Windows XP extends the operating system's ability to act as an entertainment centre -- even though, for most people, the idea of sitting in front of a PC to watch a full-length film is not currently compelling. That said, as well as offering the usual ability to play audio and video sources, XP's new Windows Media Player (WMP), version 8.0, can control and manage media.
WMP 8.0 has taken many features from rival products such as Real's RealPlayer, including the ability to adapt its operation to the available bandwidth. It also looks very different from the standard Windows Media Player, and comes with a number of skins -- with more available online -- that allow you to customise its appearance. More usefully perhaps, WMP will scour your hard disks to find audio and video sources, display them in categories and play them back sequentially. Using Microsoft's Windows Update page, users of earlier Windows versions can upgrade to WMP 7.1, which offers the same capabilities.
As well as categorising your media, XP's Windows Media Player will copy tracks to and from CDs, converting them into MP3s if you have the appropriate third-party add-on, from where they can be downloaded into a portable player.
A major addition to WMP 8.0 is the ability to burn your own CDs. Compared to many third-party efforts, Microsoft has made this feature simple to use. To burn a CD-R or RW disc, you select a collection of files and drag them over to the CD-R/RW drive, which then prompts Windows to generate a CD image. Then you just select the files from that image and, from Windows Explorer's File menu, opt to write the files to CD. At this point the system takes over and in a few minutes -- assuming you have the correct hardware installed -- you're done. Although WMP 8.0 doesn't boast anything like the range of CD-burning functions of third-party offerings, it will do the job well enough for many users.
WMP 8.0 adds the ability to play DVDs -- as long as you have a DVD codec installed. If you don't, the software points you towards various third-party online sources of codecs. You can listen to MP3s using Windows Media Player 8.0, but if you want to create them -- by 'ripping' audio CDs, for example -- again you'll have to resort to third-party software. DVD playback and MP3 encoding add-ons will be available from Cyberlink, Intervideo and Ravisent among others.
All these new information types flowing through your system are saved in meta-folders like Windows 2000's My Documents and My Webs folders. The My Music folder is where WMA and MP3 files go by default, and My Videos is where video clips are located. Each folder has the appropriate properties for playing and manipulating the files.
Video is more prominent in Windows XP, now that today's hardware is able to handle it. XP's Windows Movie Maker is a simple application that will allow most people to put together video clips -- from video cameras, TV or other sources -- and add an audio track. You can import AVI or Windows' own WMV video files, as well as compressed files from the MPEG stable. Alternatively, assuming you have the requisite video capture card, you can bring video into the application directly. Windows Movie Maker lets you drop clips and audio tracks onto a timeline, transitioning using cuts and dissolves only. For anything more complex, you'll need a more powerful application. It's worth noting that you'll need more powerful hardware for this application: Microsoft says that at least a 300MHz Pentium is needed, but we found our 300MHz notebook unequal to the task. Video editing is one of those applications where is difficult to specify too much CPU power.
Simple but reasonably effective, Windows Movie Maker allows you to drag and drop video clips onto a timeline to build a short movie. Transition effects are limited to cuts and dissolves.
Finally, the Web Publishing Wizard, as the name suggests, allows you to publish to MSN. Setting it up is simple. You give it an email address, it sets up an account, asks what you want to upload and whether you want it made public, and sends an email telling you how to access that information.
Setting up Windows XP to handle your multimedia requirements is simple -- but then so are its capabilities. In typical Microsoft fashion, it provides you with tools that are just about capable of producing a finished result, but which will leave anyone serious about the project wanting more. There are sound commercial reasons for this for which Microsoft can hardly be blamed, and most users will probably find these tools a good place to start.