For a few years now, I've been able to comfortably recommend Windows-based systems to all kinds of users, for every conceivable computing task, with just one small caveat: Apple's Macintosh systems were always better than Windows when it came to digital video editing. And because Apple set its sights on the so-called digital hub, with digital media and home networking applications receiving special attention, I've felt that the Macintosh--especially the DVD-burning iMac that debuted early this year--should be on the evaluation list of anyone looking for a home PC that might be used to work with digital video, audio, or photos.

Now, I'm not so sure. With recent digital media-related releases from Microsoft, the company's Windows XP system has finally pulled well ahead of the Mac in digital video, and it's always been a superior system for digital photos and music. And an inexpensive third party release brings elegant, beautiful DVD movie making capabilities to XP as well. Is this end of Apple's advantage? Let's take a look at the applications and technologies that are bringing Windows XP into the forefront of the digital video revolution.

Windows Media 9 Series

Currently in the almost-final "release candidate" stage, Microsoft's Windows Media 9 Series brings with it a new version of Windows Media Player (WMP), WMP 9 and new audio and video codecs, or formats, called Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 and Windows Media Video (WMV) 9. I've already reviewed Windows Media 9 Series, but suffice to say that while Microsoft's latest player is the best yet, it's the codecs that make this technology impressive. Thanks to new compression capabilities, you can now rip CD audio and create home movies that take up far less space than is possible on a Mac. For example, you can store 1 to 1.5 hours of full-resolution (720 x 480) WMV 9 video in just a gigabyte of hard disk space. With the Mac, you can store only 6 minutes of full resolution digital video per gigabyte. And the quality is as good as better than what you see on the Mac. What WMV 9 enables is the ability to create video libraries on your hard drive, in the same way that you might with digital photos and audio. This is impossible on the Mac because the underlying video technology it uses doesn't offer low bitrate, high-quality encoding at native resolutions.

The Release Candidate 1 (RC1) build of Windows Media Player 9, which includes the WMA 9 and WMV 9 codecs, is available for download from the Microsoft Web site.

Windows Movie Maker 2

High quality video codecs with good compression are nice, but that's just technology. What you need to take advantage of WMV 9 is a video editing package, and XP's bundled Windows Movie Maker (WMM) application has always been the butt of jokes in this department, though I've often defended the product for its simple video capture interface. Microsoft is changing all that with a new WMM version, WMM 2, which not only surpasses the Apple iMovie competition, but moves the video editing state of the art to an all new level.

Currently available as a public beta release, WMM 2 is visually similar to its predecessor, but it is far more powerful. The application is divided into four main areas, including a new Movie Tasks pane, which features simple task-based links for capturing video, editing your movies, finishing (or saving) your movies, and various movie-making tips. The old Collections pane is still available as a toggle; when you enable it, the Movie Tasks pane disappears, and vice versa. The Collections pane is used to organize your movie library and contain the video you capture from a DV camera and other sources. In the center of the application is the Collections view; this displays the video and audio clips, bitmaps and other resources that make up the currently selected collection. On the right is the newly-resizable preview window. On the bottom is the familiar Timeline/Storyboard pane, which also has a bunch of new features.

The goal with WMM 2 is to make it simple to capture, edit, and create movies. Microsoft has found--and this has been my experience as well--that consumers have good intentions when it comes to home video, but the reality is that editing video is hard. So for average users--i.e. most people--WMM 2 will automate literally every step of the video editing process. More advanced users can tweak those results or simply choose to slog through the process manually as before. In this way, WMM 2 is one of those rare applications that works equally well with experts and newcomers alike.

Let's walk through a typical WMM 2 movie creation process. First, you need to capture your raw video footage, typically from a camcorder. Unlike iMovie, WMM 2 supports analog and digital video, so any video (and/or audio) source you can connect to your PC is automatically supported. WMM 2 includes a new Capture from Video Device wizard that completely automates this process, and you can almost import video, pictures, audio, or music from your hard drive as well.

Once the video is imported, WMM 2 splits it in clips and creates a collection, as before. But now your options have been exponentially expanded. WMM 2 includes over 130 new effects, titles, and transitions (compared to just 1 in WMM 1, and about 27 in iMovie) and all of them are professional-looking and of high quality. But we're not going to get into manual labor this time. Instead, let's take a quick look at WMM2's exciting new AutoMovie feature, which uses technology from Microsoft Research to analyze your video clips and create a professionally edit movie that includes the best parts of each scene you selected. It sounds impossible, but AutoMovie does an amazing job, effectively taking away the one major barrier to video editing. And because it supports various movie types--Flip and Slide, with cool video transitions; Highlights Movie for the traditionalist; Music Video, for a movie that syncs edits to beats of the underlying song, which you get to pick; Old Movie, which uses film age and sepia tone effects; and Sports Highlights, which uses quick editing techniques and zooms--chances are, you'll be happy with the results. I've been making music video versions of my home movies all week, and the effect is simply stunning. It's amazing how different types of music can change the overall feel of the video.

Running AutoMovie doesn't necessarily mean you're done: If you want, you can go back and edit an AutoMovie as you would any other movie. That means you can change titles, transitions, whatever, all after the fact. This makes WMM2 a compelling solution for beginners and advanced users alike.

However you've edited the movie, once you're done editing, you can save the final product. WMM2 offers a number of options in this area, many of which address limitations with the previous WMM version. Just select File and Save Movie File, and you're presented with the stunningly simple Save Movie Wizard, which offers choices such as My computer, Recordable CD, E-mail, The Web, and DV camera. For the highest quality, you might choose My computer, which automatically selects "Best quality for playback on my computer," or lets you choose from various parameters, including fit to file size or a list of quality ratings from 48 Kbps all the way up to 2.1 Mbps. If you choose this last option, the wizard displays critical information such as bit rate, display size, and so on, allowing more technical users to understand what they're getting into. The other Save Movie choices are similar. If you select the Web, you are given choices such as Dial-up modem, ISDN, and DSL/Cable Modem, or allowed to select from more technical choices.

One option WMM2 doesn't offer is write to DVD, and that's because integrated DVD writing isn't due until the next Windows version. Microsoft tells me, however, that all recordable DVDs come with DVD movie making software, and that WMV9 is compatible with virtually all of these products. That's been my experience as well. However, until recently, most of these products were pretty unexciting. Not coincidentally, I'd like to discuss a superior DVD movie maker next.

Sonic MyDVD 4

At the PC Expo trade show in June 2002, I got my first look at Sonic MyDVD 4, a consumer-oriented package for creating DVD (and CD-based) movies. Previous versions of MyDVD were decent, but not exceptional. The new version, however, is best-of-breed. It features a Windows XP-styled user interface that looks like something Microsoft would have built, almost overly simple tools for adding movies, photo slideshows and sub-menus to a disc-based movie, and a set of decent-looking and extensible themes that even include motion menus, ala Apple iDVD.

For people that wish to use MyDVD 4 as a complete solution, Sonic includes basic capture tools and a bundled copy of ArcSoft Showbiz, previously my favorite PC-based video editing tool. But when combined with WMM2 and the underlying Windows Media 9 Series technologies, these tools become a one-two knockout punch to consumer-oriented video editing and creation. MyDVD 4 couldn't be simpler: You can drag and drp your WMM2-created movies directly onto a menu in MyDVD 4, or just select the Get Movies button. Each movie gets its own button, along with a still frame from the underlying movie, and you can even select which frame in the movie represents the button, a nice touch.

Creating photo slideshows are just as easy, though you might arguably just use WMM2 for that task: Select the Add slideshow button, select your photos, choose which photo to use as the button image, add an option musical background, and you're done. You can also optionally select the slide duration, the types of transition to use between each photo, and which background color to use, since the aspect ration of most photos will leave blank space on the top and bottom (or left and right) of the screen.

As you add content to the disc, a small graphic in the lower left of the application window displays the available space, so you always know where you stand. You can preview your creation in the application before burning to disk, and change themes on the fly. You can even create your own themes if you'd like. One small limitation is that the graphical links to sub-menus are not editable, in the sense that you can't apply an image to these buttons. That's a shame, and the product's one glaring omission.

One final note on MyDVD 4: The product includes an intriguing technology called OpenDVD, that lets you store special information on the DVDs and CDs you create that can be used later to re-edit, and reburn, your creations. That way, you can create a disc and then later choose to change it, even if you lose your MyDVD project on the hard disk.

MyDVD 4 costs about $50, or $70 for the version that includes Showbiz, and it's highly recommended for anyone looking for a simple and elegant way to create DVD movies on the PC.