When Microsoft launched the "wave 3" version of its Windows Live Essentials suite back in January (see my review), one big piece of the puzzle was missing: Windows Live Movie Maker, a major reworking of the underappreciated but excellent Windows Movie Maker application from Windows XP days (see my review of Movie Maker 2), was still woefully incomplete and in beta form.

Well, with the release of the final shipping version of Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0, those days are behind us. And what we see is a product that is much more in keeping with the lofty expectations that were established with its predecessors, but reimagined for the needs of today. It's the right movie editing and sharing solution at the right time, and if you've been collecting short home movies and scads of photos but weren't clear on how you could get them in front of friends and family in a quick and easy but high quality way, look no further.

Not your father's video editor

The very first version of Windows Movie Maker--part of the ill-fated Windows Me--may have had the right idea, as it was a stripped-down product that offered only a small set of features due to the fact that mainstream Windows users simply weren't video editing experts. However, Apple trounced Microsoft by unexpectedly shipping its first version of iMovie, setting the stage for a feature war that would engulf the next couple of Movie Maker versions. Windows Movie Maker 2 went on to be a much better video editing package than anything Apple offered at the time, though few people realized it.

But there was a more general issue: Video editing was and still is difficult and time consuming. And while consumer-oriented video editing can reach up into the realm of more professional solutions, as Apple has done now and then with iMovie, why bother? The potential market for such applications is tiny.

With Windows Live Movie Maker, Microsoft has started again from scratch, both technically and thematically. The application is essentially all-new and aimed at what Microsoft sees as the sweet spot of the market: People who want to take photos and short home videos and combine them into 2-to-3 minute movies they can easily share with others. These videos need to be high quality and professional looking, but they need to be made quickly and easily. And they have to work with the video sharing sites people are really using.

"It's too complicated to share photos and movies with people," Windows Live group product manager Charlotte Jones told me in a recent briefing. "Windows Live Movie Maker is designed to take your photos and movies, merge them together, and create a polished movie that you can share with others. We make it really easy."

This change in focus maps to what's going on in the consumer electronics market. Today, many people have a camera of some kind with them at all times, typically in their cell phone. When they go on vacation, they bring a better quality camera or maybe a tiny handheld video camera like the popular Flip HD camcorders. But when it comes to sharing, video is where photography was ten years ago: It's easy to capture, but difficult to edit. And while people are familiar and comfortable with video sharing sites like YouTube, most of the video there is unprofessional and painful to watch.

Using Windows Live Movie Maker

When you consider what it does, Windows Live Movie Maker is arguably as simple as it can be. The UI is logically split between a full-featured ribbon-type toolbar (which is much more impressive than the ribbon UIs in either Paint or WordPad in Windows 7), a video preview pane, and a content pane.

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

As you drag content into the application, it appears as clips in the content pane in a storyboard-style view. You can drag and drop clips to order them and can mix and match videos with photos. From here, you can proceed manually and discover some of the application's more advanced features, which we'll examine below.

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

AutoMovie

Or you can simply click the AutoMovie button to quickly make a final, polished movie that includes a title, credits, and simple crossfade transitions between each clip. It can also optionally fit the length of the video to a song (or other audio track) of your choosing.

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

When the AutoMovie process is complete--it's surprisingly fast, even on large projects--you can edit the title and credits, which causes a new context-sensitive Text Tools tab group to appear in Movie Maker's ribbon. Editing each is as simple as can be expected, and most people will be up and running in no time.

Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0

Continue to Part 2 of the Windows Live Movie Maker review...