Microsoft has run through several versions of its free Movie Maker application for various Windows platforms, most of them earning a fair amount of criticism. The latest edition, Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0, does easily turn photos and video clips into slideshows and movies, but it is far from perfect.
None-the-less, this is functional freeware that's aimed squarely at the casual consumer crowd. Although mostly easy to use, its tool set and interface lack a certain sophistication that users of all levels would appreciate.
The fresh-out-of-beta Windows Live Movie Maker (not to be confused with Windows Movie Maker, minus the "Live") is compatible with Vista and Windows 7 operating systems only. It comes bundled into the Windows Live Essentials suite of apps, but you can separate it out with a little click-surgery. To get Movie Maker only, you'll need to uncheck the boxes for the other programs in the suite, leaving Movie Maker selected. Before the app finishes installing, take care to read the penultimate window; if you race ahead, you'll be changing your default search to Microsoft's Bing and your home page to MSN.
Windows Live Movie Maker comes bundled in a software suite. (Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
With its visual ribbon of menu actions, Windows Live Movie Maker emulates the look and feel of Microsoft Office 2007 applications. The preview window is portioned out to the left of the screen and the gallery of photos and clips you'll import sits on the right. Interestingly, tool tips appear above the Edit, Options and Format tabs to alert you that these are the menus for video, audio and text tools. These tabs disappear when you're not using them. While we like this feature, we also wonder why Microsoft didn't just dispense with the highlights and name them accordingly.
Making instant movies
Microsoft's emphasis on the visual hits home when you get started. In addition to adding photos and video clips through a menu button, you can drag and drop them into the storyboard. Likewise, you can click and drag to move clips around. For extremely simple movie-creation, after you arrange the clips, a click of the AutoMovie button (in the Home tab) ties the clips together with a title, transitions, and pan and zoom effects. If it doesn't add a song clip for you, it prompts you to select one (again, through the Home tab). Automating movies and slideshows this way is a great two-second option for casual or time-stressed users. After all, you can always tweak later.
What Microsoft doesn't tell you is that there's an optimal time to hand Windows Live Movie Maker the automated dirty work. If you haven't saved your project, the app titles it "My Movie" and closes it with "The End". It's harmless, but numbingly generic. Save first and automate later, and the software will title your piece as you saved it.
Tweaking filled-in titles, captions and credits isn't difficult, so long as you remember to double click to edit, not right-click. You're able to change colours, placement and font type through the menu, and you can click and drag elements in the preview window and along the timeline; for instance, if you're delaying the moment an opening credit shows.
You can similarly change transitions (called animations here), as well as pan and zoom effects, just by selecting a new one from the Animations tab. On one hand, it's convenient to see a preview when you mouse over each transition or effect. On the other, it quickly becomes dizzying when you're hunting for the right one.
Quickly preview animations and visual effects. (Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
Adding music, editing video
Like any good slideshow or movie tool, Windows Live Movie Maker can pluck audio gems from your music collection. The tools are basic, even a little rough, but there are some necessities — fade-ins and fade-outs, for instance, and fitting the song to your movie's duration. The AutoMovie tool can help you apply a track, but it won't automatically turn on fading, a drawback in our opinion. Adding music at current points also requires a learning curve.
Most videos can handle a healthy trim on either end to get to the meat of the action. Windows Live Movie Maker boasts both trim and splitting tools, so you can shave or hack off slow sections. You can also set start and end points and apply fades.
Microsoft provides a list of all compatible image and video file types here.
Publishing and sharing
When it comes time to share the memories, you'll visit the Sharing bay on the Home tab. The quick-button options within can email the finished video, burn it to DVD, or upload it to YouTube (you'll need an account). Windows Live Movie Maker can also upload to Facebook via a plug-in, save in HD format for you to transfer to your TV (standard or widescreen), and can convert the video to a mobile phone-friendly format.
Windows Live Movie Maker looks almost identical on Vista and Windows 7, but it does take advantage of two underlying Windows 7 features. First, there are jump lists, which will give quick access to recent projects and finished movies. Second, it supports QuickTime MOV and QT files, AVCHD and MPEG-4 video formats. As a reminder, this version is not available for Windows XP.
Highlighted tabs clue you into editing tools. (Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
Overall look and feel
Compared to Apple's polished, elegant and feature-packed iMovie, Windows Live Movie Maker is a crude imitator. However, it's comparatively spartan interface should also make it more inviting to novices. The menu tabs that disappear when not in use help keep tasks focused. AutoMovie saves time and gives movie makers a starting-off point to further customise. The few intermediate and advanced tools add variety, though the online FAQs found by clicking the Help menu (the question mark icon) fail to explain their use; you'll need to hit up Microsoft's forums for more details.
All in all Windows Live Movie Maker is decent freeware that lives up to its promise of making movies fast. Regardless, Microsoft would do well, at the very least, to build more sharing plug-ins and a fleshier Help menu.
You can start getting acquainted with Microsoft's online overview.