The latest version of AOL/Nullsoft's popular free audio software, Winamp3--which cleverly integrates MP3 into its name--runs on an entirely new code base that's intended to pave the way for third-party plug-ins and skins. But the accompanying redesign compromises this player's famous ease of use. Worse, we experienced far too many random crashes and misidentified file-type errors. We say hang onto the older version of Winamp until Nullsoft cuts the feature glut. If you're looking for a more balanced experience, try MusicMatch Jukebox. Downloading Winamp3 takes just a few seconds, and the installation process is equally speedy. You can choose Full, Lite, or Custom install by selecting or deselecting various components. Unlike some developers, Nullsoft is straight up about what it puts on your machine, and the app lets you determine how you want to handle file types and asks you whether you want the program to preserve those file associations. We found it mildly annoying that you have to plug in your e-mail address and your zip code before you can install the program.
What's up with the Thinger? We hate that it spawns windows galore.
As with previous Winamp iterations, you click the Eject button--found next to the row of icons for controlling audio playback--to listen to an individual music file. But while Winamp 2.81 made it easy to add playlists, Winamp3 confuses the matter. To add a playlist or a folder full of MP3s, you must open the playlist editor by clicking its icon in the Thinger before you navigate to the directory of your choice. We much prefer the old, integrated method.
Lest we sound completely negative, we should note that Winamp3 features a few nice, new tools. For example, its new visualization studio has a wide variety of graphical choices and a beat detector that allows the visualizations actually move in time with the music. The media library lets you organize files by artist, genre, year, album, or your own comments, and you can more easily sort songs using a clearly labeled button inside the playlist editor. Plus, all of the new controls, as well as the Thinger, pop up well-worded bubble definitions that don't get hidden underneath other components as they do in version 2.81.
There's been a lot of stink posted in user forums about Winamp3's instability, and, sadly, we have the proof to back up those complaints. In our tests, we experienced slowdowns, misidentified file errors, and lag time when flipping through screens to tweak our settings or to switch skins. We recommend that Winamp users stick with version 2.81 for now--especially if they have favorite plug-ins, which won't work in Winamp3. If a product is free, you can generally count on lousy support. While you won't be able to get anyone from Winamp on the phone, the company's forums are nicely laid out and well traveled by fans of the software. Since the forum is open to anyone with an e-mail address (you'll have to first register before you post), you'll probably have to weed through a lot of unhelpful threads before you get to the good ones. Still, the forums are well organized and maintained. And unlike other companies that leave users of previous versions hanging in the breeze, Nullsoft retains older forums. E-mail support is available, too.