Editor's note: A picture's worth a thousand words. For a closer look at Windows Media Player 11 and Urge, check out our slide show.
Windows Media Player (WMP) 11--which debuted at CES 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 the iTunes music empire, the time is now. With the addition of MTV's Urge, the jukebox's resident music service, WMP 11 (available Wednesday as a free beta download) certainly seems poised for battle.
It's not like Microsoft had trouble distributing any version of WMP; after all, the jukebox comes stock on any Windows system, and in fact, you can't get rid of it. The trouble was 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 OS. 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 GUI, 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 (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 sub-button 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.
Another noticeable--and welcome--interface change is that WMP's frustrating, ever-expanding left-hand 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-colored background. This not only makes it easier to locate and manage files but also gives the player some much-needed personality.
We like details such as stacked albums, where groups of albums--based on genre, artist, year, and so on--are sitting on top of one another in a way that allows the user to quickly identify groups visually. Nobody likes missing album art, so we also appreciate WMP 11's ability to track down images (as well as ID3-tag info) and automatically update your library using a new audio-fingerprinting technology that, like many other WMP tasks, takes place in the background.