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

reviewWindows 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.

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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.

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