Not so many years ago, people judged software packages on the number of features they crammed inside; ease of use was an afterthought, if it was considered at all. Nowadays, with a broader range of less technical users logging on, intuitive, elegant design is critical, and it's not as important for programs to have every feature imaginable.
Despite its efforts at improving ease of use, J. River's Media Center 11.0 is a throwback to that earlier time. The latest iteration of this do-all media player adds an image editor and can display text files as easily as song tracks. But using it is no pleasure, and you'll need to invest time to learn many of the basic features. While they don't do nearly as much, we far prefer using Windows Media Player and Musicmatch (for audio).Take your time when installing J. River Media Center 11.0, or it will grab file and CD associations you may not want it to have. Sadly, that's par for the course with media players. Choose the custom install and walk through it attentively.
Media Center veterans will notice a slightly refined interface, although improvements designed to simplify task switching only serve to junk up the controls. A new Action Window in the lower left provides one-click access to commonly used commands. New Media Mode buttons in the top right let you switch to different areas (Everything, Music, Images, Video, and Text). The changes represent a patch job to an interface that needs an extreme makeover. Too many of the controls still reside behind right-clicks and multiple contextual menus.
This latest offering lacks the two or three big new features that usually come with a version upgrade, but it has more than enough minor features for everyone. People with extensive music libraries (it supports up to 100,000 files) will appreciate the new split-screen views, which let you see what's currently playing as well as the music in your library. New customization options let you create and save the view you want on your library, although setting up a new view is more cumbersome that it needs to be. The window for this feature could use some drag-and-drop simplicity.Perhaps J. River Media Center 11.0's greatest asset is its ability to support and play back virtually all media file types--more than 80 in all, including QuickTime, Windows Media, RealMedia (though you need to have RealPlayer 6.0 or above installed), MP3, Audible, and OGG. The compatibility list covers a mix of heavyweights such as MP3, AAC, DivX, and JPEG as well as lesser-known formats, including Liquid Audio, Monkey's Audio, and MusicEx. Ripping CDs is painless and efficient, and you get a choice of OGG, WMA, and other codecs plus the option to normalize tracks before encoding. You can download additional plug-ins, such as lossless APE encoding, for free from J. River's Web site. Unfortunately, you won't get MP3 encoding unless you pay for the Plus version.
Media Center includes many useful playback options, including gapless playback, volume leveling, user-definable crossfading, data-CD support, and a Send To feature that allows you to add tracks or playlists to specific points in the Now Playing queue. You can even password-protect the interface using the Party mode. Media Center comes with a number of rules-based playlists called Smartlists, including Top Hits and Recently Played. You can also create your own Smartlists, but similar smart playlists in other jukebox applications either include more options or are easier to configure.
The application works as an easy-to-use recorder with options for line-in, CD, mixer-based, and microphone recording. You can tweak the recording level to your liking within the application. Converting from one format to another is a user-friendly process.
You can now not only store images with Media Center but also edit them within the program. The image editor is so poor, though, that it's not fun or especially useful. You can't easily resize images in the image view, as you can with Apple iPhoto, so you need to expand each photo individually or start a slide show to see your images up close. The editing commands aren't located on the image-view window but hide behind a right-click, so you'll need to select an image and right-click it to open a separate editing window. From there, you'll get merely the basic cropping and red-eye commands you'd find in any editor.
Media Center could already sync with iPods, but now it can support multiple iPods, all with their own profiles. We originally had terrible trouble getting even one iPod to work with the program, but a representative told us to upgrade our version, and that did the trick. Be warned that the Help documents on creating multiple profiles are especially poor.
Though we didn't test these features, Media Center now promises compatibility with the Sony PSP, support for Audible.com content, and universal plug-and-play support for home-theater systems.
Media Center has a new Library Browser view that provides a useful graphical look at all your files. It beats a long list of text, and the program can even look up cover art for you, as long as your songs have the basic meta tags filled out.
The new text-document view lets you search by filename and even search the contents of text files--except for DOC and PDF files, the two most common types. Setting up the program to index the contents of your documents is such a byzantine process that it should have its own instruction manual.At the risk of piling on, we should note that J. River Media Center 11.0 didn't perform well in our tests. It crashed several times, as did previous versions. On the other hand, Media Center was typically a speedy performer. Whether scrolling through our image library, searching for music files, or playing videos, it always felt just as quick and responsive as Windows Media Player and Musicmatch. It's strong with large song libraries and instantly handled whatever search request we threw at it.
|Quick facts: software requirements and specs
|Platform(s): Windows 98/Me/2000/XP
|Processor: Pentium 600MHz
|Disk space: 40MB
|Display requirements: Video card
|Sound requirements: Sound card
|Downloadable full version: Yes