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Plus Digital Media Edition (DME) does double duty. Like all Windows Plus packs, it delivers goods that Microsoft left out of Windows--from frothy bits of nonsense to bread-and-butter tools to a few gems that make you sit up and say "Gimme!" It's also an obvious attempt to turn Windows into a cool digital-entertainment platform--with mixed results. The $20 download includes eight modules, with three must-haves: a recorder for turning old vinyl and tape recordings into Windows Media (WMA) files, a media organizer called Sync & Go for Pocket PC users, and a video slide-show program called Photo Story. The rest of the collection is a mishmash of fluff and occasional gems, with a few gnarly bugs tossed in. Nevertheless, this Plus is worth adding.
Each module of Microsoft Plus Digital Media Edition features a different look and its own level of usability. In general, however, all are fairly easy to use. For an example, take Plus Analog Recorder. This app makes digital audio out of analog tapes or vinyl and does so by automatically setting the optimal sound level, then splitting up the individual tracks after you finish a recording session. If it misses a song transition (for example, the nonexistent break between "Sgt. Pepper" and "A Little Help from My Friends"), you simply cue up a playback slider to the break and hit a button to split them up. Then you enter track names, album titles, and so forth, which Analog Recorder turns into WMA files and automatically registers in your Media Library.
Plus Digital Media Edition is something of a first for Microsoft, too, since the company is making it available only as a download for the first few months. (Eventually, it will make its way to CD-ROM distribution.) After download and installation, you're left with a group of application icons on your Start menu's Program's section and a sly update to Windows Movie Maker that adds some great transition effects, output options, and other features.
A lot of Plus Digital Media Edition is like froth on beer--it's nice to have, but it's not the reason you get the beer. You could take or leave Plus Dancer--an American Bandstand-style effect, in which very realistic-looking dancers gyrate, swing, or hip-hop over your spreadsheets. Party Mode is more useful; it uses Windows Media Player to play your music for your guests, but it doesn't let them fire up other software and break up the festivities. For anyone who hates logos, the layouts of Plus CD Label Maker will be unacceptable; there was a Microsoft Plus label on every page we printed out. Come on, Microsoft--this much branding falls in the realm of freeware, not commercial downloads.
When you turn on Plus Dancer, a slew of different dancers get down on it...on your Taskbar that is.
You'll get three bread-and-butter features with Plus DME: Audio Converter, Alarm Clock, and CD Label Maker. These aren't glamorous, but they're useful. CD Label Maker is much like competitive products found in Nero Burning ROM and Easy CD Creator Platinum. It's a databaselike tool for laying out CD labels and covers, which it does no better or worse than its competitors, other than its relentless branding. Alarm Clock rouses you from slumber by playing your favorite tracks in Media Player--much better than a nasty ringing noise, though not always easier to turn off. Audio Converter converts MP3 and WAV files into Windows Media files (and if you have a third-party MP3 plug-in, vice versa) in a range of compression rates.
Fighting for your right to party, Plus Party handles your festive playlists, letting you skip tracks and adjusts the volume, but it keeps your guests from surfing the Net instead of socializing.
Plus Digital Media Edition's three heavyweight programs are Sync & Go, Analog Recorder, and Photo Story. Sync & Go is reason enough to buy the program if you want to grab news and other audio and video clips from the Internet and take them on your Pocket PC. You pick playlists or online news and commentary from, say, NPR, NBC, MSNBC, and Comedy Central, and more, and at the click of a button, Sync & Go shuttles the audio in question onto your iPaq or other ActiveSync 3.5-enabled device. It worked without a hitch in our tests with a new Dell Axim.
To an audiophile with a library of vinyl and tapes, Analog Recorder is the real jewel in Plus Digital Media Edition. Not only does it simplify creating Windows Media files out of old analog recordings, it also does a stellar job of cleaning up the sound quality. It takes the pops and crackles out of scratched vinyl recordings and the hiss out of tapes, and it lets you compare before-and-after versions so that you can skip the filtering if you prefer. This feature isn't unique, but it is very effective--as it should be, since the technology came under license from Syntrillium Software, which publishes the professional-strength CoolEdit 2.0.
Sync & Go is the fastest way we've seen to get content from the Internet to a Pocket PC device--and keep it fresh without any effort.
Finally, Photo Story is just a cool slide-show tool that lets you record your own commentary to a series of pictures, slap some music over the top, and make it into a Windows Media video. A throwaway function, perhaps, but made pretty easy in this step-by-step program, which, like Analog Recorder, sets sound-recording levels automatically.
The results from one or two of Plus Digital Media Edition's modules were less impressive than we expected. The Audio Converter failed to convert ADPCM-encoded WAV files and some MP3 files in our test suite. Worse, it introduced a stutter on some tracks encoded during a session of multitasking on other applications. This was a surprise on an otherwise relatively powerful system (last year's HP Pavilion 1.4GHz, with 480MB of free RAM). With the Plus Audio Converter, making WMA files out of MP3s should be considered as delicate a process as burning a CD-ROM.
Not all audio files are created equal. Plus Audio Converter chokes on some WAV files, including those encoded with Microsoft ADPCM, and some MP3s, too.
The ultrafinicky may also take issue with the encoding of video slide shows created by Photo Story--the Ken Burns-style panning across photos sometimes results in stepping or moiré patterns.
In theory, Microsoft offers sound tech support for a product that costs only 20 bucks. There's an excellent help system in the program itself, plus an infrastructure of online forums and assisted online help. But as of this writing, the turnaround for incidents involving Plus Digital Media Edition wasn't too speedy or helpful. We had to register for a Microsoft Passport account and navigate a tortuous series of screens to even place our question in Microsoft's online forum. And our query about problems with converting audio took four days to answer and led to some obvious but useful suggestions--turning off the antivirus software, suspending scheduled tasks, and so on--but favored reinstalling Windows XP, which seemed a bit drastic.