CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Audio

Windows Media Player 11 an iTunes contender?

review Latest update to Microsoft's jukebox finally gives media lovers a user-friendly alternative to Apple's software. Image: Microsoft Media Player 11

review Windows Media Player 11--which debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year and features a visually appealing interface, as well as impressive features and performance--is Microsoft's best jukebox to date.

Not that it was a grand feat to improve upon a generally disappointing string of versions, including the somewhat awkward version 10. Still, if Microsoft is ever going to seriously challenge Apple Computer's iTunes music empire, the time is now. With the addition of MTV's Urge, the jukebox's resident music service, WMP 11 (available today as a free beta download) certainly seems poised for battle.

Windows Media Player 11

It's not like Microsoft had trouble distributing any version of WMP; after all, the jukebox comes with any Windows system, and in fact, you can't get rid of it. The trouble was that the software was never particularly compelling, though it was pretty much essential for users of non-iPod MP3 players. With this beta launch, Microsoft has transformed its omnipresent media player from a state of default mediocrity into a powerful must-have application for music and media.

Windows Media faithful will be pleasantly surprised upon installing the revamped WMP 11 for XP; Microsoft has put significant effort into creating a seamless digital-media environment for the user, the software, the service and portable devices.

WMP 11 for Windows XP is at its core the same jukebox you'll experience for the upcoming (but tardy) Vista operating system. It all begins with the interface: Microsoft product managers admitted that it needed to be much simpler, more visual and more like iTunes.

Rather than dumbing down the graphical interface, Microsoft has smartened it up with wise design decisions that open up the desktop without eliminating the powerful features within. For example, the playback controls (at the bottom) are now glossy and inviting, and they include repeat and shuffle options.

Additionally, the back and forward navigation buttons in the upper-left corner ensure that you'll never get lost. However, the revamped menu buttons have the most significant impact on the interface. Boiled down to five choices--Now Playing, Library, Rip, Bun and Sync--each button has its own subbutton that opens up a slew of useful menu items. So when you activate the split menu for Rip, you'll get options to adjust format, bit rate and so on.

Click here to Play

Video: Windows Media Player 11 reviewed
Microsoft's best answer to Apple to date?

Another noticeable--and welcome--interface change is that WMP's frustrating, ever-expanding left-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-color background. This not only makes it easier to locate and manage files, but it 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 enables 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 CNET Review's take on Urge, click here.)

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 or genres. 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.

James Kim of CNET Reviews reported from San Francisco.