Digital media a Plus for Windows XP

Microsoft will release early next year a Plus expansion pack for Windows XP that will enhance the digital media features in its desktop operating system. At the same time, the company said, it will make available the final release of its Windows Media 9 software.

Windows XP Plus Digital Media Edition, which Microsoft will release on Jan. 7, marks two firsts for the Redmond, Washington, software maker.

For one, it is the first in a series of special edition expansion packs Microsoft plans to release for its operating systems. Microsoft previously has only offered one Plus software pack for each version of Windows. It now plans to release multiple editions for each version that enhance different features in Windows.

Also notable about the release, Plus Digital Media Edition will be the first complete Microsoft product to be available as a download through online retailers, the company said.

Priced at US$19.95, the software comes with a variety of applications and feature enhancements for displaying and sharing digital photos and video, playing music and customizing the digital media capabilities already included in Windows XP.

One new application delivered in the expansion pack, called Photo Story, was developed by Microsoft Research as an application for easily creating photo slide shows that also feature music, special effects and narrations. Users can drag and drop as many as 150 images into Photo Story and choose accompanying music and the software will automatically arrange the pictures and music into a slide show.

Using new Windows audio compression technology, Photo Story slide shows can be saved as files small enough to send via e-mail or post on the Web, Microsoft said.

Also available in Plus Digital Media Edition is the final release of Windows Movie Maker 2. That software can be used to create home movies using digital video footage. A beta version of that software was released last month. The final release will be included in the expansion pack along with about 100 new special effects.

The Windows Media 9 software platform, which includes a new desktop media player and new audio and video compression technologies, known as codecs, also will also make its debut on Jan. 7. Customers who purchase Plus Digital Media Edition will receive Windows Media 9 in addition to some add-on functionality for the software.

One add-on feature, Plus Party Mode, and can be used to turn a Windows XP PC into a jukebox. Users can create a playlist and lock it so songs can't be added or deleted from the playlist without entering a password. Party Mode also features a bulletin board so partygoers can type in messages that will be displayed on the screen as music is playing.

Other features that are enabled with the Plus Digital Media Edition include the ability to shrink the Windows Media Player interface to fit inside the task bar. With the shrunken player, users can navigate through their playlists as well as watch digital video on a tiny Media Player screen that pops up from the interface. Users also get tools for converting digital music files into different formats, as well as a tool for turning vinyl records and cassette tapes into digital music files.

Plus Dancer, another enhancement to the media player, introduces several small animated characters that dance across a user's screen with music being played.

Plus Digital Media Edition is one of several efforts from Microsoft to improve the digital media experience of its operating system. In addition, Microsoft has released a special version of its operating system, called Windows XP Media Center Edition, that features more advanced digital media functions. That software is only sold pre-installed on certain PCs from manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard Co.