Whenever it launches a new version of Windows, Microsoft offers Plus as an after-market collection of add-ons for home users. But this time, Microsoft has gone too far. Where it used to populate Plus with engrossing entertainment (think Pinball in Plus 95) or useful utilities (such as VirusScan in Plus 98), Microsoft Plus for XP gives you only lightweight add-ons: desktop themes, screensavers, borderline games, and audio enhancements that should have been part of the OS from the start. You can find a lot of the same or similar tools on the Web for free. Save yourself $35 to $40 and spend it on something XP really needs: an antivirus program. Whenever it launches a new version of Windows, Microsoft offers Plus as an after-market collection of add-ons for home users. But this time, Microsoft has gone too far. Where it used to populate Plus with engrossing entertainment (think Pinball in Plus 95) or useful utilities (such as VirusScan in Plus 98), Microsoft Plus for XP gives you only lightweight add-ons: desktop themes, screensavers, borderline games, and audio enhancements that should have been part of the OS from the start. You can find a lot of the same or similar tools on the Web for free. Save yourself $35 to $40 and spend it on something XP really needs: an antivirus program.
You can slap Plus onto your hard drive with no hassle. Plus doesn't just dump a bunch of icons under the Start menu, it insinuates itself into the operating system. For instance, it adds a "Convert to Windows Media Audio" command to the menu that pops up when you right-click an audio file--say, an MP3 file within Windows Explorer--and inserts its desktop themes and eight screensavers in the Windows Display Properties Control Panel so that you don't have to hunt around in your download folders.
It's easy to tweak Plus additions, too. You can get to all of its accessories from a one-screen interface that you launch from the Start menu. This launchpad is easy to use, with links that take you to Plus games, themes, screensavers, and digital audio add-ons. You can even apply a theme or a screensaver, run a game, or launch one of the audio tools from here.
Lame desktop decor
Plus's accessories come in four flavors: themes, screensavers, games, and digital audio. The first and second feature desktop decorators, the third a way to kill time when XP's bundled games get old, and the fourth a seven-pack collection of add-ons.
The desktop themes--collections of icons, wallpaper, sounds, mouse pointers, and other graphical elements--are snappy, but you're limited to back-to-nature, outer space, and Leonardo da Vinci-style decor. We were hoping to land themes that would completely recast XP's interface to look like Mac OS X or BeOS.
Plus's screensavers are slick, particularly Aquarium, a photo-realistic virtual fish tank that has, believe it or not, fooled a cat on more than one occasion, and MyPictures, a customizable screensaver that lets you use your own digital photos. Unlike the generic MyPictures Slideshow included with XP, the Plus edition ups the ante by letting you stick the pics onto animated backgrounds.
Although these themes and screensavers look spectacular, they're not unique. The Web hosts hundreds or thousands of screensavers and themes at download sites such as Screensaver.com and ThemeWorld.com. Actually, you can get Plus's Aquarium screensaver by downloading the free SereneScreen.com Aquarium, which also works on Windows 95, 98, Me, 2000, and NT. And if you want to completely change the way XP looks, check out the WindowBlinds XP beta, which lets you run any of hundreds of WindowBlinds' custom interfaces.
Audio add-ons are no turn-on
Like earlier Plus packs, this one includes restricted games in an attempt to tempt you into buying the real deal. The trio of Plus games--Russian Squares, the Labyrinth, and HyperBowl--may look graphically superior to the games bundled with XP, but they all rank high on the bore-o-meter. Of the three, HyperBowl is the most fun, in large part because it's an at-home knockoff of a hilarious arcade/bar game of the same name. The Labyrinth can be downloaded from RealArcade Central, so you don't even need to buy Plus to pick it up.
Plus's digital audio offerings--the MP3 Audio Converter, CD Label Maker, and Personal DJ--offer some value to Plus. The Converter takes MP3 audio files and turns them into WMA (Windows Media Audio) format to save disk space without sacrificing sound quality. CD Label Maker prints color and black-and-white labels and jewel case booklets for CDs you've burned, while Personal DJ walks you though the process of building a playlist in Windows Media Player.
But by all rights, both Converter and Personal DJ should come with Windows Media Player in the first place--for free. Although you won't save as much disk space, you can use shareware utilities to convert MP3 tracks to WMA format such as MP3 to WAV Converter or players such as Winamp. CD Label Maker integrates nicely with Media Player--you can compile a label in seconds simply by selecting an existing playlist--but alternatives exist for it too. The shareware SureThing CD Labeler, for instance, is a good choice.
Among Plus's truly useless digital audio offerings, we count Speaker Enhancement and Voice Command. According to Microsoft, the former "improves the sound quality of the audio played by Microsoft Media Player" by finessing speaker settings. We didn't notice any difference in the sound from our speakers when it was "working." Voice Command is a crueler joke. Although this speech-recognition engine lets you control Windows Media Player by saying things such as "Media player, play artist Dylan," we can't think of a single reason to shout at the computer. In order to be heard over your speakers, you practically have to scream "Media player, stop!" to turn off the music. Worse, Voice Command's speech engine conflicts with the one that comes with. We had to pull out our Office XP user guide to get everything working right again.
Call us cynical
It's easy to call Microsoft greedy, but this time, the shoe fits. Forget Plus for yourself. Keep it in mind only if you need a holiday idea for a rank XP rookie.