The original version of Windows Movie Maker (WMM), which shipped as part of Windows Millennium Edition (Me, see my review) was a victim of bad timing: Just before Windows Me shipped, Apple released a far more advanced tool called iMovie that was, at the time, part of Mac OS X. (iMovie is no longer free with OS X, however: Now you must purchase it as part of the $80 iLife suite of applications.) Microsoft's goals for the original version of WMM were far less adventurous than what Apple accomplished with iMovie: It had only simple editing capabilities, and was really aimed at the low end of the video market. Microsoft told me at the time that WMM was originally designed to meet the needs of its customers at the time, but because Apple's solution was so much better, it suffered from poor reviews and unfair charges that WMM was somehow copying iMovie.

A year and a half later, Microsoft shipped Windows Movie Maker 1.1 as part of Windows XP (see my XP Home and Professional review). WMM 1.1 was a big improvement, with support for AVI and DV video and Microsoft's WMV 8 video codecs. However, it wasn't until a year later than WMM finally came of age with Windows Movie Maker 2 (see my review): This version put iMovie to shame with over 130 titles, transitions, and effects, an AutoMovie feature for auto-magically generating finished home movies from raw footage, and numerous new options for sharing movies. It's still an exceptional program today.

Microsoft includes Windows Movie Maker 6 in Windows Vista. WMM 6 includes all of the features and functionality you remember from WMM 2, along with some unique new features that make it even more compelling. Let's take a look.

What's new in Windows Movie Maker 6

Unlike Windows Movie Maker 2, WMM 6 is a minor upgrade and thus features only a few major new features. Overall, WMM 6 should be familiar to existing WMM users and simple enough for new users to get started quickly.

Recorded TV support

For the first time, Windows Movie Maker supports Microsoft's Recorded TV format (DVR-MS, a weird format that basically wraps MPEG-2 in encrypted ASF), which is used by Windows Media Center. That means you can import Recorded TV shows into WMM, trim the beginning and ending, edit out commercials, and resave the show in a more space-efficient format (like WMV) to your hard drive, copy it to DVD, or even share it via the Internet.

The disk space savings can be immense: Half an hour of recorded TV in DVR-MS format occupies 1.6 to 1.8 GB of hard drive space. But the same show, encoded in WMV format, occupies just 200 to 250 MB of space and is visually almost identical.

The only problem with WMM's Recorded TV support is that the encoding process is time consuming. If you attempt to publish a half-hour show back to the computer in WMV format, it often takes about 40 minutes to encode. Also, you should note that shows that are protected with Broadcast Flag technology (everything on HBO and Cinemax, for example) cannot be edited (or converted to unprotected WMV).

HD support

When you publish an edited movie to the computer, you'll notice that the Publish Movie wizard looks very familiar but sports a few new options. You can still publish to DV-AVI and various WMV formats that are optimized for various scenarios. But now there are a few other new options, such as compressing to a specific disk size and optimizing for 4:3 and widescreen DVDs. And there are now three HD-compatible output profiles, Windows Media HD 720p (5.9 Mbps, 1280 x 720 at 30 frames per second), Windows Media HD for Xbox 360 (6.9 Mbps, 1280 x 720 at 30 fps), and Windows Media HD 1080p (7.8 Mbps, 1440 x 1080 at 30 fps).

These output profiles create files that are playable on most high end PCs, as well as DVD players that support WMV-HD (Good luck finding one of those). They're really only useful if the source material you're working with is in HD resolution to begin with. Those types of files, of course, will require a pretty high-end PC if you're going to be doing any editing.

Note that WMM's HD support is only available in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions. If you're using WMM in Windows Vista Home Basic, you'll only see output profiles for non-HD formats (including DV-AVI).

Windows DVD Maker integration

Now that Windows Vista includes a basic DVD movie making solution called Windows DVD Maker, Windows Movie Maker can output your edited movies directly to that application. To push an edited WMM 6 movie to DVD Maker, simply select DVD from the Publish to section of the WMM Tasks list. Windows DVD Maker will open up with your edited movie listed as the sole bit of content. From here, you can add other movies and pictures to DVD Maker, or just move on to the next step in this wizard-like application.

New effects and transitions

As you might expect, Windows Movie Maker 6 does include a number of new effects and transitions. There are 49 effects (up from less than 30 in WMM 2) and 63 transitions (up from about 60) overall in this version.

New effects include 3D Ripple; Edge Detection; Pan, Down and Zoom; Pan, Left to Right; Pan, Upper Left to Lower Right; Pan, Upper Left to Upper Right; Pan, Upper Right to Upper Left; Sharpen, and several others. Interestingly, WMM 6 drops a few WMM 2 effects, such as Smudge Stick.

New transitions include Bars, Vertical; Bow Tie, Horizontal; Diagonal, Box Out; Dissolve, Rough; and Whirlwind from top.

Fit and finish

Windows Movie Maker 6 has been spit-shined to look more like other Windows Vista digital media applications, such as Windows Media Player 11 and Windows Photo Gallery. (It also shares the same black toolbar that is used those and all of Vista's other digital media applications.) It sports a black and gray fascia with a redesigned toolbar that puts often-needed features like Import Media, AutoMovie, and Publish Movie right up front and center. That said, most of the WMM interface remains unchanged from the last version, which is just fine, since it was logically laid out before anyway. A handy Tasks list helps step you through the import, edit, and sharing phases of video production, and unlike many other Vista applications, the Classic Menus are on by default so you can drill into more advanced functionality.

Final thoughts

While it's impossible to describe Windows Movie Maker 6 as a major new version of this application, it is still a nice upgrade with some excellent new features. Recorded TV support, alone, is enough to get me excited, and anyone who uses Vista's Media Center functionality should likewise look into this feature. Is WMM 6 still superior to iMovie? In the years since WMM 2 first shipped, Apple has improved iMovie dramatically and the latest versions of this product offer stunning integration with the other iLife applications, nice themes, effects, titles, and transitions, and has finally caught up with some WMM functionality. Apple was also an early mover to HD technologies, and iMovie's support of HD movies seems more polished than what we see in WMM 6. That said, it's basically a draw: iMovie by itself isn't enough to make any home movie makers switch to the Mac, and WMM 6 is certainly a capable enough solution that can handle any home user's needs. This is an excellent tool that all Windows Vista users should investigate.