Microsoft announced today that it will soon release Plus! Digital Media Edition, an add-on pack for Windows XP that significantly enhances the digital photo, music, and movie experiences of the company's best-selling OS. Plus! Digital Media Edition will be the first Microsoft retail product customers can download from the Web; it will cost just $20 when it becomes available on January 7 along with the final versions of Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 and Windows Movie Maker 2.

"Pioneering features in Plus! Digital Media Edition like Photo Story offer photo buffs the ability for the first time to tell the story behind their digital pictures with easy-to-create digital photo albums," said Dave Fester, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division. "Packed with cool new innovations like this, Plus! Digital Media Edition takes the photos, music, and home movies in Windows XP to a whole new level."

Plus! Digital Media Edition includes these applications:
Plus! Photo Story: Use this application's wizard to create movie slideshows from still images or to create a short movie that pans across and zooms into one digital photo. Or you can create a slideshow that clicks through the photos and zooms and pans each photo as you view it. You can also choose to manually define how to pan and zoom each image and even narrate the story behind each photo, as you might have in the past when you showed print photos to a friend or relative. You can even move your mouse over each image as you narrate the story behind that photo, and the Plus! Photo Story wizard will use your mouse movements to determine how to pan and zoom the resulting movie.
Plus! Alarm Clock: For college students (and, apparently, other people who inexplicably fall asleep next to their computers), the Plus! Alarm Clock turns your WMP 9-enabled PC into an alarm clock. You can use Plus! Alarm Clock to wake you gently to a specific playlist, for example, and set alarm options such as snooze and type of alarm (music, sound, or desktop notification).
Plus! Analog Recorder: This application lets you easily record music from analog audio sources such as LP albums and cassette tapes and removes problematic artifacts such as the pops and hisses that often accompany such recordings.
Plus! Audio Converter: This general-purpose audio-conversion tool lets you convert to and from WMA 9 (and older versions), MP3, and .wav formats. Plus! Audio Converter also supports volume leveling, which ensures that all your converted files have similar volume levels.
Plus! CD Label Maker: The original Plus! for Windows XP included a basic audio CD label maker called Plus! CD Label Maker, and, predictably, Plus! Digital Media Edition includes an updated version also called (dramatic pause) Plus! CD Label Maker. This version is almost identical to the previous version, with one major improvement: It now supports MP3 and WMA data CDs and the vast number of tracks such CDs contain.
Plus! Dancer: This application adds a small character (or two) to your desktop that dances in rhythm to the music playing in WMP 9. Plus! Dancer ships with 11 small dancers, and I'm told Microsoft will provide another 12 small and large dancers through a Web site (I found these extra dancers on the Plus! Digital Media Edition evaluation CD I received). Each dancer has his and her own dance style, such as hip-hop, disco, and salsa, and you can customize Plus! Dancer to use the appropriate dancer based on the genre of the current song, randomly supply a different dancer with each song, or let you manually choose your favorite dancer. You can position the high-quality (and funny-looking, in some cases) dancers anywhere on the screen.
Plus! Party Mode: For college students and other digital-media enthusiasts who might use their PCs as jukeboxes during parties, the Plus! Party Mode is essentially a new full-screen mode for WMP 9 that provides an interactive guest book, visual effects, and playlist access to your audio collection while preventing unwanted intrusion into your personal files and other PC-based information.
Plus! Digital Media Edition also includes 50 new video effects and transitions for Windows Movie Maker 2. 

Sync & Go for Pocket PC lets you synchronize supported audio and video content--including a new generation of forthcoming Web-based content from MSNBC and other companies--between your PC and Pocket PC. For example, you can time-shift Internet-based audio and video content so that you can automatically download content in the morning before you to go work, then listen to it or watch it on the Pocket PC during the morning commute.

Customers who reserve their copies of Plus! Digital Media Edition now will receive a 25 percent discount off the estimated retail price of $19.95 when the product becomes available on January 7, for a total cost of just $15. On that date, Microsoft will distribute Plus! Digital Media Edition online, and the product will be available in retail stores wherever XP is sold starting in early 2003. The final releases of Windows Movie Maker 2 and WMP 9 also will be available January 7. For more information about Plus! Digital Media Edition, visit the SuperSite for Windows, and check out my exhaustive review of this product. To preorder Plus! Digital Media Edition, visit the Microsoft Web site.