1995 was a golden year, both for Microsoft, and for those testing its products. The company was prepping Windows 95 (codenamed Chicago and previously known as Windows 4.0), of course, but also a slew of add-on products such as Office 95 and the initial proprietary online service MSN, the Microsoft Network. Early that summer, a surprise package appeared: The first beta of something called Plus! for Windows 95, a collection of applications that made Windows 95 more useful and fun. Some saw Plus! as a fluffy and unnecessary add-on, and while there was certainly some truth to that, I figured that anything that makes the computing experience more enjoyable has to be at least somewhat worthwhile.
In the intervening years, Microsoft has released various Plus! packs, some of which were issued alongside specific Windows versions, others that were released on their own. These Plus! packs all had certain things in common: They were generally inexpensive, certainly optional, and they usually included at least one or two gems, especially if you're the type of person who enjoys visual enhancements like themes, desktop wallpapers, and the like.
With Windows Vista, Microsoft has sadly elected to discontinue its use of Plus! packs. Instead, the company has created a new collection of downloadable add-ons for Windows Vista called Windows Ultimate Extras. As the name implies, Windows Ultimate Extras is only available to owners of Windows Vista Ultimate, the most expensive Windows Vista product edition. And that's a problem: With previous Plus! packs, any Windows user could opt-in. Now, you have to pay for the Full Meal Deal (i.e. Ultimate edition) before you even qualify. I understand the need to differentiate Vista Ultimate and justify its higher price. But it seems that you could at least make the Extras available to other Vista users at a price. Common sense.
If you can get over the requirements, however, the Ultimate Extras map pretty closely to previous Plus! packs. There are fun but pointless utilities like DreamScene, which provides an animated desktop background. And there are the truly useful utilities, like the Windows BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool, which arguably should be an integrated part of BitLocker, and not an Extra.
In any event, let's break down the available Extras into logical categories and see what we've got.
Plus! packs have often included games--indeed, some Plus! packs consisted only of games--and Ultimate Extras, predictably, offers at least a single game.
Hold 'Em Poker
Originally intended as one of the new Premium Games Microsoft offers in Windows Vista Ultimate and Premium, Hold 'Em was pulled out and added to Ultimate Extras 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." Technically, Hold 'Em Poker requires the same low-end PC that the built-in games require: It requires a PC with a Windows Experience Index rating of 1.0, and recommends one with a score of 2.0. That's budget PC territory, so no one should have any issues running this game title.
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 version--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.
While previous Plus! packs offered fun desktop utilities like new desktop themes, animated cursors, and high-quality desktop wallpapers, Windows Ultimate Extras turns it up a notch with a utility that Windows users have been asking about for years: Now we'll find out whether anyone will really use this thing.
Windows DreamScene (tm)
Codenamed Motion Desktop, the new (and, yes, trademarked) Windows DreamScene utility allows you to assign virtually any video file as an animated desktop. Any MPEG or WMV (Windows Media Video) will work just fine, meaning you can use that less-than-stellar home video from Disneyworld if you're so inclined. But 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. (Or, as is the case during the currently-available preview, the single video that Microsoft supplies.) You can also select any compatible videos from Videos, Public Videos, and other locations.
So is DreamScene a fun add-on or annoying eye candy? That will vary from person to person, but I'm guessing I'm going to grow tired of it pretty quickly. What I've noticed is that subtly-changing videos work best: Any home movie is likely to be too shaky or annoying.
DreamScene requires the Windowsuser interface, which shouldn't be much an issue for most Vista Ultimate users.
While the desktop utility category discussed above includes tools that are visual in nature and affect the day-to-day use of the PC, system utilities are generally more technical in nature and used only occasionally. That said, some of these tools can be lifesavers, which makes me wonder, yet again, why users of other Vista versions can't get their hands on Ultimate Extras.
Windows BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool
As I noted in my review of Windows Vista, Windows BitLocker--which provides full-disk drive encryption and security functionality--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, it turns out that Microsoft agrees. The Windows BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool is the exact utility I was asking for: 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. Halleluiah. I just have one concern: Why the heck isn't this just part of Windows?
Secure Online Key Backup
A second system utility, Secure Online Key Backup (SOKB), also provides additional useful functionality for BitLocker. More specifically, it lets you backup BitLocker's recovery password--as well as your recovery certificate for the Encrypting File System, or EFS, if you're using that feature as well--at 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 feature. It also makes BitLocker more approachable to individuals.
In keeping with the fun theme, the Ultimate Extras also include at least one utility that will appeal to digital media enthusiasts. And this one looks like a doozy.
GroupShot (Not Yet Released)
Revealed during the Bill Gates keynote at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), GroupShot is, perhaps, the ultimate ... ah, Ultimate Extra. It's got everything an Extra should have: Backed by Microsoft Research technologies, GroupShot is both fun and useful.
So what is it? Let's see how Microsoft's Justin Hutchinson described GroupShot during the Gates keynote, during which he demonstrated the application. "Now my problem with photos is not necessarily technology, it's not that I can edit them, and organize them, or share them, I can't take a picture to save my life," he said. "I'm always cutting people's heads off, or I'm catching people, like in this case, with their eyes closed. So here I have two pictures. In this one her eyes are closed, in this one his eyes are closed. What I want to do is put both of these pictures together into one good picture. So GroupShot is going to let me do that. I simply select here, take the good part of this picture, I go back here and take the good part of this picture. Now GroupShot didn't fix these pictures, it created the picture I wish I would have taken. Pretty cool."
It's worth nothing that, at this point, the audience broke out into one of the few instances of spontaneous and real applause that occurred during the entire keynote. GroupShot, you see, just looks excellent.
By the way, you can download GroupShot now from Microsoft Research, whether you have Windows Vista or not. What a concept.
Given the paucity of Extras, and the overwhelming feeling that some of these should have simply been included in more Vista versions, the Windows Ultimate Extras aren't exactly a slam dunk: I don't see anything absolutely essential here, though the BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool is certainly useful (and GroupShot is, of course, a winner, assuming it's ever released). We'll see if anything more compelling turns up over time, as Microsoft has pledged to ship more Extras in the months ahead. Let's hope some of them help justify Vista Ultimate's high price: Until then, this package of Extras is decidedly mediocre. What a disappointing start.