Fashion a Windows multimedia suite for cheap

If you don't mind being scrappy, you can cobble together a wholesome spread of multimedia tools to create your own makeshift editing suite--for next to nothing.

(Credit: CNET)

A recent review of Corel Digital Studio 2010 got me close and personal with the consumer-oriented multimedia suite. Corel's studio excelled at providing a consistent, unified look, navigation, and toolset across its applications for editing photos and videos, making movies, burning content, and playing videos. It also copies photos, videos, and music to your mobile device, and can create photo projects like photo books and cards.

All good stuff, but it doesn't come cheap. Multimedia suites like this will put you out about $100. They're worth the price if you frequently use the tools, or if you vastly prefer the convenience and accessibility of a consumer-friendly setup. However, if you don't mind being scrappy, you can cobble together a spread of multimedia tools--your own "suite"--for next to nothing.

Edit and create

FastStone Image Viewer

FastStone Image Viewer has quick-access editing tools.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

Photo editing, video editing, and making movies are the three largest focal points of multimedia suites like Corel Digital Studio 2010 and Roxio Creator 2010 (unfortunately, no download trial is available for the latter). Google's Picasa is one of my favorite freeware tools for casual users, and one of the closest direct matches to what's offered in a multimedia suite. Its uses are multifarious: organizing your photos and videos into albums, editing images and videos, sharing online, creating projects like collages and movies, and ordering prints.

The image-editing tools are serviceable, with red-eye removal, one-click lighting fixes, cropping and straightening, and finer tools for addressing blemishes and lighting. There are also 12 effects, like sepia tones and soft focus. This contrasts with Picasa's low-grade video editor, which can at least rotate videos and trim them. The movie maker has many more controls, but is basic; it doesn't build in the polished templates of a premium program. Picasa does, however, offer to sell you prints from a choice of providers (choice is good), and can help create a collage.

For standalone photo editing, the freeware applications FastStone Image Viewer, IrfanView, Paint.NET, and GIMP range in features from the accessible to the powerful. Read more about them in this resource guide.

Vista and Windows 7 users can try out Microsft's new Windows Live Movie Maker (review), freeware that can slap photos and video clips into a new movie in seconds. Deeper controls let you tweak transitions, captions, and effects after the automation. Editing tools include splitting, trimming, and applying fade points. As a point of comparison, video editors in these consumer-focused multimedia suites are better-equipped, perhaps with audio-tuning tools and features to adjust video lighting.

Windows Live Movie Maker

Windows Live Movie Maker works on Vista and Windows 7 computers.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

Creating calendars and photo books are a DIY project within your reach if you have an excellent photo printer and a home bookbinding kit. Otherwise, you can spend your energy on the editing and captioning and get a project printed somewhere else. Retail shops, like FedEx Office in the U.S., will print projects. Online photo albums and services like Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Zazzle will also gladly accept your business. The 12-month calendars run from $15 to $20; large photo books are often in the mid-$30 range (online services often charge for shipping). Corel Digital Studio is similarly priced.

Burn and convert

Burning backup DVDs and converting home movies to a mobile-compatible format are two more core features in multimedia suites. Here's a list of some common freeware converters and DVD burners to get you started.

-Easy MPEG/AVI/DIVX/WMV/RM to DVD
-Sothink Movie DVD Maker
-Xilisoft AVI to DVD Converter (free-to-try)
-Videora iPod Converter
-Any Video Converter

-CinemaForge
- Free 3GP Video Converter
-FormatFactory

Search Download.com for more on video converters, DVD burners, and DVD software.

Playback

VLC Media Player

VLC's unobtrusive control panel gives playback options.

(Credit: VLC)

A high point of Corel WinDVD 2010, ordinarily valued at $50, is its ability to fine-tune audio and video elements during playback, bookmark spots on the timeline, and record while a video plays. Most of these are extras you can live without. As an alternative, we recommend the open-source VLC Media Player, which is skinnable, supports an impressive range of video formats, and can record streaming video.

It bears repeating that these substitute apps won't draw a one-to-one comparison with a suite, especially when some of these freebies lack polish, but they're close enough to accomplish most of your aims, and will let you pick and choose the features you'll really use without gulping up excess space.

Are there any other of your favorites we've left out? Share them in the comments.

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