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On Its Third Try, Microsoft Finally Gets the Video Editor Right

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Microsoft has a sometimes undeserved reputation for needing three tries to get a product right, but in the case of Windows Movie Maker that description seems fair.

Movie Maker began life as a largely ignored part of Windows Millennium Edition and wasn't much better when XP arrived -- it couldn't even burn a DVD of your footage, instead limiting you to a proprietary, soon-abandoned multimedia disc format. Its Windows Vista incarnation added DVD output but offered little help with publishing videos online.

But Microsoft's new Windows Live Movie Maker (http://download.live.com/moviemaker) represents a genuine advance. The barely changed name understates how little this program -- a free download for Windows Vista and its upcoming replacement, Windows 7, but not Windows XP -- shares with older Movie Maker releases. It leaves out some features of its predecessors, incorporates a rewritten interface and adds a far more useful set of video-sharing options.

It also has a few bugs -- but they're nothing Microsoft can't fix in a maintenance release or three.

Live Movie Maker's installation experience, unfortunately, ranks among them. Getting this program requires downloading a Windows Live Installer setup utility that comes preset to install Microsoft's entire suite of Live software -- nine applications on a Vista laptop. Unless you opt out, installing Movie Maker will also switch your browser's search engine to Microsoft's Bing (a decent alternative to Google) and change its home page to MSN.com (a decent way to remember how bad "portal sites" looked in 1999).

Movie Maker's installer didn't remove an old version of the program on that Vista laptop, but at least nobody will confuse the two. Where the prior release employs a conventional menu-and-toolbar interface, Live Movie Maker adopts the "ribbon" style of Microsoft's Office 2007, in which one large toolbar reveals different functions as you select tabs -- Home, Animations, Visual Effects and so on -- at the top of the window.

Many Office 2007 users say they hate the ribbon, but here it seems to work, presenting the program's features in manageable subsets.

Live Movie Maker can open video clips and photos already saved on your computer, or you can use Windows Live Photo Gallery -- installed alongside Live Movie Maker even if you select only the video editor -- to import them from a camera or camcorder.

Microsoft advertises that in Windows 7, you will also be able to grab video from a Flip camcorder or an iPhone, but I had no problem pulling in clips from a Flip UltraHD and an iPhone 3GS in Vista. Yet on a computer running an almost-final version of 7, I couldn't play footage from either device, apparently because of a conflict with a Pinnacle digital TV program.

Live Movie Maker presents these clips as a series of thumbnails of varying length. You can flip any of them 90 degrees (helpful if you held a digital camera on its side when recording video), easily split or trim them, and rearrange their order before adding title screens, captions, closing credits and any of dozens of Hollywood-style transitions. If you're assembling a slide show, you can apply fancy visual treatments and Ken Burns-style panning effects to your photos. And you can pick out a soundtrack, then have the program adjust the movie's duration to match the music's play time.

If you're in a hurry, you can just pick a song and click the AutoMovie button to have Live Movie Maker do the rest of the work for you.

But unlike older Movie Maker releases, this version doesn't record voice-over narrations. And unlike such non-free video editors as Apple's iMovie, it can't sharpen a grainy shot or stabilize a jittery clip.

What Live Movie Maker does better than any previous Movie Maker version is offer a choice of destinations for your video. You can save it to your computer in standard or high definition, as well as burn it to a DVD (with help from the Windows DVD Maker program included in most copies of Vista and 7), but you can also upload it to YouTube. Yes, the video-sharing site owned by Google, the corporate rival Microsoft would most like to see slip on a banana peel.

Some part of Microsoft must have died when Live Movie Maker's developers added this feature, but it was the right call. YouTube is far more popular than any other video-sharing site, much less any of Microsoft's attempts, and this program would have looked silly to ignore it.

Instead, you need only enter your YouTube user name and password, type in a description and tags for your clip, choose to make it private or public, and wait for the upload to complete. Two attempts, however, yielded only inscrutable error codes like "(0x0B034654)" before a third try succeeded.

You can add support for other popular video-sharing sites by installing free plug-ins; one, for example, can upload clips to a Facebook profile and functioned as advertised in one test.

With Live Movie Maker, Microsoft has delivered a fairly impressive production, and in a market that offers few free video-editing options. But don't rush out to see it on its opening weekend; let the company ship a round of bug fixes first.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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