December 13, 2001 7:25 AM PST

Microsoft "tunes" up Windows XP

Microsoft released a number of free entertainment enhancements to its Windows XP operating system Thursday, as the software maker continues to advance its digital media strategy.

The Gatekeeper: Windows XP Dubbed Windows Media Bonus Pack for Windows XP, the free download includes tools for getting more out of the new operating system's built-in media player. Microsoft's holiday goodie bag includes new visualizations and skins, a playlist-to-spreadsheet export utility, and extra tools for amateur moviemakers.

But one of the free enhancements may benefit Microsoft more than it will digital music consumers. Microsoft is giving away a slimmed-down version of its MP3 Audio Converter utility found in its separate Plus for Windows XP add-on pack.

Running the conversion utility transforms MP3 files into Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) file format. That's great for Microsoft's goal of building support for WMA, but consumers may find little benefit in converting to a less popular file format, analysts said.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company touted the utility in a news release as a way of letting people "double the amount of music they can store on their PC by converting their MP3 files quickly and easily" to WMA.

Because WMA file sizes are smaller than those for the more popular MP3, the proprietary music format delivers better sound quality per bit rate. But the benefits are nowhere as great as Microsoft claims, analysts say.

"I think if you read the fine print you'll find you won't double your disk space and get the same quality as MP3," Gartner analyst Michael Silver said. "The benefits may be a lot less."

Consumers taking Microsoft's offer to convert their digital music files may find limitations to WMA over MP3. Those swapping files will find MP3 is the more widely used of the two formats. In addition, not all digital music players support WMA, while virtually all play MP3 files.

On the other hand, the benefits to Microsoft are potentially huge, particularly as the company looks to gain traction for the WMA format over MP3. Windows Media Player packs digital rights management (DRM) technology that Microsoft hopes will woo content providers to WMA. DRM reduces illegal copying of video or audio files.

see CNET Software: Windows XP Guide A number of music distributors already use WMA, such as Yahoo's Launch. Songs such as Green Day's "Poprocks and Coke" or "May It Be" by Enya can be downloaded only in WMA format. Microsoft's DRM technology prevents copying to CDs and stops the song from playing after a set period of time, usually 30 days.

Windows Media Player for XP does not fully support the MP3 format. Consumers must spend $10 or more for third-party software if they want to convert, or "rip," MP3s from CDs. But Microsoft's software will play MP3s.

Still, consumers may find other features of the free enhancement pack enticing.

The download includes a version of Microsoft's popular PowerToys utility for Windows Media Player. Microsoft has offered PowerToys since Windows 95, giving people ways to tweak and enhance the operating system's interface or to access hidden features. Microsoft also offers a version of the utility for Pocket PC handhelds.

Among other things, the media player version of Power Toys offers tray control from the XP taskbar, a way to automatically organize and update song libraries, and the ability to export playlists to Excel spreadsheets.

Windows Media Bonus Pack also delivers new visualizations and skins. Visualizations include the MSN Photos picture viewer, holiday fireplace, and visuals from "Dungeon Siege," an upcoming Microsoft game. A stars-and-stripes skin joins others designed by TheSkinsFactory.com.

Microsoft also is targeting amateur moviemakers, offering them new sound effects, music clips and title images provided by SoundDogs.com.

As part of its effort to woo content providers, the bonus pack also serves up special offers from CinemaNow, Intertainer and Ifilm.

 

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