For the past few years, I've confidently recommended Windows-based systems to all kinds of users for every conceivable computing task with just one caveat: Apple Computer's Macintosh systems were always better than Windows for digital-video editing. And because Apple set its sights on the so-called "digital hub," with digital media and home-networking applications receiving special attention, I believed that the Mac—especially the DVD-burning iMac that debuted early this year—was a good choice for anyone who wants to work with digital video, audio, or photos.
Now I'm not so sure. With Microsoft's recent digital-media-related releases such as the Windows Media 9 Series and Windows Movie Maker 2, Windows XP has finally pulled well ahead of the Mac in digital-video capabilities and has always been the superior system for digital photos and music. And an inexpensive third-party release I'll discuss in the next issue of Connected Home EXPRESS brings elegant, beautiful DVD movie-making capabilities to XP as well. Is Apple's advantage ending? Let's look at the applications and technologies that are bringing XP to the forefront of the digital-video revolution.
Windows Media 9 Series
Now in the almost-final release candidate stage, Windows Media 9 Series includes a new version of Windows Media Player (WMP)—WMP 9—and new audio and video codecs, or formats, called Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 and Windows Media Video (WMV) 9. I've reviewed the Windows Media 9 Series on the SuperSite for Windows (see the first URL below), and although Microsoft's latest player is the best yet, the codecs make this technology notable. Thanks to new compression capabilities, you can now rip CD audio and create home movies that take up far less space than is possible on a Mac. For example, you can store 1 to 1.5 hours of full-resolution (720 x 480) WMV 9 video in just a gigabyte of hard disk space. With the Mac, you can store only 6 minutes of full-resolution digital video per gigabyte. And WMV 9's quality is as good or better than what you see on the Mac. WMV 9 lets you create video libraries on your hard disk the same way you create libraries of digital photos and audio. You can't do so on the Mac because its underlying video technology doesn't offer low bit-rate, high-quality encoding at native resolutions. The Release Candidate 1 (RC1) build of WMP 9, which includes the WMA 9 and WMV 9 codecs, is available for download from the Microsoft Web site (see the second URL below).
Windows Movie Maker 2
High-quality video codecs with good compression are nice, but to take advantage of WMV 9 you need a video-editing package. XP's bundled Windows Movie Maker application has always been the butt of jokes, although I've often defended the product for its simple video-capture interface. But the new Windows Movie Maker 2 not only surpasses the Apple iMovie and PC-based competition but takes video-editing state-of-the-art to a new level.
Now available as a public beta release (see the third URL below), Windows Movie Maker 2 is visually similar to its predecessor but is far more powerful. The application is divided into four areas. A new Movie Tasks pane features simple task-based links for capturing video, editing your movies, and finishing (or saving) your movies; it also includes various movie-making tips. The old Collections pane is still available as a toggle; it makes the Movie Tasks pane appear and disappear. You use the Collections pane to organize your movie library from the video you capture from a Digital Video (DV) camera and other sources. The Collections view—which displays the video and audio clips, bitmaps, and other resources that make up the selected collection—is in the center of the application window. The newly resizable preview window is on the right. And the familiar Timeline/Storyboard pane, which also has a lot of new features, is on the bottom.
Windows Movie Maker 2's goal is to let you easily capture, edit, and create movies. Microsoft has found that consumers have good intentions when it comes to home video, but the reality is that editing video is difficult and overly time-consuming (and this has been my experience as well). For average users (i.e., most people), Windows Movie Maker 2 will automate literally every step of the video-editing process. More advanced users can tweak those results or simply choose to manually slog through the entire process. Windows Movie Maker 2 is one of those rare applications that works equally well for experts and newcomers.
Let's walk through a typical Windows Movie Maker 2 movie-creation process. First, you need to capture your raw video footage, typically from a camcorder. Unlike iMovie, Windows Movie Maker 2 supports analog and digital video, so any video (or audio) source you can connect to your PC is automatically supported. Windows Movie Maker 2 includes a new Capture from the Video Device wizard that completely automates this process, and you can also import video, pictures, audio, or music from your hard disk.
After you import the video, Windows Movie Maker 2 splits it into clips and creates a collection, as before. But now your options are exponentially expanded. Windows Movie Maker 2 includes more than 130 new professional-looking, high-quality effects, titles, and transitions (compared with just one in Windows Movie Maker 1 and about 27 in iMovie). Instead of looking at the manual process, let's look at Windows Movie Maker 2's exciting new AutoMovie feature, which uses Microsoft Research technology to analyze your video clips and create a professionally edited movie that includes the best parts of each scene you selected. It sounds impossible, but AutoMovie does an amazing job, effectively eliminating the time and effort barriers to video editing. AutoMovie supports various movie types—Flip and Slide, with cool video transitions; Highlights Movie, for the traditionalist; Music Video, for a movie that syncs edits to beats of the underlying song, which you get to select; Old Movie, which uses film age and sepia-tone effects; and Sports Highlights, which uses quick editing techniques and zooms, so you'll probably be happy with the results. I've been making music-video versions of my home movies all week, and the effect is simply stunning.
There's more—much more. I haven't gotten to the DVD-recording part of the story yet, but I'm out of space. Next week, I'll wrap up this overview of Windows Movie Maker 2; in the meantime, XP users should give this download a try. It's an amazing, change-your-life product if you're interested in working with digital video.