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Windows Vista Review, Part 5: Windows Vista Features: Digital Media Features

While the all-too-vocal critics of Windows Millennium Edition will tell you that Microsoft's last DOS-based Windows version was a dog, that release was notable for a number of other, more positive reasons. Among them was that Windows Me was the company's first stab at a truly consumer-oriented Windows version, one that embraced digital media technologies such photos, music, and video in a serious way for the first time. Since then, Microsoft has bolstered subsequent consumer versions of Windows, including the stellar Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (see my review) with even more powerful digital media tools. With Windows Vista, as you might expect, these capabilities have reached all-new levels. It's an exciting time to own a PC.

Digital Media Features

Windows Vista's digital media features fall into two categories. There are the brand new tools, such as Windows Photo Gallery and Windows DVD Maker, which have no true analog in previous Windows versions. Then there are other applications and features, like Windows Media Player 11, Windows Movie Maker, and Windows Media Center, which existed previously but have been significantly enhanced this time around. However you slice it, however, Windows Vista represents a significant upgrade for fans of digital media.

Vista also represents a retreat, of sorts, from the shell-based digital media management scheme that Microsoft relied on in Windows XP. So if you're used to managing your digital photo, video, and music collections via the shell, you're going to want to take some time to understand what's changed. You can still--sort of--perform these tasks in Windows Vista, albeit in a less elegant fashion that eschews the old XP folder styles--with integrated album art, photo images, and so---for Vista's less malleable folder types. But what you really should be doing is using the media management functionality in the new and improved Vista applications to perform these tasks. This new scheme is much closer to the approach Apple takes with its iLife suite for the Mac, in which individual applications like iPhoto and iMovie are used to work with specific media types.

So in Windows Vista, we now have Windows Photo Gallery for managing photos (and, curiously, videos). Windows Media Player 11 is used to manage music (and, for purposes of synchronizing this content with portable devices only, photos and videos). The application-based approach is a good one, and I think most users will have little trouble associating the proper applications with the appropriate media types. The exception, of course, is videos. Not only do videos not get an obvious dedicated management application, but the Videos folder, like the My Videos folder in previous Windows version, isn't even available from the Start Menu, and can't be added: You have to literally navigate to your Home folder first and then find it from there. Maybe Windows Seven (Windows 7), as the next Windows version is now called internally at Microsoft, will finally elevate videos to the same status as photos and music. It's overdue.

Anyway, Vista's digital media functionality is first-rate and dramatically better than anything offered in previous Windows versions and competing operating systems. Yes, Apple's iLife suite still reigns supreme, but iLife isn't part of Mac OS X; you have to buy it separately (starting at $79) or purchase a new Mac (starting at $599) in order to obtain the latest version. Vista's digital media tools are built right in, with one caveat: Much of this functionality is available only in the consumer-oriented Vista versions and not in business-oriented versions such as Vista Business and Vista Enterprise. As we go along here, I'll point out which features are available only in certain Vista versions.

Windows Photo Gallery

Windows Photo Gallery is a new application in Windows Vista designed for viewing, organizing, and editing digital photos and pictures (and videos). Like Apple's similar iPhoto application, Photo Gallery is simple looking and easy to use, but digital photo connoisseurs will likely still be impressed with some of its advanced functionality. Despite the surface similarities to iPhoto, you should know that Windows Photo Gallery is actually a "lite," or limited version of Microsoft's Digital Image Suite 2006 Library application, which ships as part of the Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 product; Digital Image Suite has been around for many more years than has iPhoto. So any claims of copying are, for the record, completely bogus. What's not bogus, however, is that Microsoft only provided this sort of application in Windows after iPhoto proved that the application-based photo management approach beats out the old shell-based approach.

With that settled, let's look at Photo Gallery. The application works in three modes, which I think of as Preview, Manage, and Edit. Preview mode can be triggered in two ways: By double-clicking a picture file in the shell or by double-clicking an image thumbnail from within the Photo Gallery application itself. In both cases, you're presented with a preview of the image and a minimal set of commands, accessed via a top-mounted toolbar.

The Manage mode is typically accessed by launching Photo Gallery. In this mode, the collection of digital pictures (and videos) on your PC is arranged, typically in Thumbnail view, so you can see what each picture looks like without opening them. You can also filter the view using a dizzying array of options. For example, you can filter by date taken, by ratings, or by tags, which you can customize yourself ("Vacation," "Family," and so on, as well as tags that are automatically generated when you import photos from a digital camera, memory card, or scanner). You can also display only photos from particular shell locations.

The Edit mode is typically invoked by clicking the Fix button in the Photo Gallery toolbar, which is available in both Preview and Manage modes. In this mode, Photo Gallery displays a single picture at a time, as with Preview mode, but provides an Edit Pane that includes options for editing the selected photo. These options include Auto Adjust, Adjust Exposure, Adjust Color, Crop Picture, and Fix Red Eye. This may sound like a very basic set of features, and it is, but it's also exactly what most people need and, in my extensive testing, it has proven to work quite effectively. In fact, I've found Photo Gallery's red eye removal feature to work better and more simply than the corresponding feature in Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0.

Photo Gallery offers a number of other useful and related features, including the ability to print pictures in various ways, order prints online, email photos, or burn to data disc or (via DVD Maker) to DVD movie. And via very loose integration with Windows Movie Maker, you can import selected photos from Photo Gallery into that application. (A similar feature lets you import photos into Windows DVD Maker as well.) Photo Gallery also offers links to any other applications that are registered in your system as being able to open digital picture files.

One of the best--and, curiously, least obvious--features in Photo Gallery is its new themed photo slideshow functionality. Using a new round button in the center of Photo Gallery's bottom-mounted array of controls (or the F11 key), you can trigger a slideshow of whatever photos are in the current view (remember that you can filter this view however you'd like). During the slideshow, you can choose various options via onscreen controls, such as the speed of the show, and, via a Themes button, you can select from various themes. Some of these themes will be quite familiar, like Fade and Pan and Zoom, while others are quite compelling: There are themes such as Black and White, Sepia, Album, Collage, Frame, Glass, and others. It's a neat collection, and should be explored by all digital photo fans. One niggling problem: If you want music with that slideshow, you'll have to queue up Windows Media Player or your media player of choice separately.

Finally, Windows Photo Gallery is also used to manage Vista's photo acquisition capabilities, which is one rare area in which Vista falls short of similar functionality in XP. Here, Microsoft has opted for simplicity over feature-set, and the result is unfortunate. Consider this scenario: You go on vacation for a week and take pictures each day in different locations. When you return home, you want to import your pictures into the PC. With XP, you can choose which pictures to import, so you could segregate the pictures from each day or event into separate folders on import. In Vista, you can't choose which pictures to import, Instead, you can only import all the photos. I guess you could then later segregate them manually, but the problem is that Photo Gallery uses the name you chose on import to both create a shell folder for the imported folders and to tag them within the application. That's a lot of work to fix after the fact.

Windows Photo Gallery is available in all Windows Vista versions, and it's an excellent application that will meet the needs of most consumers. If you need more than this for some reason, check out the free Google Picasa.

Windows Media Player 11

I've reviewed the standalone version of Windows Media Player 11 separately (see my review) so I won't reiterate most of that here. Suffice to say that WMP 11 is the best version of Media Player yet, with interesting new visual view styles, a less cluttered user interface, and a bottom-mounted set of controls that is very similar in style to the controls found in Windows Photo Gallery. (Sadly, this similarity is not carried over to other Vista applications, leaving the attempt at familiarity feeling somewhat half-hearted.) WMP 11 is better in every way than its predecessors, but it's not perfect. It's not as full-featured as Apple's iTunes, which I prefer. And it's not as simple as Microsoft's Zune software, which is based on WMP 11 but drops many WMP 11 features, some of which are missed and some that are not.

So what we're left with is an absolutely solid and competent all-in-one media player. If you're one of the few people in the world that actually uses a PlaysForSure portable device and/or online service--and seriously, God help you if you are--then you're going to want to use WMP 11. Unfortunately, people with iPods and Zunes cannot use WMP 11; these devices work only with the software that was made for them. Because of this, WMP 11 feels a bit like an afterthought and a lame duck to me, an application that may not be upgraded in major ways going forward because of market forces beyond the control of Microsoft's Consumer Media Technologies team.

Windows Media Player 11 is available in all Windows Vista versions, except the so-called Home Basic N and Business N versions sold only in the European Union.

Windows Media Center

I'm an unabashed fan and advocate of Windows Media Center and while I had a scary moment of doubt during the Windows Vista beta, I can state now that the Media Center version in Windows Vista is the best yet. That said, Windows Media Center Vista is an evolutionary upgrade over Media Center 2005 that points to a future version in which the changes only begun here will be brought to fruition. In that sense, it's a half-way house between Media Center 2005 and a Media Center version we'll see released during the holiday 2007 selling season. I'm OK with that. Media Center is the best digital video recorder (DVR) solution on the market, and the version in Windows Vista rocks.

Unlike most Windows Vista applications, Media Center is designed to run full-screen, and it can be accessed via a remote control, typically with a dedicated Media Center PC connected to a LCD or Plasma TV. But Media Center isn't just for Media Center PCs: It can be run just as easily via keyboard and mouse on a notebook or desktop PC, and can be used in windowed mode alongside other applications. You may find that you enjoy Media Center so much, in fact, that you use it in lieu of other applications, such as Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Media Player.

Media Center is a front-end to all of the digital media content on your system, including music, photos, videos, DVD movies, and, if you have one or more TV tuner cards, recorded and live TV shows. You can watch photo slideshows backed by music from your music collection--which is an absolutely stunning way to enjoy this content, by the way-- access online music and movie services like MTV URGE, Napster and MovieLink, and perform related digital media tasks like burning discs and synchronizing with portable devices.

There are a number of new features in the Vista version of Windows Media Center. The UI has been partially revamped--this is part of the functionality that will be finalized in a future Media Center version due out next year. The new UI is optimized for widescreen displays and the system utilizes a new organizational scheme in which content scrolls from the horizontally from left to right instead of up and down. The content is also more visually organized, which I like, and thanks to new Vista graphical capabilities, currently playing content such as live and recorded TV shows, videos, and DVD movies can often appear behind on-screen menus instead of being downsized into small picture-in-picture displays. (That said, remember that the new Media Center UI is only partially implemented here, so you'll see some screens with the new effects and some that use the old PIP display.)

Media Center also supports HDTV in new and interesting ways. Users of over the air (OTA) HDTV will be happy to hear that you no longer need to also install an analog standard definition TV tuner in the PC as well, as you did in XP Media Center 2005. And while I've not been able to test this feature yet, Vista supports CableCard-based HDTV signals, albeit with some serious restrictions: Unlike with other recorded or Live TV signals, HD delivered via CableCard is restricted so that it cannot be streamed to other devices, like Xbox 360s, and it cannot be played back on other PCs, or copied to a network share and played from there. These restrictions, naturally, come courtesy of the cable industry: Were Microsoft to not adhere to these standards, Media Center wouldn't be certified by Cable Labs.

Finally, you can now access Vista games like Hearts, Purble Palace, Chess Titans, Mahjong Titans, Solitaire, Freecell, Spider and Solitaire from directly within Media Center. And yes, they're remote control friendly.

I should note that there are a few features missing from Media Center that were present in the previous version. Caller ID and Windows/MSN Messenger integration have been dropped from the product for various reasons. In the case of Caller ID, various free third party solutions exist, so if you'd like to see who's calling you on the phone while watching TV, you can still do so. Messenger integration was dropped because Microsoft removed the Messenger foundation code from Windows in this version to adhere to antitrust rulings in the US, Europe, and South Korea. I'm not aware of a solution that integrates Windows Live Messenger with Media Center Vista yet, but surely one is forthcoming.

As a premium consumer feature, Windows Media Center is available only in Windows Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. However, this is still a much better availability situation than was true with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, which could only be acquired with a new PC. Now, you can get Media Center with both new PCs and in retail versions of Vista.

Media Center is a fun and useful environment for enjoying digital media content of all kinds, whether you're doing so with a heavily-used desktop PC or notebook, or via a dedicated Media Center PC that is connected to your large screen TV and used primarily for DVR functionality. I'm ecstatic that Microsoft has made this software available to a much wider audience in Windows Vista, and I'll be writing a lot more about Media Center in the future.

Media Center Extender compatibility

With previous generation Media Center PCs, you could purchase dedicated Media Center Extender hardware (see my review) that would let you remotely access most Media Center content--including both live and recorded TV--via another TV in your home. These previous generation Media Center Extenders do not work with Windows Vista, unfortunately, and they will not be upgraded to work. So if you want to use a Media Center Extender with a Vista-based Media Center PC, you only have one choice for the time being: The Xbox 360 (see my review). This has various advantages and disadvantages, but it seems rather limited to me.

In the near future, DVD players and TV sets from a variety of manufacturers will be sold with second generation Media Center Extender functionality built-in, and that should help expand your choices. But for now, and likely through most of 2007, your only choice is an Xbox 360. Note that second generation Media Center Extenders, like the Xbox 360, provide a better experience than does the first generation: The interface is identical to what you see on the PC, with all of the same animations and effects. Setup, as before, is a relatively painless process. Wired or 802.11a wireless, as before, are highly recommended, especially if you intend to stream HD content.

Media Center Extender compatibility requires Media Center Vista and thus works only with Vista Home Premium or Ultimate.

Windows Movie Maker

I've been a fan of Windows Movie Maker (WMM) since the 2.0 version shipped over four years ago for Windows XP (see my review): Contrary to popular belief, WMM is superior in many ways to Apple's well-regarded iMovie, though it's never gotten the attention and accolades it deserves.

In Windows Vista, Microsoft provides a minor WMM upgrade in Windows Movie Maker 6.0, which is, despite the version number, really the fourth major version of the product (following 1.0 in Windows Me, 1.1 in Windows XP, and 2.0, which was made available as a free Web download for XP users in 2002). This WMM version is very much like its predecessor, which small visual tweaks to help it fit in better with the black Vista UI style, and just a few minor functional enhancements. That said, WMM 6 is the best WMM version yet, and though little has really changed under the hood or in the UI since 2002, you might find some of the new features quite useful. I certainly have.

First, WMM 6 can now import and publish to Windows Media Video (WMV)-based High Definition (HD) formats, which can be handy if you have a high-end PC and one of the Vista versions--Home Premium and Ultimate--that support this feature.

My favorite WMM 6 feature, however, is its new ability to import and edit Media Center recorded TV shows, which are stored in the oddball DVR-MS format. Just importing such a file and exporting it as a standard WMV file can save massive amounts of space: While a 30 minute recorded TV show can often take up 2 GB of storage space, a high-quality WMV file with the same resolution (720 x 480) takes up less than 700 MB. A "VHS quality" version (640 x 480) offers even better space savings, coming in at around 240 MB.) And if you can take the time to edit out commercials, you'll save even more space. Finally! (Note that you cannot edit or transcode TV shows that are protected with Broadcast Flag technology. This includes all HBO and Cinemax shows, for example.)

WMM 6 also lets you export movies to Microsoft's new Windows DVD Maker application (see below) so you can make standard DVD movies, but there's precious little in the way of true integration between the two applications.

WMM 6 is available in all Vista versions, but you must have Vista Home Premium or Ultimate to use its HD capabilities.

Windows DVD Maker

For years, digital media fans wondered when, if ever, Microsoft would counter Apple's best-of-breed iDVD application, which provides DVD design and creation capabilities to Mac users. Well, the wait is over: Windows Vista includes a new application called, logically enough, Windows DVD Maker, which lets you make very simple DVD movies that will play on any standard DVD player (including, of course, PCs with DVD playback functionality). Sadly, Windows DVD Maker is very much a bare-bones solution and doesn't really compete effectively with Apple's much more impressive iDVD. But it does provide the basics and my guess is that most people will find it quite adequate.

DVD Maker is a wizard-based application in which you move through a series of simple steps. First, you add the photos and/or movies you'd like to access from the DVD. Photos are added to a slideshow, and there can only be one photo slideshow per DVD. Then, you provide information such as the name of the DVD, set various options, and pick a menu style from one of the 20 or so provided. Most are actually pretty decent.

At this point, you can preview the DVD, change the menu text and menu text attributes, and then write the DVD to disk. DVD Maker works with both single layer (4.7 GB) and dual-layer (DL, 8.9 GB) recordable DVD disks, including the rewriteable varieties.

If you're familiar with commercial DVD making applications, it should be pretty obvious that Windows DVD Maker provides only the most basic functionality. While the type of integration that users of Apple's iLife applications enjoy seems to be beyond Microsoft's capabilities, you can in fact jumpstart Windows DVD Maker from both Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Movie Maker, which is nice when you're working with either photos or movies and would like to make a DVD. In truth, few people have the patience or desire to learn the ins and outs of complicated DVD making applications, and DVD Maker should appeal to that large audience. Others with more complex needs--you know who you are--should look elsewhere.

Windows DVD Make is only available in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate.

Final thoughts

Never has any operating system offered such wonderful digital media functionality out of the box as does Windows Vista. Most of these applications are best of breed and the few that are not are at least passable and competent solutions. Anyone who enjoys digital photos, videos, and music will love what Microsoft's done with Windows Vista. Conversely, anyone who adopts Windows Vista will delight as they discover this system's digital media features, which offer a new range of capabilities for preserving and enjoying their memories digitally.

Next: Windows Vista Features: Networking Features

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