Another noticeable--and welcome--interface change is that WMP's frustrating, ever-expanding left-hand nav tree has been simplified to include only music info by default, thus eliminating the long, scrolling list in the navigation. You can simply click the Library split button to get to the video or photo libraries, which have their own dedicated set of nav-pane options. The main browser window has also been radically altered: no more boring, anonymous text on a dark background. Instead, you get a colorful album-art-driven view of music, thumbnail views of photos, and screenshot thumbs of their video files, all on a light-colored background. This not only makes it easier to locate and manage files but also gives the player some much-needed personality.
We like details such as stacked albums, where groups of albums--based on genre, artist, year, and so on--are sitting on top of one another in a way that allows the user to quickly identify groups visually. Nobody likes missing album art, so we also appreciate WMP 11's ability to track down images (as well as ID3-tag info) and automatically update your library using a new audio-fingerprinting technology that, like many other WMP tasks, takes place in the background.
Another impressive WMP 11 feature is the instant-search tool, which is both powerful and smart. Type in a search item, even part of a word, and you immediately get results broken down by artist, album, and so on. Additional keystrokes will narrow the results. WMP 11 has been engineered with the assumption that your collection of media files will number not only in the thousands but also in the millions, so you're guaranteed to get rapid search results and no delay while browsing through thousands of files. We were downright impressed with WMP 11's file-management performance. The tight integration of the Urge music service benefits greatly from this outstanding performance, as you'll literally search a couple million tracks if you are an Urge subscriber. For more information on Urge, read our review.
Syncing, assembling playlists, and burning have all become much easier as well. The playlist pane (which can be hidden when not in use) on the right-hand side can be filled with songs, albums, and other files via drag and drop, and files can be simply arranged, saved, and edited. We hated WMP 10's confusing sync/burn/playlist pane, which appeared on every view; with WMP 11, you get dedicated experiences that are as clear as any Apple-designed application.
A prime example is the burn bucket, which visually displays how much room you have remaining on a CD-R and demarcates subsequent CDs so that you can manage songs across multiple CDs. The same goes for syncing. Your device--we used both an iRiver Clix and a Creative Zen Vision:M--will appear as a large icon, and underneath, you'll find a gas-gauge graphic that indicates how much room you have to fill up your player. You also have the option to automatically fill up a device to the max with the music of your choosing, whether they're personal selections or based on smart groupings such as artists, genres, and so on. This ability to autofill your device in an intelligent fashion is a huge advantage when you're part of a to-go subscription service, which gives you access to millions of tracks.
This attention to detail--or, rather, attention to the way people actually use their media player--is paramount to our newfound appreciation of WMP 11. Windows Media users finally have their iTunes.