Microsoft has been bolstering the digital media prowess of its flagship operating system since the earliest versions, but the really significant changes came in the wake of Windows 95, which was the first Windows version to support full-motion video. Few remember it, but Windows Millennium Edition (ME) was the first to specifically address modern trends around digital media, and this Windows version included support for features we take for granted today, like sophisticated digital image acquisition, photo management, a multi-function Windows Media Player, a video editing package called Windows Movie Maker, and various low-level DirectX technologies.

These and other technologies were enhanced over the next few Windows releases, most obviously via several releases of Windows XP Media Center, which extended the Windows family of products to the living room and home theater. Today, Windows 7 includes the latest versions of Microsoft's core digital media technologies, its shell-based digital media management features, and its various media applications. Combined with the rapid growth of web-based and other online media services, Windows 7 provides the best environment, to date, for enjoying various forms of digital media content.

Here's what you get.


Library support

As you probably know, the new Windows 7 Library feature aggregates content from around your PC, home network, and elsewhere, and this new UI construct replaces the special shell folders from previous Windows versions. There are four libraries built-into Windows 7 (you're free to add any number of your own), and three of the four--Music, Pictures, and Videos--are designed specifically to manage digital media.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Libraries provide quick access to all the digital media on your PC.

Libraries expose themselves in the Start Menu (all but Videos are displayed there by default) and in the new default Windows Explorer window. In the case of the three digital media-oriented libraries, each aggregates content from a folder location within your user's home folder (My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos, respectively) as well as a second folder in the Public home folder (Public Music, Public Pictures, and Public Videos). You can of course modify these locations as you see fit. So if you prefer to keep your digital media and other content on another hard drive, or on a network share, simply point the libraries at those locations instead.

Libraries also integrate nicely with the built-in Windows 7 media applications, which are described below. In previous versions of Windows, applications like Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center would maintain their own separate lists of monitored folders, from which they would obtain content. In Windows 7, these applications utilize libraries for this purpose.

HomeGroup sharing

While Windows 7 supports old-school sharing of network-based content, Windows 7 adds a dramatically easier sharing feature called HomeGroup that facilitates the sharing of documents, printers, and, yes, digital media content between your various PCs. All you need to do is enable HomeGroup sharing on one Windows 7-based PC, configure a password, and then join the Homegroup from the other Windows 7-based PCs on your home network. And then you're good to go. (You can't join a Homegroup from a PC based on an earlier Windows version.)

HomeGroup integrates with the Libraries feature described previously, which makes sense: Aside from printer sharing, all of the content you share over a Homegroup is managed via a library anyway. Consider the abstraction here. On any and all of your PCs, you may have various music, photo, and video files that are scattered all over the hard drive, but thanks to the Libraries feature, it's all conveniently aggregated into single views, one each for Music, Photos, and Videos. When it comes to accessing that content over the home network, HomeGroup makes it just as easy: Each PC appears as a separate icon under the Homegroup heading in the Explorer navigation pane. And when you select another PC in your Homegroup, you see the familiar interface to that PC's libraries. Nice!

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
You can easily access content over your home network using the new HomeGroup functionality.

HomeGroups only work on a local home network, so you can't share content with other HomeGroup-based PCs over the public Internet. But this isn't a huge limitation and, as you will see below, one of the bundled media applications in Windows 7 provides this functionality anyway.

Windows Media Player 12

Despite its name, Windows Media Player 12 is the sixth major release of Microsoft's all-in-one jukebox application. (The first, as noted above, debuted in Windows ME. It was called Windows Media Player 7.) WMP 12 dispenses with the bloat that plagued some previous Media Player versions and presents a simpler, Windows 7-inspired UI.

WMP 12 also integrates nicely with the new Libraries in Windows 7, so all of the music content you see--your "music library"--will literally come from your Music library. Ditto for Videos and Pictures.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Windows Media Player 12.

The integration pieces with the underlying OS don't end there. Windows 7 supports the new Windows 7 taskbar nicely with a mouse-over preview window that accurately portrays what's going on in the Media Player window and provides simple playback controls. This is handy when you're listening to audio in WMP 12 but working in another application; rather than switch over to WMP 12 to change playback, you can simply mouse-over the WMP 12 taskbar button and use those transport controls instead.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Windows Media Player integration with the taskbar.

WMP 12 also provides a customized Windows 7 jump list, with an automatically-generated list of frequently-accessed content (you can pin items you particularly like) and a handful of simple tasks (like "Resume previous list" and "Play all music").

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Windows Media Player Jump List.

It seems like a basic thing, but content playback has improved dramatically in this release. WMP 12 sports a new Now Playing view that provides a minimalistic user interface during playback where the player itself gets out of the way. For music, the view is a mini window with just the album art for the current song displayed; if you mouse over the window, you get a selection of playback and volume controls.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Now Playing view: Music.

Video playback is even more impressive. When you play a digital video file, WMP jumps automatically into the new Now Playing mode and resizes to the size of the actual video. (You can jump into full screen playback easily enough by clicking a button.)

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Now Playing view: Video.

Insert a DVD and it's even more seamless. In this case, WMP 12 moves instantly into full-screen playback and starting playing the title. There are also improvements around battery life efficiency and DVD playback in Windows 7 so you can see more of your movies on the go.

Under the covers, WMP (and Media Center, below) support a much more complete and diverse collection of multimedia formats. Specifically, Microsoft has added support for the popular H.264/AVC and MPEG-4 video formats as well as the AAC audio format. (All of which rose to fame courtesy of Apple and its iPod, iPhone, and iTunes products.) All of Microsoft's media products also support the versions of QuickTime/MOV that are most frequently used in digital cameras.

Microsoft offers various ways to share media to and from WMP, which is actually pretty interesting. Windows 7, of course, already provides the functionality for sharing media between PCs. And you can access shared media libraries, as you'd expect, from within Windows Media Player: Just select a library from Other Libraries in WMP 12's navigation pane, navigate through the available content, and have fun.

When it comes to sharing, however, this is where Windows 7 is only getting started. In addition to this traditional media sharing capability, WMP 12 provides a few interesting twists. First, if you have a compatible media device on your home network--like an Xbox 360--you can "push" a media stream to that device using Media Player. In this scenario, called Play To, WMP is like the front-end management interface and the media device is used solely for playback. That way, if your music collection is on your PC, you can manage a playlist for a party or whatever there, but have it playback on the best stereo in the house.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
With Play To, you can stream music to compatible devices.

WMP 12 also supports a new feature called Remote Media Streaming that lets you stream media from PC to PC over the Internet. Both PCs have to be members of the same Homegroup for this to work, and I've had spotty results, no doubt because of router/firewall issues. (There is also a host of sharing configuration changes to make on both the sending and receiving PCs, as well as a separate install for the Windows Live linked ID provider.) But when it does work, it's pretty magical.

Windows Media Center

After several years of constant improvements, development of Windows Media Player appeared to stall in Windows Vista. In that release, the user interface was only partially overhauled, and while there were promises that Microsoft would continue that work, it never happened. Oddly enough, it still hasn't happened: While the Windows 7 version of Windows Media Center has a slightly evolved user interface, the underlying screens, especially in Settings, retain their old, Windows XP style. I'm not sure what to make of that. But fortunately, there have been other improvements.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Windows Media Center.

Under the covers, it supports the same media formats as Windows Media Player, so you get AAC and H.264 playback capabilities, which is increasingly essential. It provides access to more TV tuner types and more physical TV tuners than before, and there's a weak (but better than nothing) Internet TV feature that provides streaming access to a small collection of TV shows, movie trailers, and other content. (Bonus round: You can watch every episode of Arrested Development, one of the best shows to ever grace TV. That's right, Arrested Development is now a Windows 7 feature.)

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
With Internet TV, you can access a limited amount of online content.

Of more interest, perhaps, the Windows 7 version of Media Center dispenses with what had been the technology's Achilles Heel. Now, anyone can add CableCard capabilities to a Media Center-based PC after the fact--before, you had to buy the PC preconfigured with this functionality--making it possible to use a Windows 7-based PC to control an HDTV-based cable system. (As you can with TiVo, for example.) This makes Media Center a lot more interesting again, and I'm looking forward to using this capability with my FIOS service in the months ahead.

Windows DVD Maker

Windows 7 includes the same basic DVD movie creator that Microsoft first included with Windows Vista. It's a surprisingly lazy update given how much the other digital media features have been improved.

Get more digital media tools with Windows Live Essentials

While Windows Vista included a photo management application called Windows Photo Gallery and a video editing application called Windows Movie Maker, Microsoft has removed both of these solutions from Windows 7, opting instead to ship them as part of the free Windows Live Essentials suite. But as noted previously in this review, I consider Windows Live Essentials to literally be an essential part of Windows 7, and since many PC makers will simply preinstall this solution on their machines, we will consider the digital media solutions it provides here.

There are two, Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker, and they are both excellent.

Windows Live Photo Gallery provides features for organizing, editing, and sharing your digital photos. It provides pretty standard management features, simple editing functionality, and integration with Microsoft's Windows Live Photos and Spaces services. (And, via third party add-ons, more popular photo services like Flickr, Google Picasa Web Albums, and others.) Advanced functionality includes people tagging and panoramic photo stitching.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Windows Live Photo Gallery.

One downside is that because Windows Live Photo Gallery is designed to work with Windows XP and Vista as well, it doesn't integrate directly with the Windows 7 libraries. Instead, it essentially emulates how the libraries work by monitoring the My Pictures, My Videos, Public Music, and Public Videos folders for photo (and home movie) content. You can configure the application to monitor other folders too, but if you already did this with the Pictures or Videos libraries, you'll need to do it again here.

(If you don't have Windows Live Photo Gallery installed, Windows 7 provides a very basic Windows Photo Viewer application so you can at least view photos. There's also a shell-based slideshow viewer that's barely worth mentioning.)

Unlike Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Movie Maker is not actually based on its Vista-based predecessor. Instead, it's a brand new application, developed from scratch to meet the needs of a certain popular market. (That is, movies that will be shared via web-based services like YouTube.) What's been lost is the ability to import video from digital video sources like DV camcorders.

What's left, however, is surprisingly good. Windows Live Movie Maker provides a simple interface, excellent editing capabilities, and a nice AutoMovie feature that will combine photos and music into a finished slideshow movie.

Windows 7 Digital Media Features
Windows Live Movie Maker.

Windows Live Movie Maker can create high-definition and standard definition movies and integrates directly with YouTube for sharing purposes. It can output to Windows DVD Maker if you prefer the old-school route.

Final thoughts

There are other digital media improvements under the hood in Windows, including a more easily configured Sound control panel and integrated support for HDMI audio. But for most people, the big picture is literally the big picture, and with features like Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Movie Maker, and pervasive media aggregation and sharing, Windows 7 really delivers. If you're a digital media buff--and these days, who isn't?--Windows 7 is the best Windows version yet.

Continue to Part 9: Mobility and Touch...