitions, so the new video effects and transition included with Plus! DME are mostly unnecessary. I haven't used any of them in my own video work, certainly.

Plus! Sync & Go for the Pocket PC

In the days leading up to my introduction to the Plus! DME Update, Plus! Sync & Go was the one Plus! DME application I had begun reexamining on my own. A dedicated Palm OS user, I'm not that impressed by the Pocket PC and its too-Windows-like Pocket PC OS (now called Windows Mobile 2003). But I had a bunch of business trips planned for late 2003, and thought it might be interesting to look at some time-slip applications for the PC, including an interesting MSNBC application that lets you watch short video clips of news stories on your laptop. None of this stuff was all that exciting, but it did remind me of Plus! Sync & Go, which offers news and music video and audio channels for the Pocket PC. I hadn't look at it since early 2003, so I loaded up an iPAQ 5450 with a 256 MB SD card and Windows Mobile 2003, synched it with my notebook computer, and installed Plus! Sync & Go again.

My impressions are mixed. The application lets you sync video and audio content daily or weekly, depending on the content and the content provider, and the quality is certainly decent enough, given the limitations of the Pocket PC. But synchronization takes far too long over USB: I added the maximum five shows to the News group and started syncing, an operation that took well over 30 minutes. I suppose this is OK for many people, especially those who leave their Pocket PCs docked and auto-synching regularly. But I like to sync intermittently--and only one-way, from PC to device--and I find the constant chirping and activity that accompanies the auto-syncing to be annoying. Anyway, I did test the program on a few short trips to New York via Amtrak (the only way to travel; I'm heading to Washington D.C. on the Acela Express as I write this). It works well, and it's probably something I'd use daily if I had to commute, even if it meant dealing with the sync issues.

The big problem, however, is the content. The number of content providers has not changed at all since Plus! Sync & Go was first released, so we're stuck with the same paltry list of content providers we had back in January: Not a single new source of content has come on board. That stinks, and it make me wonder how long this service will even exist. Anyway, I've pretty much given up on it (Besides, what's the deal with KenRadio? Spare me).

Availability and system requirements

Plus! Digital Media Edition Update will be released to the Web on October 14, 2003, with retail packaging available soon thereafter. The product costs $20. It requires Windows XP and, optionally, a Pocket PC 2002 or 2003 hardware device (for Plus! Sync & Go), a printer (for Plus! CD Label Maker), Windows Media Player 9 Series (included) and Windows Movie Maker 2 (a free download). Plus! DME requires a 400 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM, according to Microsoft, but I recommend a system with double both of those for reasonable 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.

Conclusions

Microsoft Plus! Digital Media Edition for Windows XP is still a winner and a must-have for any XP user interested in digital photography, music, or movies. As before, Plus! Photo Story is the stand-out application, and the addition of Video CD (VCD) creation capabilities and project saving makes it even more valuable. If you haven't already explored this amazing application's capabilities, I urge you to do so now, as the inclusion of Plus! Photo Story again justifies the Plus! DME's purchase price. Other elements of Plus! DME will appeal to you--or not--based on your needs, I suppose. For example, the new Plus! Dancers are fun, but not my scene; and commuters with Pocket PC devices will definitely want to look into Plus! Sync & Go, despite a decided lack of new content choices since the service first launched in January. Overall, it's a fun and useful collection of applications, and yet another way in which Microsoft has positively enhanced the XP experience since that product's launch two years ago. Highly recommended.