New add-on digital music features, desktop themes, screen savers, and games make XP more than just an OS

The new Microsoft Plus! for Windows XP adds features that make using Windows XP a better experience. Microsoft Plus! includes features that enhance the digital music experience, as well as new desktop themes, screen savers, and games. Microsoft Plus! ships on one CD-ROM and installs in minutes. The installation process adds a Microsoft Plus! item to your programs menu. Selecting the Microsoft Plus! option displays the main window (see figure 1).

The browser-style interface lets you navigate between the new digital-media, games, themes, and screen-saver features in Microsoft Plus!. You can use the screen savers and desktops themes by right-clicking the XP desktop, selecting Properties, and pressing the Themes or Screen Savers tab. The Plus! additions are listed, along with the standard XP themes and screen savers.

Four New Themes and Screen Savers


The first thing you'll probably find in Microsoft Plus! is a collection of new screen savers and desktop themes designed to make using your system a more enjoyable experience. These screen savers are a far cry from the old Starfield Simulation in Windows NT or even the 3-D Flowers screen saver in Windows 2000. Microsoft Plus! provides four basic desktop themes and screen saver combinations: Plus! Aquarium, Plus! Nature, Plus! Da Vinci, and Plus! Space. As the names imply, Plus! Aquarium displays a virtual aquarium, Plus! Da Vinci displays a modern-looking interpretation of several of Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous works, Plus! Nature consists of a collection of nature photos, and Plus! Space provides a view of the Earth from outer space and a night-sky rendition. The graphics are very high quality. The Plus! Aquarium screen saver is truly impressive—it's about as real as a computer display can get (see figure 2).

Digital Music Enhancements: Computer, On


The majority of Microsoft Plus! features are in the digital-music arena. But don't expect to find support for MP3 ripping; it isn't included in Microsoft Plus!. To get MP3 ripping support, you have to purchase the MP3 Creation Pack for Windows XP, which is a separate add-on pack. The only MP3 support in Microsoft Plus! is the standalone MP3 Converter that converts MP3 files to Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. The value of this particular option is questionable because this ability is already present in Windows Media Player for XP (WMPXP).

Other new digital-music features are more fun. The new Plus! Voice Command for Windows Media Player is cool and very easy to use. The Plus! Voice Command adds simple voice-recognition capabilities to WMPXP. To make this feature work, all you need is a standard microphone hooked up to your system's sound card. You can control WMPXP by speaking simple commands such as "Media player, play" and "Media player, stop." Plus! Voice Command supports about a dozen oral commands. Although I have doubts whether this feature is better than using the mouse and keyboard, it's fun to use and makes me feel like an actor in a Star Trek movie: "Computer, on."

Another behind-the-scenes Windows improvement in Microsoft Plus! is its new speaker enhancements. This feature improves the sound quality typical computer speakers produce. (Most computer sound systems are pretty lame compared to their stereo and home-theater counterparts.) The first time I played a CD after installing the pack, I was impressed with the difference in sound quality. Although the sound is still not as good as stereo sound, the quality is noticeably better after I added Microsoft Plus!.

Other music-related features in the Microsoft Plus! include the CD Label Printer, the Personal DJ, new Skins, and Visualizations. The CD Label Maker is a wizard that steps you through the process of selecting music and designing CD and jewel-case labels. The Personal DJ wizard lets you create custom play lists from your WMPXP Media Library based on song criteria you select. The new WMPXP skins and visualizations match the basic desktop themes in Microsoft Plus!.

Put Your Game Face On


No Plus! pack would be complete without an assortment of new games, and Microsoft Plus! is no exception. The pack includes three new games: HyperBowl Plus!, Russian Square Plus!, and Labyrinth Plus!. HyperBowl Plus! is a bowling game that includes both traditional alley-style bowling mode and a more challenging Pins of Rome mode in which you guide the ball through obstacles in an ancient Roman setting. The game is fun, but rolling the ball by constantly moving the mouse grows tiresome. Out-of-the-box HyperBowl is a single-player game, but you can download a multiplayer version of the game from Microsoft's Web site.

Russian Square Plus! Edition is a strategy game along the lines of Tetris. You play the game by moving different colored blocks to create solid lines, which then disappear. As with Tetris, the game play can become frantic in the final stages; the game adds blocks more quickly as you go up through the level of play.

Labyrinth Plus! Edition is computer version of the old tabletop Labyrinth game in which you roll a ball though a maze by tilting the board using knobs on each axis of the game set. The practice mode of Labyrinth Plus! looks exactly like the old Labyrinth game; the main difference is that you tilt the board using the mouse. Although the practice mode is easy, the game quickly becomes more challenging.

Plus! and Minus


Compared to earlier Plus! packs for previous version products, Microsoft Plus! is clearly more entertainment oriented. It doesn't provide any new must-have practical features such as the QuickView product in Windows 95 Plus!. In spite of its entertainment orientation, it also doesn't provide support for MP3 ripping or DVD creation. You must buy the separate add-on packs to get those features.

Microsoft Plus! does provide several fun extensions that make using your XP system a more fun and enjoyable experience. If you've never used voice recognition before, the new Plus! Voice Commands for WMPXP are a hoot that will definitely impress your friends. The new games provide a nice alternative to Solitaire and Pinball. And if you like fish, you can't beat the Plus! Aquarium screen saver.