In "Apple's iLife '04," February 2004, I looked at iLife '04, Apple Computer's collection of digital media applications that Apple supplies for Mac OS X users. The product is a fantastically integrated set of applications, and although I wasn't aware of any single suite of PC-based software that offered the same level of integration, I did recommend various PC-based applications that offered roughly the same functionality as each iLife application. Shortly after the review debuted, Roxio contacted me and told me about a product it offers that's very similar to iLife but available to the 95 percent of the computer-using population that runs Windows. I agreed to take a look.

Three months later, I'm happy to report that Roxio's solution, Easy Media Creator 7, is indeed the closest solution PC users have to iLife: a single, integrated package of full-featured digital media applications that should satisfy most of your needs. Easy Media Creator 7 is the successor and natural extension to Roxio's Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 and Easy CD Creator 5, a product that started life as an easy-to-use CD-burning application. Over the years, Roxio has added numerous features to the suite, and today Easy Media Creator 7 is a massive set of integrated applications, all featuring a consistent UI. Here's what you get.

Capture
Essentially a supercharged replacement of Windows XP's Scanner and Camera Wizard, Capture goes well beyond its XP equivalent because it also lets you capture audio, CD, and DVD files. That last option is particularly interesting: In addition to the standard audio CD ripping capabilities you might expect, Capture lets you copy images from photo CDs or DVDs.

But even for standard image scanning using a flatbed scanner, Capture is better than XP's bundled wizard. The feature gives you plain English options—Good, Better, and Best image quality settings, for example, instead of the more technical dot per inch (DPI) listing—plus integrated links to associated Easy Media Creator applications, in case you'd like to burn scanned images to DVD or edit images into a photo slideshow.

Creator Classic
Old-school Easy CD Creator fans will enjoy the inclusion of Creator Classic, which is essentially Easy CD Creator skinned to look like the new applications in Easy Media Creator. This program lets you record data and audio CDs (and DVDs), in addition to MP3 disks.

Disc Copier
Despite its seemingly simple nature, Disc Copier serves a number of valuable services, and it has become one of the most often used tools in my digital media arsenal. Of course, you can perform standard disk-to-disk copies, as you might expect—handy for creating backups. But you can also use Disc Copier to copy various disk image types (such as ISO or BIN/CUE) to disk, which is one of the ways I use this product; these days, a lot of software is distributed in disk image format online. Disc Copier can also grab video from a DVD, although the source DVD would have to be unprotected, which leaves out Hollywood DVD movies, of course. A while back, I had a number of old 8mm home movies converted to DVD format, and I spent a lot of time figuring out a way to capture that content in the highest quality possible; Disc Copier makes this process simple.

DVD Builder and VideoWave 7
DVD Builder is Roxio's stab at a DVD moviemaking application (which also supports Video CD—VCD and Super Video CD—SVCD). DVD Builder, which is comparable to Sonic's excellent MyDVD 5, features a number of fairly uninspired DVD theme templates; nice titling, transition, and background music capabilities; and direct capture from a DV camcorder. What's interesting about this program, compared with MyDVD, is the Production Editor, a pane that provides you with ready access to the features of each movie on a disk. When you drag a movie file to DVD Builder, it's added to the Currently Loaded menu (the main menu by default), as well as the Production Editor pane. From the Production Editor pane, you can trim the selected video (from the start or end, but also from any point in the video), add chapter points so that users can later navigate through a single video using a DVD player's remote control, add transitions between videos, or add background music, which is handy for a photo slideshow or a movie without audio.

Additionally, you can launch the separate StoryBoard application—actually Roxio's VideoWave 7—for more advanced editing, a la Windows Movie Maker. VideoWave 7 has all the features you'd expect from a consumer-grade video editor, with a time line that gives you iMovie-like audio-editing functionality, clip splitting, titling, overlays, and transitions. I find it interesting that Roxio positioned VideoWave as the StoryBoard feature of DVD Builder: The company seems to understand that the nitty-gritty of movie editing doesn't interest most consumers, so Roxio instead supplies them with simpler access to the most common features directly in the application they'll want to use the most often: DVD Builder. More advanced users can simply launch VideoWave 7 separately to edit video.

Label Creator
An all-purpose disk labeler, Label Creator not only creates labels for disks such as CDs and DVDs but also for various disk holders, including mini disks, CD, and DVD cases and booklets. Although I don't generally make labels of any kind, this labeler's functionality impressed me—for example, it's far more full-featured than Microsoft's Plus! CD Label Maker, which focuses solely on audio CDs.

Media Manager
Probably the most ill-conceived application in the suite, Media Manager is a simple Windows Explorer replacement, with a tree view representing the file system and thumbnails of digital images. Frankly, with the exception of the requisite links to Roxio applications, Media Manager has nothing on the standard Explorer you already have in your system. Oddly, some of the features that make this application useful are hidden in right-click menus, which are hardly discoverable: For example, you can launch a multi-photo enhance operation through PhotoSuite 7, assuming you know where to look for it.

Napster 2.0
The second most successful online music service after Apple iTunes, Napster 2.0 is easily the most impressive service, offering a number of features iTunes can't touch. First, you have its online music store, with more than 700,000 songs priced at 99 cents each, or $9.99 for most albums. Optionally, you can subscribe to the Napster service for $9.99 a month and gain access to all the music in Napster's library, anytime, through the Internet. Subscribers can also download as many songs as they want on as many as three PCs, to enjoy offline for as long as they're a subscriber. The three-PC limit means you can take songs with you on the go, and a feature that will enable this capability on portable devices is forthcoming (a feature iTunes doesn't offer).

Unlike iTunes, Napster uses the industry-standard Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which is compatible with the largest selection of portable devices, so you can easily copy any songs you buy to other devices or, optionally, you can write your songs to audio CDs. But Napster's best features come from its sense of community. First, it's easier to discover new music on Napster than on other music services because of the way Napster graphically promotes artists, albums, and songs. Napster Radio, which features more than 50 theme-based commercial-free stations, blasts an eclectic assortment of music 24 hours a day, helping you find music you like. Second, if they want, Napster subscribers can view other subscribers' music to find new songs. You might, for example, browse subscriber playlists, or music collections, and copy that music to your own library. You can also serve recommendations to other subscribers and find out who else likes that obscure 80s pop group that none of your local friends can stand.

True audiophiles might appreciate the higher-quality songs on MusicMatch Downloads (which serves up 160KBps WMA files) or Real Music Store (which offers 192KBps Advanced Audio Coding—AAC—files), but Napster's 128KBps WMA files sound great, and the service is definitely head and shoulders above any of the competition. And Media Center PC owners, take note: Napster has an XP Media Center version of the service that works with the Media Center's remote control, creating an amazing A/V experience right in your living room.

PhotoSuite 7
Roxio's photo editor, PhotoSuite 7, is a decent entry, with a nice PhotoDoctor auto-fix feature that fixes photo exposure, saturation, and sharpness in a single step; and includes cropping, rotation, red eye, and text entry functionality. More advanced users can turn on additional features that really make this application shine. You can remove wrinkles and blemishes in skin, remove dust (automatically) and scratches (manually) from damaged pictures, and apply special effects. As I've written in Connected Home Express previously, I've been spending a lot of time scanning old photos and negatives: PhotoSuite 7 does a serviceable job of fixing those photos, many of which are heavily scratched. PhotoSuite 7 also has other cool features, such as PhotoStich, which lets you create panoramic photos from a set of separate pictures, and MultiPhoto Enhance, the batch editing program I've been searching for.

Roxio Player
Not what it sounds like, Roxio Player is, in fact, a video player that works only with the TS_VIDEO.IFO video files you find on non-protected DVDs. So what good is such an application, you ask? Well, if you create a DVD movie with Roxio DVD Builder and don't have a standalone DVD player or DVD playback application on your PC, this application will let you view the DVD.

Sound Editor
Although it's not the type of feature that casual users will use regularly, Sound Editor fills an interesting position in the Easy Media Creator suite, letting you record and edit files in the standard audio formats MP3, .wav (Wave file), WMA, and Ogg . But like much of Roxio's suite, Sound Editor's best features aren't obvious. You can use this application to record audio from analog sources such as LPs and cassettes using your system's Line In port, for example. Or you could record narration with a microphone. Whatever the source, you can then use Sound Editor tools—such as the normalizer, maturizer, and detuner and fade-in fade-out functions—to apply an amazing set of effects to your audio. I'm not an audio effects expert, but the tools in this application go well beyond similar features I've seen in dedicated movie-editing packages, so if getting just the right audio control is a goal, this program might surprise you.

Bang for Your Buck
Roxio offers a staggering array of functionality in its excellent Easy Media Creator suite, and its $75 street price makes this product even more of a bargain. If you're interested in just two of the applications in this suite, you might find yourself experimenting with the others eventually and discovering new avenues by which you can share and experience digital music. The sheer amount of functionality this product offers this product's functionality might overwhelm you, but you'll find that a little time and experimentation worthwhile: Roxio Easy Media Creator is highly recommended, a must-have product for any digital media enthusiast.