You can slap Plus onto your hard drive with no hassle. Plus doesn't just dump a bunch of icons under the Start menu, it insinuates itself into the operating system. For instance, it adds a "Convert to Windows Media Audio" command to the menu that pops up when you right-click an audio file--say, an MP3 file within Windows Explorer--and inserts its desktop themes and eight screensavers in the Windows Display Properties Control Panel so that you don't have to hunt around in your download folders.
It's easy to tweak Plus additions, too. You can get to all of its accessories from a one-screen interface that you launch from the Start menu. This launchpad is easy to use, with links that take you to Plus games, themes, screensavers, and digital audio add-ons. You can even apply a theme or a screensaver, run a game, or launch one of the audio tools from here.
Lame desktop decor
Plus's accessories come in four flavors: themes, screensavers, games, and digital audio. The first and second feature desktop decorators, the third a way to kill time when XP's bundled games get old, and the fourth a seven-pack collection of Windows Media Player add-ons.
The desktop themes--collections of icons, wallpaper, sounds, mouse pointers, and other graphical elements--are snappy, but you're limited to back-to-nature, outer space, and Leonardo da Vinci-style decor. We were hoping to land themes that would completely recast XP's interface to look like Mac OS X or BeOS.
Plus's screensavers are slick, particularly Aquarium, a photo-realistic virtual fish tank that has, believe it or not, fooled a cat on more than one occasion, and MyPictures, a customizable screensaver that lets you use your own digital photos. Unlike the generic MyPictures Slideshow included with XP, the Plus edition ups the ante by letting you stick the pics onto animated backgrounds.
Although these themes and screensavers look spectacular, they're not unique. The Web hosts hundreds or thousands of screensavers and themes at download sites such as Screensaver.com and ThemeWorld.com. Actually, you can get Plus's Aquarium screensaver by downloading the free SereneScreen.com Aquarium, which also works on Windows 95, 98, Me, 2000, and NT. And if you want to completely change the way XP looks, check out the WindowBlinds XP beta, which lets you run any of hundreds of WindowBlinds' custom interfaces.
Audio add-ons are no turn-on
Like earlier Plus packs, this one includes restricted games in an attempt to tempt you into buying the real deal. The trio of Plus games--Russian Squares, the Labyrinth, and HyperBowl--may look graphically superior to the games bundled with XP, but they all rank high on the bore-o-meter. Of the three, HyperBowl is the most fun, in large part because it's an at-home knockoff of a hilarious arcade/bar game of the same name. The Labyrinth can be downloaded from RealArcade Central, so you don't even need to buy Plus to pick it up.