New Media Player boosts tunes, video

Review: It creates small, clear music files

Plus! module imports photos, creates slide shows, gives video sound.

November 27, 2003|By James Coates | James Coates,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A few years back, I reviewed the Microsoft Media Player that is built into every version of the Windows operating system. Among other tests, I used it to extract a copy of my favorite Nanci Griffith tune, "Julie Anne," from a CD and store it on my hard drive as a digital file.

I've kept that file with every computer I've used since then because none can open it and I want to remember why. The file won't open because I agreed to a default setting in that software to mark recorded music so that it could be played only on the computer that made it.

When I complained to Microsoft executives about the way my own music had been hijacked, I was told they had changed Media Player so it no longer would automatically "protect" files recorded from store-bought CDs.

But if you check the wrong box while setting up this amazingly good music and video-playing program, your music still can be stamped so that it can't play on other machines.

Here's the idea behind it: I'm supposed to be so sympathetic to the millionaires and billionaires represented by the Recording Industry Association of America that I'll voluntarily maim each file I rip from my CDs for playing on my own computer so that I can't give it to others and they can't pass it on.

And more to the point, Microsoft can tell the RIAA, the movie industry, the publishing industry and all other creators of digital content that the omnipresent and omnivorous Windows operating system can guarantee that their songs, movies, books and other creative products are pretty close to immune from computer-driven piracy.

All you need is to have everybody using Windows (which is pretty close to the current situation anyway) and to have copyright holders sell their stuff as Windows-protected files.

If those MP3 music files that prompted the Napster revolution and turned the RIAA into a vigilante posse of subpoena servers had been done as protected files, none of them would have played on the computers of those who pirated them.

The vast majority of file swappers use a Windows operating system, and Microsoft controls the technology to make disabling files on would-be pirates' computers possible.

So I've moved that music file onto each PC I get to remind me that the world's largest software company is expanding its reach and wealth by taking advantage of the fact that about 9 out of every 10 personal computers run on its operating systems.

All that said, here's an upbeat review of the latest iteration of Microsoft's media-playing and file-making software, a brilliant new enhancement to Plus! Digital Media Edition for Windows XP that augments both the Media Player for music and video and the Movie Maker 2 module of Windows XP for creating home-brewed digital movies.

With it you get extremely efficient encryption that makes .wma files much smaller and of higher quality than just about any competitor can.

The Plus! module that costs $20 and can be bought at stores or the Microsoft Web site (www.windows.com/plus.dme) also beefs up what Windows can do with digital photos. This is done with Plus! Photo Story 2, an easy-to-use program that enables importing of images from a digital camera or a hard drive and turn outs professional-looking slide shows. This version will burn slide shows onto CDs in the VCD format to play on most home DVD players.

Photo Story 2 enables you to use a microphone to record narration for shows or to attach music files, including MP3s.

Slides can be timed and an automatic effect can be used to zoom in and out of images to bring photos to life.

The picture shows are created in the .wmv (Windows Media Video) format and can be incorporated in longer movies using the Movie Player 2 software that accepts video clips from digital camcorders and permits extremely easy film editing.

The new Plus! software adds a raft of special effects and transitions that work with the Movie Maker 2 titling and clip-trimming tools to create polished home-video productions. These .wmv files can be made small for e-mail, medium for CD players or high resolution for display on monitors and digital projectors.

I can only conclude that the price is right and this sweet software is well worth a trial by anybody with Windows XP and a digital camera or camcorder.

But with every .wma and .wmv I made, I couldn't help feeling I'd made a pact with the devil.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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