Windows XP's Move Maker application falls far short of Apple's iMovie. It is a disappointment, really, but a warning shot to those of us who enjoy using our Macs to edit digital videos.
Why? Because Microsoft can and will get Movie Maker right, someday. Maybe not version 1.2, or 1.3, or 2.1. But the writing is on the wall, and given that XP is now sold everywhere, more people will be trying it out. More vendors will be focusing their attention on XP, and the Mac universe might shrink even further. And that is a shame, because iMovie is probably the most fun I have had on a computer in years, and I would hate to see it go away.
Movie Maker comes up short in two areas. First, you can't export the digital video stream back to your camera. You can only save it as a file, which is great if you want to create DVDs or Video CDs. My way of working differs: when I finish a project, I want to make a digital videotape master and have that copy as an archive in case I ever want to go back and edit the project further in the future. It is a lot easier to save a 10 minute movie on a piece of video tape than to tie up several hundred megabytes of my hard disk space for something that I will rarely need access to. (You could make that argument for a recordable DVD, if you had a DVD burner. And someday I'll try this out.) Also, once I have the finished movie back in my digital camera, I can make multiple VHS copies to send to family and friends.
Second, Movie Maker lacks most of the editing, transition, and effects tools that are found in iMovie. While I don't use many special effects in my movies, I do use a few and these few are essential to producing a quality video. Without them, I am in the stone age.
But let's look at Movie Maker from another perspective: making a montage of various still images. You don't need all the special effects, and you are just laying down a simple soundtrack or a narration as the images pass on by. Here you can actually do something with the software, and perhaps where Microsoft has its design point. With this in mind, there are several caveats if you are going to make some movies.
First, of course, you have to have some way to grab the digital stream from your camera. There are several methods. You might be able to remove the media from your camera and insert it in your PC, if your PC has a PC Card slot and you have a special adapter for the Compact Flash or SmartMedia or one of the numerous other "little" memory cards that go into cameras. This is probably the best bet for XP and great if you are moving small batches of still images from camera to computer.
But if you have to download videos, they are often too big to fit on any of these memory cards. Here your choices are either USB or firewire connections. This is because these two methods are fast enough to quickly suck the digital data from your camera. Most PCs sold in the last several years come with USB ports, but very few (except from Sony and a few others) come with firewire ports. Of course, all Macs sold in the last several years include both ports.
The method you use will depend on your camera, naturally. My Sony video camera has a firewire port. If you need to add a firewire port to your computer, there are several available that support XP: a few minutes spent on Microsoft's Windows Catalog web site will find five or six models. I bought the Pyro 1394 from adstech.com. It installed without any complaint or any special drivers on an old 233 MHz Pentium II clone that has seen better days but runs XP just fine. That was the nicest thing about this whole experience.
But getting a port is just the beginning of the process. Despite the hype from Microsoft, not all cameras are supported by XP yet. The problem has two dimensions: first, most cameras come with some rinky-dink software that allows you to grab its stored images over its supplied cable. Much of this software isn't XP compatible yet and may never be, depending on who wrote the software and whether the camera vendor wants to spend the dough to have it rewritten. On my cheapo HP camera, I had to reinstall the software after I upgraded my PC to XP, although the software seems to work fine now. You may not be so lucky.
The bigger problem is one of drivers. XP is supposed to automatically recognize a digital camera when it is plugged in to the computer. (Remember plug and play?) I have found that sometimes it does, in which case everything is gravy: it brings up a browser window and you can download your images without any additional software.
But sometimes it doesn't recognize the camera, in which case unless you have a driver, you are sunk. The same is true for all other peripherals: I still don't have terrific support for my Creative Labs Live sound card and several other music players under XP, and no word on when that will improve.
If you are thinking about buying a new digital camera, make sure you check this with your vendor. Kodak's web site has a great page of information about which of their cameras will work with HP and which cameras have software that will also run on XP, although as I said if all you use the software for is to transfer files, you are better off with the built-in XP browsing tools anyway. I couldn't find anything on either HP's or Nikon's web sites about XP support when I checked a week ago.
What about other Windows-based video editing software? There are several, and I am still working with them. So far, I can't report much success getting any of them to run on XP. Of course, now that I have a firewire card I can try bringing up Windows 98 and seeing how they perform. But why bother, when everything works so easily and well on my Mac?
And that is where things sit for digital video these days. Windows has plenty of potential, but very little of it has been realized. The Mac and iMovie have plenty of capabilities, and for anyone who wants to approach digital video as a hobby, this combination really is the only way to go.
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