Spore copy protection officially explained and de-bunked

via DVICE by Tom Chick on 9/17/08


It’s easier to curse the darkness than light a candle.

Actually, I might have butchered the saying, but that’s the appropriate way to put it when it comes to the copy protection issues with Spore, Electronic Arts’ amoeba-to-universe sim that supposedly limits you to three installs before shutting down for good. But while everyone else is cursing up a blue streak (witness the 2000 one-star ratings on Amazon.com), MTV’s gaming blog and Ars Technica decided to light a candle.

MTV published some reassuring comments from an EA spokesperson who avoided some of their questions, but said the copy protection restrictions were going to be eased up in the “near future”. She also said that if EA were to ever shut down the Spore servers, they’d patch out the DRM first so people could still play. How thoughtful, especially considering EA’s poor track record for keeping servers around for old games.

Ars Technica’s practical look at the issue was much more illuminating than the corporate platitudes MTV passed along. They poked around at how the actual copy protection works, trying multiple installs, contacting customer support, and even pretending to rent the game to get a new authentication code. They had no problem getting the game up and running, at least not related to copy protection. Ars Technica had the following conclusion:

…we left wondering if the DRM controversy might be more philosophical in nature than rooted in any real-world inconveniences.

Well, yeah, duh. But just because I haven’t stubbed my toe yet doesn’t mean I don’t have a problem with sitting in the dark. *&!@#&*!

This post is from our sister site, Fidgit, which is all about gaming. Head on over for more game news and reviews.

BioWare drops 10-day validation from Mass Effect PC

via Joystiq by Jason Dobson on 5/10/08

After stirring up a hornets’ nest of gamer contempt last week by announcing that the forthcoming PC flavor of Mass Effect would require re-validation every 10 days, BioWare community manager Jay Watamaniuk has come forward as the voice of reason on the game’s official forums, stating that the developer has now removed the “feature” from the game.

Instead of employing the previously revealed DRM madness, Watamaniuk explained that Mass Effect will include just a one time online authentication, allowing players to play the game once validated without the disc in the drive at all. That said, if any new content is downloaded, the game will again have to bite the disc to make sure it’s real. The caveat to all of this, however, is that each Mass Effect purchase will only be able to be installed a maximum of three times, news that has again incited us to pick up our torches and pitchforks and join the mob outside.

The New HD-DVD/Blu-Ray Hack: What It Might Mean For Us

Picture_7_8 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0

That’s the so-called “Processing Key” that unlocks the heart of every HD-DVD disk to date. Happy Valentine’s day, AACS.

AACS, a DRM scheme used to encrypt data on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disks, would appear to be cracked wide open by that short string of hexadecimal codes, as previously, only disk-specific Volume Keys were compromised. The new hack is the work of Arnezami, a hacker posting at the doom9 forums, fast becoming the front line in the war on DRM.

“The AACS is investigating the claims right regarding of the hack,” said AACS spokesporson Jacqueline Price. “It is going to take a appropriate action if it can be verified.”

Price said she could not disclose what their investigation might entail, or what “appropriate action” might be.

“We’ve just learned of this claim today and are checking into it,” said Andy Parsons, chair of the Blu-ray Disc Association and senior V.P. of product development at Pioneer Electronics, in an email.

The new crack follows that from earlier this year, when a hacker by the name of muslix64 broke the AACS system as it applied to each movie. While the earlier hack led to 100 HD-DVD titles and a small number of Blu-Ray movies being decrypted one-by-one, the so-called “processing keys” covers everything so far made.:

“Most of the time I spend studying the AACS papers,” Arnezami said in his forum post revealing the successful assault on the next-gen DRM system. “… what I wanted to do is “record” all changes in this part of memory during startup of the movie. Hopefully I would catch something insteresting. … I now had the feeling I had something. And I did. … Nothing was hacked, cracked or even reverse engineered btw: I only had to watch the “show” in my own memory. No debugger was used, no binaries changed.”

It’s not yet clear what it means for the consumer’s ability to copy movies, or, for that matter, that of mass-market piracy operations. The short form is that the user still needs a disk’s volume ID to deploy the processing key and break the AACS encryption — but getting the ID is surprisingly easy.

Arnezami found that they are not even random, but often obvious to the point of foolishness: one movie’s Volume ID turns out to be it’s own name and the date it was released. There isn’t yet an automatic system, however, that will copy any disk, in the manner of DeCSS-based DVD copying systems.

Even so, the new method completely compromises HD-DVD in principle, as it relies on AACS alone to encrypt data, even if there are other parts of the puzzle that are yet to fit together. Blu-Ray has two more levels of protection: ROM-MARK (a per factory watermark, which might revoke mass production rights from a factory but not, it seems individuals) and BD+, another encyption system, which hasn’t actually been used yet on sold disks (but which soon will be), meaning that its own status seems less obviously compromised.

How might the companies respond? The processing key can now be changed for future disks. However, the flaws inherent in the system make it appear easy to discover the replacement: the method of attack itself will be hard to offset without causing knock-on effects. For example, revoking player keys (in advance of obfuscating the keys in memory in future revisions of the system) would render current players unable to view future movies. Revoking the volume and processing keys that have been hacked would mean that all movies to date would not run on new players.

Publishers could randomly generate Volume IDs in future releases (as they are still needed for the current hack to work), which would make them harder to brute-force. That said, it’s claimed that the “specific structure” of the Volume ID in memory makes it feasible to brute-force randomized ones anyway.

Following are links to the current discussion at the doom9 forums, in which Arnezami and other provide regular updates on their progress. We don’t offer any warantee that the software implementations so far produced won’t blow up your computer or get you thrown in jail and whipped with wet towels by MPAA lawyers:

Proof of concept code for the process key hack is here: http://forum.doom9.org/showthread.php?p=953484#post953484

Implementation for Windows: http://forum.doom9.org/showthread.php?p=953496#post953496

Implementation for OSX: http://forum.doom9.org/showthread.php?p=953516#post953516a

Nokia XpressMusic 5700 cell phone ready for European tour


You can’t throw a Bluetooth earpiece without hitting a music phone these days, but Nokia’s latest multimedia phone adds something new to the field. What’s the word I’m looking for…? A turn? A spin? In any case, if you want to fire up music, video, or the 2-megapixel camera onboard the XpressMusic 5700, you just rotate the keypad. That’s quite a… um, bend? Loop-de-loop? I don’t know.

The 3G phone uses a an microSD card for storage, with a 2-GB card getting you about 1,500 songs. Possibly notable is its ability to play music protected with Windows Media Digital Rights Management (WM DRM) as well as MP3, AAC and MP4 files. “Stereo” speakers are built right in, and you get some no doubt really crappy earphones in the package, so you’ll probably be more inclined to use a pair of Bluetooth headphones (which probably aren’t included, despite some photographic clues) since, hey, you can with this baby.

The XpressMusic comes to Europe this spring and will cost 350 euros. No plans for any U.S. gigs at this time. Check out another pic of the XpressMusic after the jump.

Nokia, via Engadget


Apple’s Steve Jobs Calls for End of DRM

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has made a surprise call for the end of digital rights management technology, which is designed to stop copyrighted music from being shared illicitly. Jobs says Apple would sell only DRM-free music on iTunes if it could.

The revelation came in an open letter published on Apple’s Web site, which largely responds to concerns over DRM that have come from European countries such as Norway and France. Jobs offers three possible outcomes for the future, but highlights the abandonment of DRM by record companies as the best possible solution for consumers.

Because Apple leads the digital music market by a huge margin in both song downloads and hardware players with the iPod, legislators have told the company it needs to make iTunes compatible with competitors. Norway went so far as to declare the iPod illegal last month, as it locks users into buying music only from iTunes.

Jobs explains in the letter that Apple has determined it cannot open up its FairPlay DRM technology to others, because doing so would open the door for hackers. When negotiating terms with record labels, Jobs says, Apple was forced to stipulate that FairPlay would remain secure or the labels could pull their music from iTunes immediately.

The FairPlay DRM has been cracked in the past, but Apple has been quick to issue updates that close any loophole. “There is no theory of protecting content other than keeping secrets. In other words, even if one uses the most sophisticated cryptographic locks to protect the actual music, one must still “hide” the keys which unlock the music on the user’s computer or portable music player. No one has ever implemented a DRM system that does not depend on such secrets for its operation,” Jobs writes.

If Apple were to open FairPlay to third party manufacturers and music stores, controlling those secrets would be impossible, he adds. Referring to the Zune, Jobs adds, “Perhaps this same conclusion contributed to Microsoft’s recent decision to switch their emphasis from an “open” model of licensing their DRM to others to a “closed” model of offering a proprietary music store, proprietary jukebox software and proprietary players.”

Another solution moving forward is to continue on the same path, where companies sell music designed for specific players and protected by closed DRM systems. Microsoft, Sony and Apple all do this Jobs notes. He downplays “lock-in” concerns by explaining that only 22 songs are purchased from iTunes for every iPod sold, which indicates that the vast majority of iPods are filled with non-DRM music.

But the most controversial idea for the future is one Jobs says would create the best environment for both the marketplace and consumers alike: “abolish DRMs entirely.”

“Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat,” Jobs writes. “If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store.”

He explains that most music is still sold on CDs, which have no built-in DRM technologies and can be freely copied and shared over the Internet. “So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none.”

Jobs concludes his letter with a swipe at European regulators, noting that two and a half of the big four music labels are located in Europe, and says, “those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free…Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.”

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Sony And Universal To Restrict Zune Sharing

We all know by now that the Zune is certainly not the hottest DAP on the market. But after dealing with Microsoft and their “points” system and the crappy music store for Zune, we’re finding out that some of the songs you may have bought can’t be shared with other Zunes—not that you’d find another one near you anyways.

The culprits? Sony and Universal. They’ve made a select choosing of certain artists they don’t want shared between Zunes. Who’s affected? Check it:

Universal Music Group
• Prohibited Zune Sharing: Gwen Stefani, Snow Patrol, Eminem, Blue October, JoJo, Jay-Z;
• Accepted Zune Sharing: Nickelback, Nelly Furtado and Maria Careh;
Sony Music
• Prohibited Zune Sharing: Beyonce, Weird Al Yankovic (not sure if song is from Sony) and Ciara;
• Accepted Zune Sharing: Shakira, Wyclef Jean, The Fray, Christina Aguilera, John Mayer and Brad Paisley;

Keep in mind, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more artists are included and DRM restrictions are getting tighter. If you like a CD a lot, just go buy the hard copy so you can do what you want with it. Otherwise, you risk getting shafted.

Universal and Sony Don’t Like Zune to Zune Sharing [ClicZune]

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Vista crippled by content protection

Collateral damage from Vista suicide note.

PC users around the globe may find driver software is stopped from working by Vista if it detects unauthorised content access. Peter Guttman, a security engineering researcher at New Zealand’s university of Auckland, has written A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection. He reckons Vista is trying to achieve the impossible by protecting access to premium content. Users will find their PCs’ compromised by the persistent and continuous content access checks carried out by Vista.

Gutman thinks these checks and the associated increased in multimedia card hardware costs make Vista’s content protection specification ‘the longest suicide note in history.’

The core elements in Vista have been designed to protect access to premium content. The design requires changes in multimedia cards before Microsoft will support them for Vista use.

Content that is protected by digital rights management (DRM) must be sent across protected interfaces. This means cards using non-protected interfaces can’t be used by Vista PCs.

Disabling and degrading

Vista is disadvantaging high-end audio and video systems by openly disabling devices. The most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) which doesn’t have any content protection. It must be disabled in a Vista system when DRM-protected content is being played. Equally a high-end component video interface (YPbPr) also has no content protection and must be disabled when protected video is being played.

– Vista covertly degrades playback quality. PC voice communications rely on automatic echo cancellation (AEC) in order to provide acceptable voice quality. This requires feeding back a sample of the audio mix into the echo cancellation subsystem, which isn’t permitted by Vista’s content protection scheme. This lowers PC voice communication quality because echo affects will still be present.

– This overt and covert degrading of quality is dynamic, not consistent. Whenever any audio derived from premium content is played on a Vista PC, the disabling of output devices and downgrading of signal quality takes place. If the premium content then fades away the outputs are re-enabled and signal quality climbs back up. Such system behaviour today indicates a driver error. With Vista it will be normal behaviour.

– Vista has another playback quality reduction measure. It requires that ‘any interface that provides high-quality output degrade the signal quality that passes through it if premium content is present. This is done through a “constrictor” that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, then up-scales it again back to the original spec, but with a significant loss in quality.’ If this happens with a medical imaging application then artifacts introduced by the constrictor can ’cause mis-diagnoses and in extreme cases even become life-threatening.’

CPU cycle guzzling

The O/S will use much more of a PC’s CPU resource because ‘Vista’s content protection requires that devices (hardware and software drivers) set so-called “tilt bits” if they detect anything unusual … Vista polls video devices on each video frame displayed in order to check that all of the grenade pins (tilt bits) are still as they should be.’

Also ‘In order to prevent tampering with in-system communications, all communication flows have to be encrypted and/or authenticated. For example content sent to video devices has to be encrypted with AES-128.’ Encryption/decryption is known to be CPU-intensive

Device drivers in Vista are required to poll their underlying hardware every 30ms – thirty times a second – to ensure that everything appears correct.

It is apparent that Vista is going to use very much more of a PC’s resources than previous versions of Windows and degrade multi-media playback quality unless the user has purchased premium content from a Microsoft-approved resource.

Such over-reaching by Microsoft could prove to be the catalyst needed to spur increased takeup of Linux desktop operating software, or of Apple’s Mac OS.

Customers ‘NotForSure’ About Stand-Alone Zune

Although it’s been public knowledge ever since Microsoft first reversed its stance on whether it was producing an MP3 player of its own, retailers and consumers are just now learning that Microsoft’s upcoming Zune player will not be utilizing the PlaysForSure DRM format the company had previously been promoting with independent partners.

It’s not news. But with the official launch of the device just weeks away, and with Microsoft having announced its intention to shut down its major PlaysForSure music source, MSN Music, just prior to Zune’s launch, the stage is now being set for a potential customer backlash. Even sites launched in advance to make way for praise of the device are starting to show signs of skepticism.

“Man, I hope these guys are onto something here,” writes the author of the ZuneLuv.com blog, whose logo now seems recently adorned with a question mark beside the name.

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Today, coverage from the BBC on both television and its Web site are being highly cited by blogs and potential customers, many of whom are learning of the incompatibility for the first time.

Back in May, Microsoft rallied support from critical media partners in Japan, including JVC, NTT DoCoMo, and Toshiba — which is building the Zune hardware for Microsoft — with the intention of promoting the success of PlaysForSure overseas. At the time, many in the press speculated that the real reason for their coming together was to jointly build and distribute an “iPod killer” device.

But Microsoft denied the meetings were for the purpose of preparing PlaysForSure for use with any device that would carry the Microsoft brand. It didn’t occur to us, admittedly, to even think the companies would be considering an alternate DRM approach.

Then in July, Microsoft held meetings with prospective content partners for the rights to redistribute music and videos. At that time, the executives for those content firms — including movie studios — confirmed the existence of the meetings, though Microsoft denied them. It seemed reasonable that Microsoft was creating a potentially expanded avenue for its existing Windows-oriented DRM scheme, around which parts of Windows Media Player evolve.

But Microsoft spokespersons went so far this time as to flatly deny the company was planning to ever release an MP3 player under its own brand. In fairness, this could very well have been these spokespersons’ understanding of the truth as they saw it.

When PlaysForSure partners expressed public confusion as to the existence of such meetings — which, one would think at first, would benefit them — it seemed something was afoot, but we weren’t certain what. Still, BetaNews was able to collect enough verified evidence of the existence of Project Argo, and broke the story of the Zune prototype project last July.

In August, when specifications of the device were learned through Microsoft’s FCC approval petition — which, by law, is made public — even then, it only appeared that Microsoft would be using a more stringent version of PlaysForSure, although the company would not say how, or if, PlaysForSure would be amended to enable such restrictions.

Last July, in a Q&A session with financial analysts, Microsoft’s president for entertainment and services, Robbie Bach, characterized the problem of supporting two approaches to DRM as a matter of scaling Windows in such a way that customers would see less of a difference. Such customers, presumably, would own both a Zune and a Creative Zen.

Comments like this prompted responses such as this one from the author of the Medialoper blog: “If nothing else Microsoft is doing a tremendous service for the anti-DRM movement…Consumers who buy DRM’d music are at the mercy of the companies who manufacture and support the underlying DRM system. There’s no guarantee that any given DRM system will be supported forever. Microsoft’s seeming abandonment of PlaysForSure is a fine example of just how bad things can get.”

Even some of Microsoft’s employees weren’t impressed with the decision. As Partner Technology Specialist Matt McSpirit (who works more with Vista and virtualization) commented last month, abandoning PlaysForSure “on the surface…seems like a pretty bad move. To beat Apple and the iPod, we need as many different ways to sing from the same song sheet as possible, yet this move, to me, indicates the Zune isn’t quite striking the right tones, yet Bryan Lee, a Microsoft corporate vice president involved in the Zune initiative, said he believes Zune will maintain a ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the PlaysForSure partners.”

Today, with the second wave of customer sentiments having hit, ZDNet blogger David Berlind commented, “The problem is that the future of the PlaysForSure ecosystem is unknown. Now that Microsoft is launching Zune, it’s conceivable that PlaysForSure (incompatible with Zune) will share a grave next to Bob in the Microsoft graveyard at some point in the future…thereby stranding not just MSN Music Store buyers, but also people who acquired or subscribed to content from one of the other PlaysForSure-compliant merchants.”

While there are no signs of peaceful co-existence just yet, there also isn’t much sign of open warfare. Last month, a Creative Labs customer posted a question on the company’s public forum: “Why would Microsoft NOT add Plays For Sure to its own player? Just curious what you guys made of it.” There has been no official response.

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FairGame: Un-DRM your iTunes music with iMovie

FairGameWe’ve known for awhile that functionality built into iMovie could strip the DRM from music purchased from the iTunes Music Store, but the process wasn’t exactly point-and-click. Now, thanks to the wonder of AppleScript, that process has been streamlined, and you’re only a few clicks away from listening to your whole music collection on your non-Apple device. FairGame is a free Mac app from Seidai Software that will convert the songs you select in iTunes to an open format. It’s not lightning-quick–about 40 seconds for every minute of music–but it’s free and gets the job done.

[Via Boing Boing]

[originating url]

Sticking with Windows XP in a Windows Vista World

Article originally published by Paul Thurrott on winsupersite.com

Obviously, I spend a lot of time working with beta software. If you’re envious of that for some reason, consider this little slice of “grass is always greener” logic: Sometimes I wish my PCs just worked. Sometimes I wish I just used my computers as the tools that they are, and didn’t have to spend so much time installing, reinstalling, and fixing problems. From my side of the fence, your lawn is looking pretty darned good too.

What I’m getting at is that the Next Big Thing isn’t always a given. Sure, Windows Vista is cool, sort of, and it’s got some neat new functionality. But what would you say if I told you that the vast majority of new end user features in Windows Vista were already available to you–most of them for free, no less–in Windows XP? And that by skipping Windows Vista, at least for the time being, you’d be left with a PC that was faster, more compatible with the software and hardware you own, and just about as capable as an otherwise identical PC running Windows Vista?

Well, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. No, you can’t get the Windows Aero user experience without Vista, though I suspect the wizards over at Stardock will get pretty close. But do you really need Aero, along with its annoying incompatibilities, many of which result in sudden and jarring jumps into the Windows Basic interface? And no, most of Windows Vista’s security features aren’t available to XP users either, but you know what? You might not need them either, especially if your system is adequately defended with a hardware firewall and a good security software suite.

I’m talking about pure end user goodness here. Applications that are supposed to make people want Windows Vista. Things like the Windows Sidebar, Windows Calendar, Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Media Player 11. These and other Vista-specific applications are really neat, but you can get identical or nearly identical applications on Windows XP too. And by doing so, you can eek some more time out of your XP investment, save up for a future Vista PC, or just avoid all the headaches that go along with upgrading to a new Windows version. Sure, you’ve waited 5 years for Windows Vista, but so what? Will another 6 months or a year be a problem? Really?

If you’d like to stick with Windows XP for a while longer, here’s some good news. You don’t need Windows Vista. And as I’ll describe in the next section, there are plenty of excellent solutions out there that will make you forget all about Redmond’s next operating system. At least for a little while.

XP replacements for popular Windows Vista applications and features

Windows Search: Windows Desktop Search

Back in 2003, Microsoft proudly showed off the WinFS-based Windows Search features it then planned to include in Windows Vista. Since then, three years of delays have allowed competitors like Google and Apple to take note of Microsoft’s strategy and release desktop search packages of their own. Today, there are plenty of desktop search products available for Windows XP. You’ve got your pick.

In my mind, the contest comes down to two choices. If you’re looking for the XP search tool that most closely resembles Windows Search on Vista–mostly because it’s based on the same technology–then Microsoft’s Windows Desktop Search (WDS) is the way to go. WDS replaces XP’s Start Menu-based Search tool with a far more functional version and provides you with a handy taskbar-based Deskbar.

If you’re looking for a bit more, consider Google Desktop as well. Like WDS, Google Desktop provides a taskbar-based Deskbar for quick hard drive searching. But Google Desktop also includes an interesting Sidebar feature that is very similar–but more capable–than the Sidebar feature in Windows Vista (see below). If you think you want to use both desktop search and a Sidebar-like feature, look into Google Desktop.

Both WDS and Google Desktop are free. WDS offers better shell integration than does Google Desktop, which runs its local searches in a Web browser just like Google Web search.

Windows Defender: Anti-spyware

When Microsoft purchased Giant Company Software in December 2004, I knew Windows users were in for a treat: I was a dedicated and enthusiastic Giant Antispyware user and knew it was the best anti-spyware solution on the market. Now, Microsoft’s version of Giant Antispyware, dubbed Windows Defender, is an integrated part of Windows Vista. But here’s good news for XP fans: Windows Defender is available for free on XP as well. And unlike some Vista applications that have been made available on XP in slightly-hobbled form, the XP version of Windows Defender is just as good as the Vista version.

Unlike some other security features, such as firewalls and anti-virus solutions, it’s not only feasible but advisable to run two or more anti-spyware solutions side-by-side on the same machine. For this reason, you should consider a second anti-spyware product. There’s been a lot of confusion in this space, and many people seem to have particular favorites, often for nonsensical reasons. My choice is ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware, which is only $19.99 (you can also get it as part of the excellent ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite).

Internet Explorer 7: Web browser

Say what you will about Internet Explorer–I certainly have–but version 7 is not just the best IE version yet, it’s also a credible challenger to the current Web browser champion, Mozilla Firefox. Best of all, Internet Explorer 7 is available for XP as well, though it loses two key Vista features, IE Protected Mode and parental controls integration. It’s still worth it: IE 7 is more capable and more secure than its predecessor. Even if you’re not going to use IE regularly, upgrade IE 6 to IE 7 as soon as possible.

It’s a tough call, but I’m going to remain with Mozilla Firefox. While I recognize that most mainstream Windows users will continue to use IE, I feel that Firefox is still safer, and it’s definitely got some unique features that are missing in IE 7, though the gap is closing. However, both IE 7 and Firefox are superior to IE 6.

Windows Sidebar and Gadgets: Mini-Applications

Windows Sidebar is an onscreen real estate-stealing panel designed to hold HTML- and script-based mini-applications that Microsoft calls Gadgets. The Sidebar is clearly a reaction to Apple’s Dashboard feature, which hosts HTML- and script-based mini-applications that Apple calls Widgets. Dashboard, in turn, was clearly ripped off from Konfabulator (since purchased by Yahoo) and other desktop customization utilities like Stardock Object Desktop.

If you’re into this kind of thing, there are a number of XP-based solutions. Microsoft is reportedly working on an XP version of Sidebar, but I haven’t seen any code since January and Microsoft has been curiously silent on the issue. But you could always go with the original, Konfabulator, which is now called Yahoo Widget Engine. This solution is more similar to Apple Dashboard–go figure–than Windows Sidebar, however, and doesn’t include a screen edge-mounted panel of any kind. So if you’re looking for something that more closely mimics Sidebar, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

I mentioned Google Desktop previously as a replacement for Windows Search. Google Desktop also includes a Sidebar-like mini application environment called the Dashboard, and it’s a decent Sidebar replacement, though it offers the standard Spartan Google interface. The Google Desktop Dashboards hosts HTML-, XML-, and COM-based mini-applications called Google Gadgets, and as you’d expect from a Google service, there are all kinds of useful Gadgets out there.

Windows Backup: File Backup and Restore

The new backup functionality in Windows is Windows Vista is as full-featured as it is attractive. In fact, it’s so full-featured that it offers both file backup and restoration features and image-based full-PC backup, the latter of which uses the VHD virtual machine format first developed for Virtual PC.

System imaging is pretty much a power user feature, but everyone should be regularly backing up their data. The problem is that virtually no one does. Vista’s Backup and Restore Center, with its automated backup feature, should help fix that problem in the future. But if you’re using Windows XP today, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

There are plenty of decent backup applications out there, but my favorite also happens to be part of a complete PC protection and maintenance suite called Windows Live OneCare. It’s not free, but it’s not expensive either, and I’ve seen it available for as little as $15 after rebates (it’s typically about $20). Windows Live OneCare is a must have for a variety of reasons–it’s got tremendous anti-virus and firewall features, integrates with Windows Defender, and keeps your PC running at full speed by regularly defragging the hard drive. But the best feature, perhaps, is its Backup and Restore functionality, which lets you backup data automatically to external hard drives or optical media.

Windows Mail: Email

Windows Mail–aka Outlook Express 7.0–is one of the few Windows Vista applications that has almost no redeeming value. Therefore, even those who do upgrade to Windows Vista should look elsewhere for an email application. The commercial alternative–Microsoft Outlook–is your best bet. But if you don’t have Outlook and don’t feel like paying for it, fear not. There are plenty of excellent alternatives.>

If you’re looking for a standalone email client, look at both Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta. Both are free, though WLM Desktop is ad-supported, unless you pay for a Hotmail Plus or MSN account. WLM Desktop is the most similar to Windows Mail; indeed, it’s based on the same Outlook Express underpinnings. But unlike Windows Mail, WLM Desktop supports Web mail accounts like Hotmail.

Don’t be afraid to consider a Web-based email client. Most of the new generation Web mail clients are quite nice, but the winner, by far, is Yahoo Mail (currently in beta). Gmail (from Google) and Windows Live Mail (which works with Hotmail accounts) are functionally similar, but neither is as attractive in a Web browser.

Windows Calendar: Standards-Based Scheduling

Windows Calendar is a tough one: It’s nicely designed and has all the sharing features you’d expect from an iCal-based application. Frankly, there isn’t a standalone calendar application that comes close on Windows. The only exception is the Calendar component of Microsoft Outlook: If you have that, just use Outlook. If you don’t, your options are a bit more limited.

The Mozilla Corporation, responsible for some of the finest Web browser (Firefox) and email (Thunderbird) applications on the planet, is also working on a standalone calendar application codenamed Sunbird. Mozilla Sunbird isn’t as fine-tuned as Firefox or Thunderbird, and it certainly isn’t as fully developed. But even the current pre-release Sunbird versions are decent enough for regular use. My guess is it will get more attractive over time.

If you’re already using Web-based email, the major vendors of those services–Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–all offer Web-based calendars as well. Curiously, Yahoo’s entry isn’t particularly nice looking (unlike its new Web mail), but then neither Google Calendar nor Hotmail Calendar are particularly Web 2.0 either. If I had to pick one above the others, it would be Google Calendar. Why? Like most Google services, Google Calendar is supported by a wide range of third party add-ons and has a nice community of users. It’s also updated fairly frequently.

Windows Photo Gallery: Photo Management and Sharing

With Windows XP, Microsoft was pushing a task-based photo management scheme that was based in the files and folders of the Windows shell, and not in a standalone application. The success of Apple’s iPhoto on the Mac OS X platform proved, however, that users prefer to use a nicely-designed, attractive, and functional application for photo management. So Vista, as is so often the case, follows in OS X’s footsteps with an application, Windows Photo Gallery, that handles photo management, importing, and sharing.

To be fair, Windows Photo Gallery isn’t actually an iPhoto clone. No, as it turns out, Microsoft already had an excellent photo management solution, which it had been selling as Digital Image Suite. Photo Gallery is simply a pared down version of Digital Image Suite 2006, so if you want something that works like Photo Gallery but is even more capable, that’s the way to go.

Of course, Digital Image Suite isn’t free. What’s amazing is that you can get an application that offers much of the functionality of both Windows Photo Gallery and Digital Image Suite 2006, but is absolutely free. It’s called Google Picasa 2, and it’s a fantastic application. Since it’s a Google application, Picasa utilizes Google’s search engine to automatically find all the photos on your PC, regardless of where they’re hidden. But its editing and sharing features are excellent too, and a recent update adds Picasa Web Albums compatibility, so you can upload your photos easily to Google’s version of Flickr.

Windows Media Player 11: Digital Media Jukebox

Microsoft’s next-generation version of Windows Media Player had its thunder stolen recently when Apple finally shipped a version of iTunes, iTunes 7, that includes beautiful album art views. But the real irony here is that the best looking version of Windows Media Player 11 is available for Windows XP, not Windows Vista. Weird, eh?

Anyway, if Windows Media Player isn’t your thing, fear not. There are better digital media jukeboxes out there. My favorite is, go figure, Apple iTunes 7. It was recently updated to fix the stability issues that dogged the initial iTunes 7 release, and it’s got a much cleaner and professional-looking interface than does Windows Media Player.

Windows Movie Maker 6: Digital Movie Editingp

The version of Windows Movie Maker (WMM) included with Windows Vista is the best yet, with support for Microsoft’s recorded TV (dvr-ms) format and outputting in various HD formats. But XP users already have a very capable digital movie editor in Windows Movie Maker 2, and if you can live without those two aforementioned new features, you pretty much already have everything you need.

Windows Media Center: Digital Media in the Living Room

The Windows Vista version of Windows Media Center (WMC) is an evolutionary upgrade over the version offered in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, though it should be more widely distributed thanks to its inclusion in two Windows Vista product editions, Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. It also includes unique new features like DVD jukebox integration and digital/high-definition television support. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any true analog to Vista’s WMC. If you have Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, however, you get most of the best WMC features.

But what if you don’t have XP Media Center 2005? Snapstream Beyond TV 4.x offers the same digital video recording (DVR) functionality as Media Center, but without any of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) silliness that bogs down Media Center (with protected content anyway; Media Center won’t let you share certain content, such as that recorded on HBO or Cinemax). Note that Beyond TV is not free, however: The download version is $69.99, and of course you’ll need a TV tuner card and possibly other hardware. Check the Snapstream Web site for some reasonable bundles.

Final thoughts

In the interests of complete disclosure, there are definitely important new features in Windows Vista that you just can’t get anywhere else. But for many XP users–and let’s face it, we’re talking about several hundred million people here–there’s no need to upgrade to Windows Vista right away. To stave off the sense of loss that might accompany any decision to hold off on that upgrade, I hope this list of applications and services helps. But if you absolutely have to get Windows Vista right away, logic be damned, fear not: I’m working on a similar list of gotta-have-it Vista features as well. I’ll be looking into these reasons why you simply won’t want avoid Windows Vista in a future showcase. –Paul Thurrott


Windows Desktop Search

Windows Defender

Mozilla Firefox

Google Desktop

Windows Live OneCare

Mozilla Thunderbird

Yahoo Mail Beta

Mozilla Sunbird

Google Picasa 2

Apple iTunes 7

Windows Movie Maker 2

Snapstream Beyond TV 4.x

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