Over the years, Microsoft has slowly added pervasive digital media functionality to its Windows operating systems. The unfairly maligned Windows Millennium Edition (Me, see my review) release was the first to include such digital media technologies as the all-in-one Windows Media Player (WMP) 7 (see my review) and Windows Movie Maker. Subsequent versions of these programs are more interesting and powerful, and of course Microsoft has imbued Windows Vista with its most sophisticated digital media solutions yet. Sadly, the company's first DVD movie making effort, the predictably named Windows DVD Maker, is as lackluster as were the first versions of WMP and Movie Maker.

Understanding Windows DVD Maker

Windows DVD Maker is a simple, wizard-based application for creating DVD movies that consist of one of more videos and/or a single photo slideshow with optional musical accompaniment. As such, it's both incredibly easy to use and pretty limited. Both of these were by design: As it did with other digital media activities, Microsoft moved very slowly and cautiously into DVD making out of the belief that most consumers would simply be too confused by an application that duplicated the functionality of commercial DVD making solutions. Compared to Apple's iDVD '08 application, for example, Windows DVD Maker is almost laughably unsophisticated.

Sobering reality: Microsoft really shouldn't get much credit for getting into DVD movie making at this point in time, if only because the market is already moving away from this form of movie delivery. The latest versions of Apple's iLife suite of digital media applications deemphasize iDVD in favor of digital movie distribution via Web sites. Given the widespread penetration of broadband Internet and multiple PC households, this seems like the way to go, even for near-HD quality movies. Six years ago, when Apple debuted the first version of the iLife suite, DVD-based movie delivery made a lot more sense than it does now. That Microsoft has responded to the need for DVD making so slowly and in such a primitive fashion is somewhat unnerving if you look to the company for any sort of leadership in digital media matters.

Despite its limitations, Windows DVD Maker isn't a horrible solution for creating simple DVD movies that will play on virtually any PC or DVD player, assuming you're using a relatively modern DVD writer with compatible write-once DVD media (DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+R DL, or DVD-R DL).

Using Windows DVD Maker

To access Windows DVD Maker, find the Windows DVD Maker shortcut in the Start Menu or type dvd in the Start Menu Search box. Note that Windows DVD Maker is only available in two versions of Windows Vista, Home Premium and Ultimate. If you have Vista Home Basic, Business, or Enterprise, you will not be able to run DVD Maker. Furthermore, if Windows DVD Maker detects that you do not have a compatible DVD writer, it will not start.

Note: There are numerous other ways to start Windows DVD Maker. There are links to this application from within Windows Movie Maker and Windows Photo Gallery, for example. And if you've previously created a Windows DVD Maker project, discussed below, you can double-click the project's icon to start DVD Maker as well.

In the first phase of the Windows DVD Maker wizard, you can select the photos and videos you wish to add to the DVD, a 32-character title for the DVD, and various DVD Maker options. You can add any number of videos to a DVD, assuming the total running time is less than 150 minutes for a single-layer recordable DVD or 300 minutes for a dual-layer DVD. Any photos you add to the DVD are collected into a single photo slideshow, which, along with an option soundtrack of one or more audio files, is treated like a video. (You can only have one photo slideshow per DVD.) The amount of time the videos and photos you've added is displayed as a pie chart in the lower left corner of the window.

Using the application's simple toolbar, you can rearrange the order of videos on the DVD and add and remove items. The single File menu lets you save a work in progress as a Windows DVD Maker Project, or re-load a previous project.

The Windows DVD Maker Options window, available via the Options link the lower right corner of the application's window, provides just a few simple settings: The DVD can begin with a standard DVD menu, play the videos in order one time and then end on the DVD menu, or play the videos in order in a continuous loop until the user intervenes. (Windows DVD Maker does not support sub-menus of any kind.) You can choose between 4:3 and 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratios, and NTSC and PAL video formats. And you can make a few changes related to your DVD writer. (Photo slideshow options are made available in the next step for some reason.)

In the next phase of the wizard, Windows DVD Maker presents a handful of menu styles along with a preview of what the DVD menu will look like with the currently-applied style. There are 20 pre-built menu styles, some of which are decent. (None are particularly outstanding.)

You can perform a surprising number of other actions from this phase of the wizard, including:

Preview. This options presents a software-based DVD player simulator so you can see how the DVD menu will look when the DVD is complete. This is particularly useful for the animated menus, and you see how and where video previews are played.

Edit menu text. Here, you can edit both the content and style of text that is displayed on the DVD menu. This includes the font used, the disc title (pulled from the previous phase), the text used on the Play button, the text used on the Scenes button, and the text used for the optional Notes button. You can also supply Notes text, which appears on a special sub-page that's accessed when a user press the Notes button in the menu.

(Secret: Windows DVD Maker allows only 256 characters of Notes text.)

Customize the menu. Here, you can customize the style of the DVD menu and choose which videos appear in the foreground and background of the menu. You can also choose an audio file to play in the background while the menu is playing, and the style of menu buttons to use (these vary somewhat based on what menu style you chose). The Font option you see here is identical to the one in the previous option and affects the same onscreen text.

Set photo slideshow options. Here, finally, you can customize the single photo slideshow that DVD Maker allows. Options include the music that plays while the slideshow displays; you can add and remove music from here if you forgot to do so back in the first phase of the wizard, and can change the playing order. You can also optionally match the length of the slideshow to the length of the music you've chosen. (This can dramatically impact the amount of time each photo is displayed, however.) Other options include the length of time to display each photo (7 seconds by default), the type of transition to use (cross fade, cut, dissolve, flip, insert, page curl, pixelate, random, or wipe), and whether to use Media Center-style pan and zoom effects. There's even a handy Preview button so you can see how the changes you make effect the final slideshow.

Now, you can choose to burn the disc or cancel. If you choose cancel, you're prompted to save the DVD as a Windows DVD Maker project. You can later reload this project into DVD Maker and edit it further or burn it to disc. DVD Maker projects are saved to the hidden Videos folder by default, but can be saved anywhere.

Tip: While you probably realize that making a DVD is a time consuming processs, you might not understand the disc space requirements. To burn a single layer DVD movie, DVD Maker requires at least 5 GB of free hard drive space. A dual layer disc requires at least 10 GB of free space. You'll get best results with a faster hard drive, of course.

Final thoughts

Windows DVD Maker isn't particularly sophisticated and provides only the most basic DVD making functionality. You can't add sub-menus, or more than a single photo slideshow, and of course the application is limited to the video, photo, and audio formats that are supported by Windows Media Player. It's better than nothing, yes. But you might need to turn to commercial alternatives for more and better functionality. Or simply forego DVDs and look to online sharing options like YouTube, MSN Soapbox, and the like.

Additionally, Windows DVD Maker, and Windows Vista in general, does not supply a number of other valuable DVD-related features. It does not include a way to copy DVD movies to the hard drive or burn ISO files to DVD, for example. So while Microsoft has continually added new digital media features to Windows, there is still much work to be done. From the perspective of third party developers, these holes are opportunities. But for users of Windows, they just represent more work to be done, and perhaps more money to be paid. Windows DVD Maker is a lackluster solution at best.

Secret: DVD Maker project files are simple XML files that can be hand-edited if desired.