We've been waiting a long time for the Windows XP version of Windows Media Player 11 (WMP 11), which made its first appearance in Windows Vista way back in the October 2005 CTP release (see my review). Well, now it's here, and I think you're going to be pleasantly surprised. I certainly am: In fact, I might be switching away from iTunes as my primary media player depending on how things go. There are just a few remaining issues.

If you've been following the media player space, you may believe that Apple's iTunes is the market leader. Actually, that's not the case: While iTunes does, in fact, dominate in online music sales, WMP continues to lead the market in overall usage, largely I'm sure because of its inclusion in Windows XP. That said, Apple has the mindshare, and one might argue that it's only a matter of time before iTunes simply rains down on WMP's parade.

But hold off on that epitaph. Though Microsoft still doesn't have an iPod story, WMP 11 does feature a far more visual user interface than previous WMP versions, and it seems lighter and faster to boot. Indeed, when you compare the basic WMP 11 user interface to that of iTunes, Apple's entry looks hopelessly archaic, more dBASE III+ than media player, with line after line of boring text. Microsoft may just be on to something.

In this review, I'll be examining Windows Media Player 11 for Windows XP, which is now available in a public beta version. I'll briefly look at MTV's URGE music service, by which Microsoft hopes to usurp iTunes' online music service dominance, and the iRiver clix, a wonderful portable MP3 that, yup, even makes the iPod look silly by comparison. However, I'll be reviewing these WMP 11 companions separately. Together, they present an interesting alternative to Apple's stranglehold on the market. A Microsoft renaissance in digital media? You never know.

Understanding Windows Media Player 11

Like Windows Media Player 10 (see my review), Windows Media Player 11 is an evolutionary WMP version that is accompanied by various products and services, but not new versions of Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) codecs. I don't want to spend too much time here on the history of WMP, but suffice to say that Microsoft has worked to improve its all-in-one media player over the years and as we've moved from WMP 7, included with Windows Me in 2000, to the latest version, the company has done a decent job of matching the product's feature-set with the needs of the day. It should come as no surprise that WMP 11 is dramatically better than its predecessors in virtually every way.

A less cluttered user interface

The first thing you'll notice when you fire up WMP 11 is that the product's interface has been completely overhauled, though it's still familiar enough to negate a lengthy learning curve. WMP 11, finally, drops the monotonous blue user interface that has dogged the previous three versions and adopts a cleaner, more professional looking black fascia (Figure). Oddly, this interface looks nicer (to me, at least) than does the Vista version, which replaces the black areas of WMP 11/XP with translucent Aero Glass panes.

The top-mounted toolbar from WMP 10 remains, with familiar Now Playing, Library, Rip, Burn, and Sync buttons, though Microsoft has demoted the Guide button and replaced it with an Music Services button that changes based on which online music service, if any, you've configured. (The Media Guide is still available through a somewhat hidden menu, however.)

New to WMP 11: Each of the toolbar buttons also features a subtle Options drop-down menu that you access by clicking the down-arrow widget below any of the buttons (Figure). While one might argue that these widgets, and their resulting menus, are a bit hard to access, they do in fact resolve one of my biggest complaints about WMP 10: Complexity. By hiding infrequently-needed options in these menus, Microsoft has been able to clean up the WMP 11 user interface quite a bit. As a result, WMP 11 doesn't feature the confusing array of similar looking widgets that its predecessor featured. The menus are also more logical. If you want to find options related to the Library, for example, simply click the Options menu for that button. And if you want to access the old-school Options dialog, each of these menus includes an option called, logically enough, More Options, that brings you back in time (Figure).

Like WMP 10, WMP 11 hides its menu system, now called the Classic Menu, by default. You can access the Classic Menu by right-clicking on any area of the application's chrome, as before (Figure). But you can also trigger it by hitting the ALT key, which is how such menus are triggered in various Windows Vista applications and windows.

Speaking of Windows Vista, WMP 11, like IE 7, adds Vista-like Back and Forward buttons. Somehow they work in WMP 11, unlike in IE 7, whose interface seems a bit more forced in XP. The buttons let you jump back and forth through the various WMP experiences--Now Playing, Library, and so forth--in a way that is quite natural. And because WMP 11 does its own thing UI-wise, the buttons are nicer looking and more appropriate looking than they are in IE 7/XP.

WMP 11 has another Vista-ism, a set of new playback controls that reside in the middle bottom of the WMP 11 application window. These controls are larger and more centralized than their equivalents in WMP 10, and they include buttons for other much-needed options, like repeat and shuffle. Also, the Full Screen button is more logically located next to the Skin Mode button in the bottom right corner of the application window.

A better music library

In WMP 10, Microsoft figured that most users would "live in the Library," or spend most of their WMP usage manage their media playback from within the Media Library. Aside from the new black chrome that surrounds the WMP 11 interface, the biggest changes in this version are, again, with the Media Library. Previously, the Media Library was exposed as a database-like list of text, similar to the method employed by Apple's iTunes. In WMP 11, however, the view is far more graphical (Figure) with album art representations of most of the main library view styles, including Artist, Album, Songs, Genre, and Year. WMP 11 even employs the Stacks shell construct from Windows Vista to visually show when a container includes multiple items (Figure). This interface is both effective and immediately obvious.

In the left hand Navigation pane, Microsoft has dramatically simplified things. Now, your playlists are listed on top and your library is segmented into various views you can select. (Secret: You can right-click the Library node in the Navigation pane and choose Show More Views to get back the more complicated WMP 10-style list of library views.) Any music services and devices you have configured will also have individual nodes as well. So a service like URGE can add items like Playlists, Charts, Downloads, Radio, and so on to integrate fully with the WMP 11 client. Furthermore, devices can reverse-sync with WMP 11: That's right, you can copy content from a portable device to the PC using WMP 11.

Because of its reliance on album art, WMP 11 makes it pretty easy to paste album art into the album art area of a song or album: Simply find the album art online, copy the image to the clipboard, then right-click the album art area and choose Paste Album Art. This is nice for anal retentive types like me who like to maintain a fine-grained control over their music collection. If you're not that insane, you can simply configure WMP 11 to automatically update your media information during initial setup and it should fill in any missing album art. Or, you can trigger this effect for an individual song or album by right-clicking its album art and choosing Update Album Info, which does what it thinks is best automatically, or Find Album Info, which launches the Album Info window and lets you pick the best match (Figure).

Overall, these features are all nice, but they require a bit of work on the user's part. In all but the smallest music collections, there is bound to be missing or incorrect media meta data. Fixing this data still isn't as nice as it could be. For example, Microsoft employs an Advanced Tag Editor (Figure), which is anything but advanced and not nearly as full-featured as iTunes' Get Info dialog. Surely, this could be improved.

When you're using the Media Library, you can switch between various view styles. Microsoft picks logical default view styles for each view, but you can actually switch between Icon, Expanded Tile, and good ol' Details view pretty easily using a new View Options widget (Figure). Using the Layout Options widget, you can enable and disable various WMP 11 panes, such as the Navigation and List panes and the Classic Menu.

Like iTunes, WMP 11 now features a prominent Instant Search box. And the name isn't just clever: As you type in a search phrase, the library view changes to match the text you've entered (Figure). This search box is intelligent, too, and will only search the contents of the view you're currently using. So if you've navigated into the New Age genre, for example, and choose to search, you'll only be searching from within that genre, and not from within the entire library. If you want, you can save a search as a Playlist by dragging the results of a search onto the Create Playlist node in the Navigation Pane; when you do so, you're prompted to enter a name for the playlist and you're good to go. (You can also create playlists as you would in previous WMP versions, using the old List Pane.)

What's happened here is that Microsoft has subtly moved away from its previous model of requiring the user to create temporary or permanent playlists in order to get anything done. Instead, the main media library view can be filtered down, like you might do in iTunes, and then you can play the subset of the complete library that's shown in the current view. However, WMP fans can still utilize the old List Pane to manipulate the Now Playing, Burn, and Sync playlists (Figure). It's kind of a best of both worlds scenario, I guess. But it should make it better for iTunes expatriates to switch back.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of the List Pane, you'll be happy to see that it has some new features. For example, you can click the playlist name in the List Pane and shuffle the list, and then save it in its new order.

Video and photo integration

Like WMP 10, WMP 11 works with photos and videos in addition to music. But WMP 11 hides the complexity of working with these three media types by hiding photos and videos by default (presumably because most people simply use WMP to work with music). To access the other media types, you click the new Categories button, which provides an entrance of sorts to a bread crumb trail, similar to the Windows Explorer Address bar, that shows "where" you are in the media library hierarchy (Figure). In WMP 10, these other media types were simply available in the main Navigation Pane view, which cluttered things up quite a bit.

If you choose Pictures, Videos (or Recorded TV) from the Categories button, the media library and Navigation Pane views will switch to show options that are applicable to the chosen media type (Figure). Thanks to the new WMP 11 view styles, WMP is suddenly a decent way to manage digital photos, which certainly wasn't true in the past. On the other hand, there's no obvious way to trigger a photo slideshow with an accompanying music soundtrack. It seems like that'd be easy to add.

Access to online music services

With WMP 10, Microsoft boasted of the product's Digital Media Mall because it included access to a wide range of online music stores and other services. These services all still work in WMP 11, and I was able to get up and running with my Napster subscription very quickly. But this time around, Napster, FYE, and even MSN Music have all been pushed to the wayside in favor of MTV's new URGE service, which Microsoft sees as the new savior in its fight against iTunes (Figure). I don't see what the big deal is. Like Napster, URGE offers access to over two million tracks, includes a la carte song downloads in addition to subscription-based offerings, and is compatible with over 100 portable players and other media devices (but not the iPod, sigh). Unlike Napster, at least temporarily, URGE has been granted access to the Navigation Pane in WMP 11 and I guess it does include a few other unique features (Figure). But it's not clear that URGE is an iTunes-killer. I'll be looking at this service in a future review.

Microsoft's device story

When Microsoft introduced the PlaysForSure initiative two years ago, the company positioned it as the ultimate answer to the hegemony of iTunes and the iPod. Today, market share figures suggest Microsoft missed the boat: The iPod dominates the portable media player market. If anything, the gap simply widens each year.

Microsoft hasn't given up, and though WMP 11 doesn't offer any revolutionary new functionality in the portable device space, there are some nice improvements. You can now sync with smaller devices using a new Shuffle Sync feature that, ahem, is suspiciously similar to a related feature in iTunes that Apple introduced with the iPod shuffle. A Reverse Sync feature gives you the capability to sync from a device back to the PC, which is handier than may be obvious, given the number of times I've mistakenly blown away music files. And with Multi-PC Sync, you can sync a single device between two or more PCs.

Device Management is still ponderous. With the iPod, Apple expects you to plug in the device, boot up iTunes, and auto-sync. And if you're fairly savvy, that works pretty well. WMP 11, meanwhile, is a microcosm of the wider Windows world. There's a lot of hand-holding, multiple wizards to wade through, and some silly how-to videos to fumble with when you connect a new device for the first time (assuming you use the device's install CD). I'll discuss this more in an upcoming review of the iriver clix (Photo), which I've been evaluating alongside WMP 11, but suffice to say that the WMA-based world is getting better, but it's nowhere near the effortless sophistication of the iPod.

Problems with Windows Media Player 11

On that note, WMP 11 isn't perfect. It cannot sync with Apple's market leading iPod, which is sure to make it a non-starter for many users. There is no integrated podcast capability, as you get with iTunes. The WMA-based online music stores to which you can connect with WMP 11 are many, but they're not as interesting to consumers as is iTunes. Ditto with portable devices: Some of them are nice, but none are as good as the iPod.

We'll have to wait and see how the final version of WMP 11 plays out before I can comment on the network-based sharing features. But looking at the version of WMP 11 that's included with Windows Vista, I have a feeling it will be pretty good, but not as simple as Apple makes sharing in iTunes. Stay tuned.

Availability

The initial version of Windows Media Player 11, which is essentially a public beta, will be release on Wednesday, May 17 for various 32-bit versions of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2). There is no x64 version and the 32-bit version will not install on Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. A separate WMP 11 version will ship with Windows Vista.

Between May and the end of 2006, Microsoft will update WMP 11 and will add new functionality, including a home network media sharing feature that's available now in the Vista version of WMP 11. The MTV URGE service will also be updated over the course of 2006, Microsoft tells me.

Windows Media Player 11 is free.

Conclusions

Despite being an avid iTunes user for the past few years, I find myself drawn to Windows Media Player 11. It's better looking, has a better user interface, and offers dramatically better performance than Apple's entry. What's lacking are iPod integration and a few iTunes-related niceties that I've come to expect, such as integrated support for podcasts and a decent tag editor. Unfortunately, these are basically must-have items for me, so I won't be switching to WMP 11. On the other hand, WMP 11, like Internet Explorer (IE) 7 (see my review of Beta 2), is a surprisingly good software offering and will likely be quite satisfactory for many, many people. If you're currently using an earlier WMP version, you should upgrade to WMP 11 immediately. It's a dramatic improvement over its predecessors, albeit with one that continues to ignore the market reality of the iPod.