Review: Windows Media Player 11 - InformationWeek

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Review: Windows Media Player 11

Microsoft's music and video player is dramatically improved in this beta version.

Microsoft's Windows Media Player is a basic application for playing music and video files that rides along as part of the base Windows install. While there have been plenty of updates along the way, the player has remained light on the bells and whistles you're likely to find in competitors. Microsoft is changing all that with version 11, now available in public beta for Windows XP (click here to download).

Microsoft has overhauled the entire Windows Media Player user interface. Playback controls are now front and center. The Next and Previous track controls, moved to logical positions on either side of the Play button, now take on a dual role, granting fast forward and rewind functions with a click-and-hold. Rounding out the control interface are separate shuffle and repeat buttons, as well as a mute button and volume slider.

The changes continue along the top of the application. WMP 11 still uses the tabbed interface from the previous version, but now features a drop-down menu under each of the tabs, making the specific options for that tab available quickly and easily. For example, under the "Rip" tab, its drop-down features relevant options such as Format and Bit rate. Similarly, the options under the Burn tab allow you to quickly change the options to create a CD on the fly. These sub-menus mostly eliminate the need for the traditional text menus present on previous versions of Media Player, so Microsoft turned these "classic menus" off by default. The menus are still available by right-clicking anywhere on the frame of the application window, and can be turned back on.

Back and Forward navigation buttons are now present, providing a function similar to a Web browser. While these buttons give WMP a feel common to other applications, they were only really useful while navigating the online music store.

Even more impressive than the playback control updates, the overhaul of the Media Library is simply stunning. Album art has been rolled into Media Player in a big way. Navigation through the music library is a matter of selecting the album you are interested in, then picking the song from that album. In the artist view, multiple albums by the same artist are represented by a virtual stack of records. I was very impressed by how fast I was able to get to the music I was interested in just by seeing the album it was on. This is a definite improvement over the thousands of rows of text to read through on previous versions.

To facilitate adding cover art into the Library, WMP includes it when it accesses the Internet databases for CD information. Art can also be included to existing music automatically by using the Find Album Info feature, which searches online databases and automatically updates the track information, or it can also be attached manually with the paste album art feature.

I did run into a couple of issues while testing the software that actually resulted in a few of the infamous Blue Screens of Death. Such is the nature of software released as a public beta -- applications like this are not for the timid. In my case, my issues were resolved by removing my music from the Media Library and importing it again from the local drive.

Giving In To The URGE

Prominent throughout the new media player is links to URGE, the joint music store of Microsoft and MTV Networks. While the music store is integrated into more places, most notably the Media Library, it also has supplanted all of the other online stores, including the previous default of MSN Music. While the other music stores are still available, it is obvious that URGE has become the favorite child. URGE seems to be covering all bases, offering both individual song sales and a monthly "all you can eat" service. Note that not all songs are included in the "all you can eat" option -- some can be purchased only individually at 99 cents a pop.

Windows Media Player 11's design changes and interface improvements are not only appealing eye candy, but enhance the navigation and listening experience as well. For those brave enough to install pre-release software, Windows Media Player 11 will prove to be a significant -- and welcome -- upgrade.

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