odayís PCs are increasingly designed around the idea of the ďdigital homeĒ, with special emphasis on creative digital photography, movies and music. While Windows XP Media Center Edition is best equipped for handling this multimedia extravaganza, there are tools that not only enhance its own features, but help lift XP Home and Professional to similar heights, also.
Organise your photos
The easiest way to manage your photo collection is with a tool like Windows Live Photo Gallery, which you can download from here Ė it works in exactly the same way as Windows Vistaís Photo Gallery tool, making it perfect for cataloguing your photos.
The program automatically catalogues files from your My Pictures folder when you begin Ė as the step-by-step guide below reveals, you can then easily add more folders to the list. You can also import photos from a camera or scanner from the File menu Ė this uses a different wizard to the basic one provided by Windows XP, and includes the option for tagging your photos as theyíre imported, but once followed, your photos will immediately be available in Windows Live Photo Gallery.
The step-by-step guide also reveals how to keep your photos in order using tags, which enables you to create collections. When selecting photos, you can either select them individually by clicking them, or select a group of photos by holding [Shift] as you click on the first and last photo in the group. If you want to choose all of the photos in the current selection, just press [Ctrl] + [A].
Windows Live Photo Gallery offers more than just a photo-cataloguing tool. Double-click an individual photo to view it at full size, where you can click Fix to perform some limited editing on it, or choose one of the other options to publish online, print (through your printer or an online photo processing company) or burn a data CD.
Manage your photos in Windows Live Photo Gallery
1. ADD PHOTOS TO CATALOGUE
Windows Live Photo Gallery automatically checks common locations like My Pictures; add more by choosing File > Include a folder in the gallery.
2. BROWSE COLLECTION
The left-hand window lets you browse by folder, date the photo was taken or by tags, which are keywords you assign to photos to help organise them.
3. SET UP AND ASSIGN TAGS
Select a photo or group of photos (click each photo you wish to include) and click Add Tag. Type in your key words and press [Enter]. Add as many tags as you wish.
4. VIEW OR EDIT PHOTOS
Double-click a photo to view it up close. Click Fix to edit the photo Ė you can improve lighting, fix red eye and resize, straighten or crop into the photo.
While Windows Live Photo Galleryís editing tools are basic, they do exist: when you click Fix youíll see options for removing red eye, correcting colour and lighting problems and so on. The original photo is backed up, so you can remove your changes at any time by clicking Undo.
If Windows Live Photo Galleryís editing tools are too basic, you need a more fully feature image-editing tool. If you donít have one on your PC, then install the splendiferous Paint.NET from here - this gives you full control over your image (youíll find the tools you need on the Adjustment menu). Youíll need the Microsoft .NET Framework installed Ė the program will prompt you to download this if itís needed during installation.
Upgrade to Windows Media Player 11
If youíre serious about your music, click here and download Windows Media Player 11, which is the latest bleeding-edge version of Microsoft popular media player. It contains everything thatís good about previous releases of the software, but throws in some excellent new features of its own to justify the update.
The interface has been completely redesigned, along with the library view. Now your music is displayed as large album cover thumbnails - in artist view, youíll see all of the artistís albums piled up neatly. This is more than just visual trickery - the result is a music library thatís easier to browse through.
Burning CDs is simpler and less troublesome too - you can even burn across multiple discs. If your playlist is too large for a single disc, Windows Media Player not only shows you where the breaks occur, but lets you burn multiple discs in one go, spitting out the disc when itís time to swap over for the next blank one.
Sharing music with other devices is a lot simpler too: the Sync tab has been revamped to make it easier than ever to share your music with your Windows Mobile Smartphone or MP3 player, while itís possible to make your entire music library available to UPnP devices like Netgearís MP101 digital music player too. Set this up by choosing Tools > Options, switching to the Library tab and clicking Configure Sharing. Tick Share my media and click OK to locate and allow individual devices to connect to your music collection.
Edit and burn movies
If youíre looking for ways of editing your home movie footage on your PC, then you already have the tool you need in the form of Windows Movie Maker (youíll find it on the Start > All Programs menu). Movies created in Windows Movie Maker can be distributed via the Internet, hard drive or even a CD, but you canít create a DVD that can be played in a standard DVD player using the program.
The Home Premium and Ultimate Editions of Windows Vista and 7 both come with Windows DVD Maker built-in, but XP (as well as Vista Home Basic) users can still burn DVD movies for free thanks to the fabulous open-source DVD Flick (click here). Itís capable of burning most video formats Ė including your edited movie from Windows Movie Maker - to a video DVD you can play back on your home DVD player. It's also supports the creation of menus and subtitles too, plus you can even integrate audio tracks into your DVD as an alternative or replacement for the one included with the video.
Burn CDs and DVDs
Windows XPís built-in support for burning CDs is quite limited, and thereís no support for burning to DVD within the program itself. Numerous third-party options like Nero and Easy Media Creator exist, but these have a heavy footprint, cost serious money and cause problems with your CD and DVD drives, particularly if you remove them.
Youíll find an effective, lightweight and completely free DVD-burning tool in the form of CDBurnerXP (click here). When it comes to burning data CDs and DVDs, this is all you need, while the box below reveals how the latest version of Windows Media Player is now the perfect tool for burning music CDs.
One of Windows XPís clever features its ability to burn data to CD within Windows itself. You can drag and drop files to disc, but there are limitations: you canít erase individual files from rewritable discs, and there is no support for DVD. Vista and Windows 7 remove this limitation, but panic not, because for a small outlay - just US$9.95 - you can purchase a more fully functional replacement in the form of NTI FileCD - see here for details. Also check out NTIís Dragon Disc, which is even more versatile, but costs US$19.95 (see here).
Get Media Center features in XP
1. INSTALL AND CONFIGURE
Download and install Media Portal from the here. The default installation options are fine - untick the MPEG2 encoders only if you can already play DVDs on your PC. After this finishes, the configuration screen will launch. Work your way through this configuring it as you wish to use it.
2. BASIC NAVIGATION
Launch Media Portal from its desktop shortcut. You can expand the window to fill the whole screen (perfect when you're browsing through your TV). Use your TV tuner's remote or your mouse to select which type of multimedia you wish to browse.
3. LOCATE AND PLAY
Drill down through the various levels (customise how each level looks as you go - Icon view is more picturesque, for example) until you find the movie, music track or photo folder you want. Use the remote to control playback or roll the mouse to the top of the screen.