Call it the vastly improved Microsoft digital music universe.
There's no doubt that WMP 11 and Urge are a dynamic duo. The two are linked at a genetic level, offer modern and thoughtfully designed interfaces, and have the kinds of useful features that one should expect in a fast-maturing digital music world. Throw in the Clix and a host of other Windows Media devices--MP3 players, smart phones, and PVPs--that mesh well with this system, and suddenly you have a compelling iPod/iTunes alternative.
So far, the infant do-it-all jukebox is not without its faults, which includes no built-in networking for WMP 11 and some bugginess (it is, after all, in beta mode), but I am impressed with the combined effort--one that offers hope to the many pieces of the Windows Media universe. Here are my 10 reasons to love WMP 11:
- 1. Inspired by iTunes
Cleaning up the interface was the most critical mission for the developers. Microsoft admitted that emulating Apple with clean visual design was paramount to the future success of WMP. While WMP 10 was functional and packed with features, the interface and thus the user experience were horrible. WMP 11 relies more on album art (and stacks of albums) and less on text. Photo and video thumbnails, more open space, a light background, thoughtfully designed menu buttons, and a tight, glossy look give Windows users a media jukebox they can actually be proud of. As the Microsoft product manager stated to us: "We guarantee a good user experience." So far, so good.
- 2. Hard-core performance
In its internal studies, Microsoft determined that libraries of 10,000 tracks or more are now typical rather than the exception to the rule. Thus, WMP 11 is engineered to handle not only thousands but also millions of tracks (or video or photo files). You'll notice this in the noninterrupted speed of scrolling through thousands of tracks, instant and categorized search results, background file transcoding, and obviously, the lack of hiccups in playing back media. Obviously, this performance takes a hit if you're using the bare-minimum hardware (233MHz, 64MB of RAM), but I can assure you there's a powerful engine underneath the pretty exterior.
- 3. Deft music store integration
Microsoft finally sees the importance of creating a seamless jukebox-music store experience. It is one of the core factors for the success of iTunes and its music store. WMP 10 included access to Napster, Rhapsody, and other content sources within the jukebox itself, but the experience was fragmented, buggy, and poorly branded. Urge feels like a primary feature of WMP and includes dedicated music folders that are in tune with the rest of the jukebox.
- 4. Content choices
In addition to Urge, you can access Napster, Rhapsody, CinemaNow, and many other audio and video sites. In short, while these stores aren't as tightly integrated with WMP 11 as Urge (and they don't even exist in the version of WMP 11 that you download from Urge), they offer choice. iTunes-like video integration could be much tighter, and this should come soon, though Media Center Edition owners probably don't care.
- 5. Networking
While WMP 11 doesn't have built-in networking--one of the few flaws of this version--you can still stream content to devices such as the Xbox 360 using a separate piece of software. Microsoft promises that soon you'll be able to communicate with other PCs, set-top boxes, and devices from within the program itself--and stream DRM content to those devices.
- 6. Two-way street
Without third-party software or other techniques, you can transfer content only one way on an iPod--that is, from iTunes to iPod. But WMP 11 allows you to transfer (automatically if you like) files from your portable device back to WMP 11. Dubbed reverse sync, this function is especially nice for digital images or video that you capture or transfer to the device or for songs that you purchase over the air.
- 7. Device-friendly
Microsoft has added neat tricks to the mix, including the hyped-up gas gauge, which gives you a visual indicator of how much space you have left on your portable device. The gas gauge also helps during the CD-burning process. Also, when you connect any MTP player, an image of the player will show up in the sync area. The Creative Zen Vision:M works particularly well within WMP 11. Other players, such as the iPod, will still show up in the left-hand navigation pane. Also, Microsoft has tightened up the specs for PlaysForSure (now 2.0) and has implemented them in the new iRiver Clix.
- 8. Fill in the blanks
WMP 10 utilized text-based databases for identifying files without correct ID3-tag metadata. WMP 11 uses audio-waveform matching--called advanced audio fingerprinting--which helps fill in missing data such as album names, artists, and album art automatically. This feature worked well in my testing of some generically tagged MP3s.
- 9. Cool tricks
Dig a bit deeper, and you'll find some awesome features, such as CD spanning, which queues up subsequent discs when the current CD is filled to the max, as well as ripping to WMA Pro, Microsoft's 5.1 or 7.1 surround format.
- 10. Microsoft's new ecosystem
Part of the iPod's success is that it has solid, easy-to-use software behind it. The iTunes-iPod relationship is often referred to as an ecosystem. WMP 11 gives WMA devices--and there's a boatload of them--a place to call home. Those who've been using the historically frustrating WMP for years just got an amazing upgrade and a sneak preview of the full Windows Vista version.