Few Thrills in Microsoft's Windows Me Beta 3

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Has the multimedia bug bitten you? Then Microsoft Corp.'s forthcoming successor to Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Millennium Edition, may be for you. Windows Me Beta 3 sports a souped-up digital media player and a digital camera interface, plus a basic video-editing program.

But while Beta 3 has come a long way from Beta 2 (see "Win 2000 Too Much? Wait for the Millennium," www.pcworld.com/mar00/win2k), it's business as usual below decks. Windows Me may look like the relatively crash-proof Windows 2000, but it sits atop the same shaky MS-DOS foundation as Windows 95. And with many of Windows Me's innovations available as free downloads (including Internet Explorer 5.5 and Windows Media Player 7), you may want to pass on the upgrade, which is slated to ship in the second half of the year.

Calling All Media

Windows Media Player 7 cribs features from several leading free and shareware players, most notably Nullsoft's Winamp. Media Player searches your drives for media files (MP3, .wav, and CD audio files; and AVI, MPEG, and QuickTime video). It uses an online database to organize audio files by artist and recording. It can rip or convert CD audio to Windows Media (.wma) files stored on your hard disk. But it can't create the more widely accepted MP3 files, a bit of Microsoft arrogance that could drive Windows users to third-party rippers that do support MP3.

Other Windows Me innovations won't be offered as free downloads. If you have a scanner or digital camera that works with Microsoft's Windows Image Acquisition interface, a software/hardware standard somewhat akin to the popular TWAIN, you'll be able to scan or select images over a simple cable connection--no need to download them to your hard disk first. Microsoft says more than half the digital cameras on the market will be WIA-compatible when Windows Me ships.

Mini-Editing Room

If you're the family videographer, Windows Me's Movie Maker could turn you into an auteur. Though less full-featured than packages such as Avid's Cinema, Movie Maker allows you to assemble camcorder or VHS clips into short movies, complete with audio tracks (your computer must have a video capture device and a roomy hard drive). But Movie Maker can't export the movies back to tape--it can only save them in Microsoft's .asf file format.

Windows Me boasts other enhancements: It can save the current memory state to disk and resume later, or it can return to the configuration of a previous day.

But like Windows 98 SE's improvements, most of these won't have a big impact on your quality of life.

A Free-Be Worth Checking Out

If you've weathered Windows and limped through a Linux installation, Be Inc.'s BeOS 5 can seem a blessing. Now a free 43MB download at free.be.com, BeOS 5 Personal Edition is a clean, fast, compact, and stable general-purpose operating system that leaves Windows in the dust as a platform for high-end multimedia authoring. It's also easier to set up than previous versions: It installs and runs from within Windows 98 and does not require a separate partition or boot loader.

Hardware compatibility is still a big problem, as is a lack of mainstream apps--only Gobe Software offers a Be office suite. But Be Inc. recorded over half a million downloads within a week of launching BeOS 5 Personal Edition, which could renew developer attention. And Linux's success is encouraging for Be. Like Linux, BeOS is expanding hardware support with drivers for USB, FireWire, and digital cameras.

BeOS 5 Personal Edition's utilities include e-mail, a Web browser, and a CD burner. For $70 list (from Gobe Software), BeOS Professional Edition on CD adds tech support, a printed manual, RealPlayer G2, the ability to create MP3 files, and a prerelease video recorder utility. If you have enough patience for the download (or enough money for the CD-ROM), BeOS 5 is a nearly painless excursion. Gobe; 800/691-1156; www.gobe.com.

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