Digital Media in Windows Vista

The English language is a veritable factory of new words and phrases. Inventive wordsmiths in all fields are constantly forging new additions to the lexicon by blending words, attaching morphemic tidbits to existing words, and creating neologisms out of thin air.

Some of these new words strike a chord in popular culture and go through what I call the "cachet to cliché" syndrome. In other words, the word is suddenly on the lips of cocktail party participants and water-cooler conversationalists everywhere, and on the fingertips of countless columnists and editorialists. As soon as the word takes root, however, the backlash begins.

Rants of the if-I-hear-the-word-x-one-more-time-I'll-scream variety start to appear, Lake Superior State University includes the word in its annual list of phrases that should be stricken from the language, and so on. The word multimedia went through this riches-to-rags scenario a few of years ago. Buoyed by the promise of media-rich interactive applications and games, techies and nontechies alike quickly made multimedia their favorite buzzword.

It didn't take long, however, for the bloom to come off the multimedia rose. Part of the problem was that when multimedia first became a big deal in the early '90s, the average computer just wasn't powerful enough to handle the extra demands made on the system. Not only that, but Windows support for multimedia was sporadic and half-hearted. That has all changed now, however.

The typical PC sold today has more than enough horsepower to handle typical multimedia-related tasks, and Windows Vista has a number of slick new features that let developers and end users alike incorporate multimedia seamlessly into their work. Now it doesn't much matter that the word multimedia has more or less been replaced by the phrase digital mediawhat really matters is that people can get down to the more practical matter of creating exciting media-enhanced documents.

Easier AutoPlay Defaults

The AutoPlay feature dictates the program that runs automatically when you insert removable media into a slot in the computer. We've had AutoPlay for CDs since Windows 95, and Windows XP added AutoPlay support for most types of removable media, including DVDs, Flash drives, and memory cards.

AutoPlay has become more sophisticated over the years, to the point that XP offered several choices when you inserted removable media, and those choices depended on the contents of the media. For music files, for example, AutoPlay could play or rip the files in Windows Media Player or just open a folder window to view the files. For pictures, AutoPlay could launch the Scanner and Camera Wizard, start a slide show, launch the Photo Printing Wizard, or view the images.

Also, many third-party programs could tie into the AutoPlay feature and add their own actions to the AutoPlay menu (for example, to play music files in a different program or to edit pictures in an image-editing program). However, customizing AutoPlay has never been easy. You could always choose a default action when the AutoPlay window appeared, but what if you wanted to change the default?

In XP, you configured AutoPlay by opening the property sheet for a drive and then displaying the AutoPlay tab. You then used a drop-down list to choose the content type, clicked the default action, and then clicked Apply. From there you had to repeat this procedure for all the different content types: music files, pictures, video files, mixed content, music CD, DVD movie, and blank CD.

Finally, you had to run through all of these steps for all the other removable drives on your system. No doubt sensing that users had better things to do, Microsoft has greatly streamlined the customization of AutoPlay defaults in Windows Vista. Before getting to the customization feature, I should point out that Windows Vista also implements an improved AutoPlay window.

To customize the AutoPlay defaults, you have two choices:

  • If the AutoPlay window is onscreen, click the Set AutoPlay Defaults in Control Panel link.
  • In the Control Panel, select Hardware and Sound, AutoPlay (or just launch the AutoPlay icon if you're using Classic view).

Either way, you end up at the AutoPlay window. This page lists 16 different content types, from Audio CD to Video Files, to Super Video CD. Each content type has its own drop-down list, and you use that list to select the default action for each type.

Windows Photo Gallery

Over the past few years, digital cameras have become the photography tool of choice for everyone from novices to professionals. And it's no wonder: Digitals give photographers tremendous freedom to shoot at will without having to worry about paying processing costs or running out of film. If there's a downside to all this photographic freedom, it's that most of us end up with huge numbers of photos cluttering our hard drives.

The result has been a thriving market for third-party programs to import, view, and manage all those digital images. Digital-image management seems like the kind of thing that ought to be part of the operating system. However, although Windows has had programs such as the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer, it has never had a program designed to perform the full range of image-management tasks, from importing and viewing to organizing and burning.

Windows Vista changes all that by introducing a new program called Windows Photo Gallery (WPG). This program can import images and videos from a camera, a scanner, removable media, the network, or the Web. You can then view the images, add metadata such as captions and tags, rate the images, search for images, and even apply common fixes to improve the look of photos. You can also burn selected images to a DVD.

You launch the program by selecting Start, All Programs, Windows Photo Gallery. WPG immediately begins gathering the images on your hard disk. You can also import images by hand using the following File menu commands:

  • Add Folder to Gallery This command displays the Add Folder to Gallery dialog box, which enables you to import images from a specific folder.
  • Import from Scanner or Camera This command launches the Scanner and Camera Wizard, which takes you step by step through the process of importing images from a digital camera, a document scanner, or a removable medium.

Image Metadata and Tagging

You can also create your own metadata for each image. WPG enables you to change four properties: Caption, Date Taken, Rating, and Tag. The Tag property enables you to add one or more descriptive keywordstagsto the image, similar to what you do at photo-sharing websites such as Flickr. In WPG, you click the image you want to work with, display the Info pane (click Info or Tags, Create a New Tag), click Add Tags, type the tag, and press Enter.

Instant Search

As with so many other Vista windows, WPG comes with an integrated Instant Search box that supports as-you-type searches. After you type text in the Instant Search box, WPG searches filenames and all metadata (including your tags) for matching images and then shows the results in the WPG window.

Image Editing

WPG also comes with a limited set of tools for altering images. Click the image you want to work with and then click Fix to display the image in the window. Here you get sliders to adjust the Brightness, Contrast, Color Temperature, and Tint. (You can also click Auto Adjust to have WPG make the adjustments for you.) In all WPG windows, you can also rotate the image.

WPG also supports the following features:

  • To preview any image, double-click it.
  • To view a slide show, click the Play Slideshow button. Note that the Vista slide show engine comes with 15 different playback modes. During the slide show, move the mouse to display the controls, and then click Themes to choose the playback mode you prefer.
  • To set an image as the desktop background, right-click the image, and then click Set as Background.
  • To burn images to a DVD disc, select Create, DVD.