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 slide shows and movies, but it is far from perfect. Released from beta on Wednesday, this is functional freeware that's aimed squarely at the casual consumer crowd. Although mostly easy to use, its toolset 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.
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 name the original tabs "video," "audio," and "text," and dispense with the highlighted tabs above the tabs.
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 ways is a great two-second option for casual or time-stressed users. After all, you can always tweak later.
Here's a hint: there's an optimal time to start AutoMovie. If you haven't saved your project, Windows Live Movie Maker titles it "My Movie" and closes it with "The End." It's harmless, but numbingly generic. If you save first and automate the movie after, the software will title your piece as you saved it. Thus, "Yosemite Trip 2009" instead of "My Movie."
Tweaking filled-in titles, captions, and credits isn't difficult, so long as you remember to double-click to edit, not right-click. Sadly, there's no master slide where you can standardize the placement, font, and color of captions and the title or credits page. This means that if you don't like the default font and formatting, you'll need to redo this manually each time. You're able to change colors, placement, and font type through the menu, and you can click and drag elements in the preview window and throughout the storyboard; 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.
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. Again, the tools are basic. Don't expect fancy editing options here.
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 e-mail 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 wide-screen), 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.
Windows Movie Maker for Vista
Windows Live Movie Maker 1.0 is a separate product from the Windows Movie Maker that comes with Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions (but not in Home Basic or Business.) Part of the difference comes down to audience, and part to post-production. Since the audience is consciously beginner, this app casts a wider net. To attract many, the team added only a few features, shifting the focus to make them more social. Windows Movie Maker for Vista retains its more traditional timeline and integrated search through the photo gallery. It has fewer output options--no YouTube or Facebook upload, no formatting to the cell phone. If you're more interested in speed or social networks, you may want to check out the new app and decide which you prefer. It'll only cost you the download time and however long it takes to whip up a few movies.
Overall look and feel
Compared to Apple's polished, elegant, and feature-packed iMovie, Windows Live Movie Maker is a crude imitator. However, its 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 customize. The few intermediate tools (like fades, start and end points) 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 if you get stuck.
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. Even better, it would create an advanced mode that includes features like master slides, that traditional timeline, and more granular controls for video and audio.
You can start getting acquainted with Microsoft's online overview.
Updated August, 24, 2009, at 8:00 p.m. PT with more details.