Microsoft's end-to-end vision for digital media encompasses a number of important usage scenarios, and sets apart the company's goals from that of less far-reaching initiatives from Apple Computer and other companies. In the center of the Microsoft vision is a PC running Windows Media Player 10 (see my review) and, preferably, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (see my review). This digital hub connects with content from online services like MSN Music (see my preview), Napster, Wal-Mart, MusicMatch, Virgin Digital, Movielink, CinemaNow, and others, and then extends out to a wide range of complementary products and devices, including portable digital audio and media devices like the Portable Media Center (see my review), car stereos, Media Center Extender devices (see my review), digital media receivers, and Windows-Powered Smartphones and Pocket PCs. For those latter devices, Microsoft has created a major new version of Windows Media Player, called Windows Media Player 10 Mobile, which turns your cell phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) into a multimedia powerhouse. In this review, we'll examine that product.

Previously, Windows Mobile-Powered devices were somewhat hamstrung by lackluster Windows Media Player (WMP) versions. WMP 9 Series for Pocket PC, for example, which ships with Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition (SE) devices like the Dell Axim X30, offers just simple playlist features, a few skinning options, and basic playback capabilities. It is just a pale imitation of its desktop brethren. Responding to feedback, Microsoft decided to make Windows Media Player 10 Mobile a much more capable product.

Windows Media Player 10 Mobile Goals

"We went back to the drawing board with this release," Mark Ramberg, the Program Manager for Windows Media Player 10 Mobile, told me in August. "We responded to feedback from customers, input from newsgroups, our hardware partners, and really got as much input as we could to find out what people wanted. These devices are so multi-function now that you can have a phone that has a camera, your email, your media jukebox, and video playback, all in one device."

At a high level, Microsoft sought to provide as rich a media experience as is possible on the relatively limited portable devices that would run WMP 10 Mobile. Also, the company wanted to closely align the product with its desktop-based cousin, WMP 10, providing users with a more seamless experience between the two. And finally, the product should be as similar as possible on both a Smartphone and a Pocket PC--which is a bit of a challenge given the different screen resolutions--providing "at a glance" functionality.

Windows Media Player 10 Mobile Features

Given the relatively poor quality of previous WMP versions for Windows Mobile, it is perhaps unsurprising that a lot of customers had solid ideas about what Microsoft could add to the product to make it more interesting. According to the Ramberg, the top requests were a media library for browsing content stored on the device, album art display, better playlist support, easier controls, and the ability to play back more media types, including content with encoded with Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Needless to say, Microsoft added all of that and more to WMP 10 Mobile, and in the following sections we'll examine the changes and new features that differentiate this version.

Basic user interface changes

When you launch WMP 10 Mobile, the first thing you'll notice is that the player takes on the new Energy Blue user interface (Figure) that graces both Windows Media Player 10 and Windows XP Media Center Edition as well. The onscreen playback controls also visually resemble those of the desktop WMP10 player, but are larger than the buttons in previous mobile versions of WMP, so you can more easily hit them with your finger.

Integration with desktop Media Player and Media Center

Unlike with previous versions of the mobile WMP, WMP 10 Mobile appears in the WMP 10 Sync list as a supported device (or, as a number of supported devices--the Pocket PC's integrated storage and external storage like that found on a Secure Digital, or SD, card both appear as separate devices in the player). That means you can set up automatic or manual sync lists with the Pocket PC, and determine which media content from you PC shows up on the portable device.

If you're lucky enough to have a Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005-based PC, you can also synchronize recorded TV shows onto the device, so you can watch last night's Daily Show while commuting to work. The synchronization occurs through WMP 10 as normal, and WMP 10 handles the transcoding of shows to ensure that they're small enough to fit on your PDA's screen.

Media Library

Now that there are huge amounts of storage available to PDA and smartphone owners, you can store quite a bit of digital media content on those devices. The problem, of course, is that you'll want to organize that content in some way, and the flat playlist structure afforded by previous versions is no longer good enough. Using the new WMP 10 Mobile Media Library (Figure), you can browse through a database of your media on the device, just like you do on the desktop.

Content in the Media Library is divided into meta-data based groups such as My Music, My Videos, My TV, and My Playlist. As you drill down into each group, you can access to lists of actual media (Figure), such as the All Music list, which lists all of the music content in your Media Library, or the My TV lists, which lists any recorded TV shows.

Album art display

When you play back music on the device, the album art appears on the player "chrome," or user interface, giving you a quick visual cue about the currently playing track (Figure).

"Surprisingly, everyone wants to see album art," Ramberg said. "Its part of the emotional connection that people have with their music and the device, plus it's great, it looks nice."

Better playlist support

Not only the ability to build playlists on the device, but also to take the playlists you've created on the PC in Windows Media Player 10 and bring those playlists down to your device and play them. This lets you perform media creation activities where it most makes sense--at your PC--and then consume the music on the road using your portable device.

Additionally, WMP 10 Mobile supports a Now Playing list (Figure), a la the desktop player, and you can queue up songs--place them at the end of the Now Playing list, by choosing a handy menu option (Figure).

Easier controls

In previous versions of mobile WMP, Microsoft let you customize which Pocket PC buttons performed certain actions, like Play/Pause and navigating to the next track. In this release, the portable device buttons are preconfigured based on the results of usability studies, and from what I can tell they're pretty logically arrange. For example, the up and down buttons turn the volume up and down, respectively, and the left and right buttons now navigate to the previous and next songs, respectively. You can, of course, change these settings using a new Buttons Options page (Figure).

Supports more media formats

In addition to all the Windows Media formats you'd expect Microsoft to support, including Windows Media Audio (WMA), Windows Media Video (WMV), and the photo stories generated by Plus! Photo Story, WMP 10 Mobile also supports MP3 format. But the company has made architectural changes to this release so developers can plug in other formats, like the 3GPP format that is so important on smartphones.

WMP 10 Mobile is also the first PDA-based software to offer lossless audio playback, thanks to its support of WMA Lossless. And with the faster processors and VGA screens now gracing modern Pocket PCs, WMP 10 Mobile is also capable of playing back 640 x 480 video with stereo sound.

Finally, WMP 10 Mobile fully supports Windows Media DRM 10, enabling the player to playback audio or video content that's been purchased or subscribed to from services such as Napster, MSN Music, or the many other Windows Media-compatible online services that are now available. With wireless networking capabilities, many Pocket PCs will even be able to acquire licenses "over the air," Microsoft says, though I haven't tested that particular feature.

What's missing?

Windows Media Player 10 Mobile is a huge improvement over previous versions, but it's still missing a few key features. While the player natively supports the PhotoStory image codec, it doesn't natively support photo displays or slideshows, which would be a nice touch for the many users who don't own PhotoStory. Furthermore, while most Pocket PCs ship with some sort of image viewing and editing software, those solutions differ from device maker to device maker and aren't always of high quality. This is a feature that should come directly from Microsoft.

Availability

Stupidly, Windows Media Player 10 Mobile will only be made available to consumers who purchase new Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition-based portable devices, such as the stunning Dell Axim X50v on which I tested the product. Microsoft will not be making WMP 10 Mobile available to other users as a free or paid download.

Conclusions

Windows Media Player 10 Mobile dramatically raises the bar for PDA- and Smartphone-based media players and makes Windows Mobile powered devices a more compelling option for people who'd like to consolidate a number of devices down to a single device. Depending on the portable device you purchase, it's now possible to use a single device for digital music and video consumption, cell phone, digital camera, and even light computing duties like email, Web browsing, and word processing. We're reaching a critical juncture in the power and scope of these small devices, and WMP 10 Mobile is playing a major role in making the multifunction future of portability a reality today. My only real reservation is that this excellent product will only be made available to purchasers of new Windows Mobile 2003 SE devices. It's so good that I wish more Pocket PC and Smartphone owners could take advantage of it today.