Kicking The Microsoft Habit

Tired of the cost and security concerns that result from using Microsoft products? Not to worry--solid alternatives abound.


Microsoft Office might be expensive and Internet Explorer might be insecure, but Microsoft's primary multimedia offering, Windows Media Player (WMP), is just plain clunky. Although WMP is in version 10, its interface is not always intuitive, and it provides sometimes-clumsy, slow access to your media files. (To be fair, version 11 of WMP, to be released this summer, features a vastly improved interface. At the moment, however, it's still in beta and rather unstable.)

The Windows Media Player is a bit clunky and non-intuitive. Click image to enlarge.

Not that WMP is lacking power. It not only plays music, but videos as well, and provides tools for organizing and managing all your media. It also can connect directly to some music subscription services, and having it installed is essential if you use software provided by music services such as Rhapsody and Napster. That's because those services, which enable subscribers to download music to their PCs and portable media players, use WMP for digital rights management (DRM).

Kicking The Microsoft Habit

•  Introduction

•  Office Applications

•  Mail And Personal Info

•  The Internet

•  Multimedia

If you primarily listen to music and don't like WMP's clumsy interface, the subscription music services offer their own software to play and organize your music. I've tried most of them and find Rhapsody's software to be the best in this group. However, like the other subscription service software, it has weak video support.

Perhaps the most comprehensive software offered by a music service is the free iTunes software from Apple. Designed for use with the iTunes store, it can import music you've already stored on your PC, rip music from CDs, and play videos -- or at least the video formats that are sold at iTunes.

Two other options are worth looking at if you want to roughly replicate WMP's power. The one I've adopted is WinAmp from Nullsoft (free for the Basic version, $20 for Pro). This is the latest version of an old favorite, and it plays virtually all popular audio and video formats, including DRM'd music downloaded from subscription services. I particularly like its interface for managing my media library. It has, for instance, windows for artists, albums by the artist, and songs within each of the albums. It also does the best job of managing music, both ripped and DRM'd, on my Creative Zen Touch media player. Yet another advantage is that it has a large supply of free plug-ins that enhance its capabilities.

WinAmp offers a top-notch interface for managing media libraries, and it's more stable than some media managers. Click image to enlarge.

I still don't entirely get WinAmp's interface, with its separate modules for managing music, playing music, and managing playlists. Each of those modules can be detached from the rest of the interface and resized or closed separately, which I find confusing. But that objection aside, I find WinAmp provides the best balance of functionality and stability.

Another option is RealNetworks' free RealPlayer, which plays about the same mix of media types as does WMP. I installed RealPlayer with some trepidation because previous versions I tried were highly unstable. Since, like WMP, RealPlayer is up to version 10, I hoped that RealNetworks had worked out the kinks. Alas, it hasn't -- I still found RealPlayer unstable, particularly with my Zen Touch media player attached, despite the fact that the software supports that particular player. Plus, I didn't find the interface any easier to navigate than WMP's.

Living A (Relatively) Microsoft-Free Life
In any case, my reliance on WMP, while not eliminated, is now greatly minimized.

Come to that, my Internet Explorer habit and what can only be called an addiction to Outlook and Office are now history. I am now more or less clean and Microsoft-free, at least when it comes to desktop apps. And that feels good.

Editor's Choice
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing