By Matt Lake
XP has a new name for the stuff we used to call multimedia: digital media. Indeed, XP handles all kinds of digital media, including video, still pictures, and music, with aplomb previously lacking in Microsoft operating systems. XP even has native support for burning CD-Rs and writing to RW discs, and it works better with removable devices in general.
Autoplay it again
Windows XP boasts a vastly improved autoplay capability. First introduced in Windows 95, autoplay automatically launched audio CDs and CD-ROM titles when they were loaded into the drive. As soon as XP determines the media type or source, be it a digital camera or a blank CD-R, it pops up a dialog box listing the appropriate, associated programs, such as a DVD player or an editing app. Make the appropriate selection, and Windows XP loads it. Check off the option, and XP will repeat the action every time you load that media. Best of all, Windows maintains control over autoplay. This means that if you try out a new MP3 jukebox program, for instance, the new app can't wrest control of CD playing without your permission. This compelling new feature is reason enough for media junkies to consider the upgrade.
The revamped Windows Media Player for Windows XP looks and works better than previous versions, though it won't rip to MP3 format without a third-party add-on (one that you need to buy separately--an unpopular idea indeed!). You can add lyrics to Windows Media Audio (WMA) and MP3 files using standard ID3, or metadata, tags, and display CD album art as you play tracks. Unfortunately, Media Player relies on AMG for the track listings. Rival Gracenote's CDDB, which is favored by other jukebox software, offers more complete and accurate data.
Better yet, Media Player finally supports CD burning on PCs with CD-R/RW drives. To burn a CD, just click the "Copy to CD or portable device" tab and import a playlist. Alternatively, select WMA, MP3, or WAV files in Explorer and select the Record To CD option, which opens Media Player's CD recording screen. Notable improvements, but you still can't rip audio tracks from CDs in MP3 format. Instead, you have to pay for a third-party plug-in. Until the plug-in arrives, you're stuck with Microsoft's own WMA format. WMA files sound
better to our ears than MP3s at a similar rate of compression, so this
more of a concern for MP3 purists.
Ho-hum DVD; nifty Movie Maker
Sure, Media Player can play DVDs, but this feature is redundant at best, since Media Player can't actually decode DVDs. To play DVD movies, you still need an MPEG-2 decoder, which, in turn, means installing separate software such as PowerDVD. What's the point? Yes, Media Player's DVD playback dialog offers contrast and other display settings, but the playback quality is no great shakes.
The revamped Windows Movie Maker, on the other hand, is more valuable. This basic video-editing package debuted with Windows Me and, like the better alternative, Apple iMovie, it analyzes digital video (such as home recordings from a digital camera or downloaded clips from another source) and breaks them into scenes that you can edit into impressive little movies. Movie Maker stores your creations in compressed Windows Media (WMV) format that's often small enough to e-mail, depending on your ISP and bandwidth. The XP version also lets you record and edit uncompressed AVI movies at 720x480 resolution--good enough to play decent-looking, full-screen movies. And for those who like to watch movies on their iPaq handhelds, Movie Maker boasts new output profiles for playing videos on color PDAs--with, naturally, Windows Media Player for the Pocket PC.
XP's built-in CD burner is a big plus and eliminates the need for
third-party packages such as Easy CD Creator--if you have simple CD-burning desires. But it won't design jewel case inserts and disc labels, for example, and the wizard hides certain settings, such as those for controlling your drive's burn speed, but you can change the speed by using Windows Explorer. And its handling of UDF-formatted RW discs (such as those created by Roxio's DirectCD) is also confusing. Windows can read DirectCD-formatted discs, but it can't write data to them. In other words, you must reformat DirectCD-formatted RWs to add data to them under Windows XP.
Fun with digital media
As Windows Me does, XP easily adds scanners and digital cameras to the list of disk drives and folders in My Computer. But XP organizes and stores photos more efficiently than its predecessor. Plug in your camera, and XP launches a wizard that helps you move pictures from the camera onto your hard drive. To get images from scanners, you have to launch the wizard manually and acquire images one by one, but the wizard provides the same image-manipulation functions. It lets you rotate and position photos, download them to your hard drive, upload them to the Internet, or delete them from the camera with a single command. It's the very soul of simplicity. But if you're
comfortable with your old TWAIN software, you don't have to abandon
it; this wizard just gives you more options.
XP's redesigned My Pictures folder kicks a little posterior, too. Turn on the Thumbnail view in the View menu, and even folder icons display thumbnails of photos within. You'll see up to four thumbnails on any My Pictures subfolder that contains graphics. You can also order prints of any graphic directly from within the folder via a link to one of Microsoft's online photo-printing service partners (currently, Kodak and Fuji). Frankly, this feature is superfluous, unless you're collecting referral dollars as Microsoft undoubtedly is, but some people will find it useful.
XP numbers your graphics sequentially as they land on your hard drive to ensure that you don't overwrite any pics, and the wizard cuts down on duplicates by letting you know if you've already copied a picture from your camera. Printing graphics is also considerably easier, as the Photo Printing wizard lets you select any pictures you want in hard copy and send the job off in a batch.