With Media Jukebox 8.0, J. River continues its tradition of offering a customizable, play-it-all jukebox for Windows users who seek an alternative to Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, and Musicmatch Jukebox. The free basic version comes with most typical jukebox features, such as media playback, organization, encoding, and burning. The highlight, however, is its ability to play back more than 80 file types, including the most popular audio and video formats. But some users may steer clear because it lacks some key features, while others may be turned off by its less than beautiful interface. Compared to the current crop of multimedia players (including Windows Media Player 10.0), Media Jukebox is beginning to look and feel dated. After downloading and installing J. River Media Jukebox 8.0 (8.5MB), you will have an opportunity to search and import media files. The Import Media feature choked and stalled our primary Windows XP test bed; we had previously heard a couple of reports of this bug. On a secondary system with similar specifications, we experienced zero hiccups while importing our media (from MP3 and Audible to WMV and RealMedia formats). We were unable to pinpoint the problem with the first system, although we presume a corrupted media file was responsible. The opening screen includes links to relevant Help pages such as Import Files, Play Media, Rip A CD, and Play Internet Radio.
The default interface is open, uncluttered, and decidedly old school, with its Windows Explorer undertones. We like the app's resizable windows and icon-based buttons for ripping, burning, and minimizing the player into its so-called Mini-Me mode. The left-hand window is generally static and houses expandable folders named Playing Now, Media Library, Playlists, CD And Handhelds, and Web Media. The larger, right-hand window is where your media and associated information show up. The visual and functional simplicity of this Explorer-like tree is one of Media Jukebox's strengths. Down below on the left side, you'll find the player and volume controls, the media-title and artist info, playback options such as Shuffle and Continuous, and the playback filter, which allows you to apply EQ, effects, and crossfading. Unfortunately, built-in EQ and DSP plug-in effects are available only as a Plus feature ($19.98 gets you the full-featured Plus version).
When you click Media Library, your entire media library appears in the right-hand window. Here you'll see all sorts of information, which you can sort by column in the typical jukebox fashion. Above it is a search bar that returns results with blazing speed. You can fine-tune your browsing by listing your files by album, artist, CD media, genre, or file location. The interface and the process for adding songs to a current playlist are efficient and intuitive, but unlike Windows Media Player and others, Media Jukebox doesn't provide a separate link to videos, photos, and other types of media. In fact, we were surprised that it doesn't support photo files.
Once your media has begun playing, another resizable window appears for video or visualizations. Media Jukebox also includes links to artists' biographies as well as e-commerce sites such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Best Buy, where you can purchase CDs from within the program's browser. The visualizations, while numerous, are mostly uninspiring. The included skins are decent but appear to have been designed in the '80s. You can download hundreds more from jriver.com; however, the built-in link in the program's skin manager is dead. (We should give proper credit to amped2 and iPod, two user-designed, downloadable Mini-Me skins.) Likewise, you can download an additional main-interface skin (a.k.a. Mega-Me) to add to the three color-schemed choices within Media Jukebox.
While the application works well for video playback, it has an audiocentric interface and feature set. 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 also 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. J. River limits CD burning for data and audio to 4X in the basic version. Upgrading to the Plus version will get you maximum burning speeds.
Media Jukebox 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 Jukebox 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.