Nullsoft Winamp 5.23Winamp might best be described as the time-warp music jukebox. The app continues to focus on the fun of organizing and playing media while the industry has progressed to all-encompassing multimedia suites that integrate with online music stores and provide ever more intuitive interfaces. While Winamp encourages customization and experimentation with downloadable skins and plug-ins, the other players have moved on. From Microsoft Windows Media Player (WMP) 11 and Musicmatch Jukebox 10 (now the Yahoo Music Engine) to newcomers such as the Virgin Digital player, users are looking for all-in-one interfaces with a single large window, tabbed access to functions, and in-your-face displays of partners' online media and stores.
Visually, Winamp has been in a holding pattern since AOL's acquisition of Nullsoft in June 1999, although its developers make sure it keeps up with current features. The latest releases build in access to AOL Music Now (AOL's online music store) and In2TV (AOL's online TV reruns channel). They've also added native support for portable music players and free access to 20 XM Satellite Radio channels, courtesy of AOL Radio. AOL corporate expansion seems to drive much of the development but certainly not everything; a component called Shoutcast Wire lets users discover, subscribe to, and download podcasts. The paid version ($19.95) lets you rip and burn CDs at up to 48X speed, as well as encode tracks to AAC+, AAC, MP3, and WMA.
You can download the free player in any of three versions: Lite for plain music playback (only 1.2MB); Full with skins, library, and access to a variety of audio and video resources (6.01MB); and Bundle, which comes with all that, plus a sample song (8.42MB). Winamp installs quickly and is mercifully quiet about nagging for registration and upgrades.
The Winamp interface uses dockable or detachable panes, and the main ones are the Controller, Media Library, Playlist Editor, and Video playback windows. This multipanel approach takes some getting used to if you're accustomed to a player such as WMP or iTunes, and it has certainly scared away some average Joe users who felt they weren't hip enough for the room. If that's you, keep at it: Winamp provides so much for free that it's worth learning. The main Controller sits at the top and shows you what's currently playing; it provides a 10-band equalizer and tools for customizing the interface. The Media Library sits below it and provides access to local content, online audio and video files, and playlists. The bottom of this window displays album art and artist biographies accessed over the Internet. Winamp now supports portable music players and, naturally, works with CD drives for ripping and burning discs. One of the few features it's missing is line-in recording, although that won't be a minus for most people.
The Media Library panel provides free and convenient access to a fantastic variety of streaming media. This includes online radio stations (including 20 XM channels and many others from Shoutcast), streaming TV, podcasts, music videos, and even neatly categorized songs on demand. One of the latest additions is access to AOL's Music Now online store, which offers both subscription and à la carte downloads from its catalog of more than 2 million tracks. Access Music Now through Winamp and you'll see the same interface as through a browser, but streamed tracks will play through Winamp. The player doesn't offer access to any other online music stores.
We're curious to see what lies ahead for Winamp: whether there's more to its future development than simply providing access to new AOL services and whether it ever regains the popularity it once enjoyed. It deserves to, since it provides so much content for free, and is sure to keep audio and video lovers happy. For now, the Winamp community continues to create and upload new skins and plug-ins, and Winamp support responds quickly to e-mail requests when you're having difficulty.