That's the problem Microsoft faces with Windows Media Player (WMP) 11. It's an excellent upgrade, no doubt about it. But with its major competitor, iTunes 7 (see my review), stealing its most exciting new feature, and Microsoft's own Zune player doing its own thing and not utilizing WMP for device connectivity, WMP 11 is sort of a lame duck. Sure, millions of people will eventually download the software and happily use it. And they'll be getting a top-notch media jukebox, one that in many ways still outclasses the various other similar solutions on the market. I'm just not sure it matters anymore.

This review is a major update of my original Windows Media Player 11 Review, which appeared in May 2006 when Microsoft shipped the first WMP 11 beta. I've made the original version of this review available separately for historical purposes.

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 new 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 much nicer (to me, at least) than does the Vista version, which replaces the black areas of WMP 11/XP with translucent Aero Glass panes. In XP, WMP 11's new black fascia is professional looking and clean.

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 (and Internet Explorer 7), 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 also adopts IE 7-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 a new Compact 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 in XP, 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 (and, as I'm fond of pointing out, the DOS-era dBASE III+ application). 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.

The problem is that since Microsoft first revealed this new UI back in October 2005 (in a Vista pre-release build), Apple has shipped iTunes 7. While iTunes 7 doesn't completely copy all of the new visual view styles in WMP 11, it does include the most obvious and likeable view style, where album art is used to represent individual albums. Apple doesn't have anything like WMP 11's Vista-like Stacks views, but it does have an equally interesting CoverFlow view style that's not available in WMP 11. Long story short: WMP 11's window of opportunity was closed before Microsoft could even ship the product. Now, iTunes offers a feature that is comparable to WMP 11's best new feature.

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. This feature is called Reverse Sync.

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 Find 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 easy 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. (To be fair, Apple's automatic album art feature is equally limited: You must sign on to a valid iTunes account online before it will even work.)

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 an attempt to be 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, though you'll have to enable it first (Figure). It's kind of a best of both worlds scenario, I guess. But it should make it easier 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 Windows Vista's 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.

Network sharing

One other nice feature in Windows Media Player 11 is Media Sharing, which lets the application share your media library with other PCs and devices (including the Xbox 360) on your home network. Likewise, WMP 11 is able to discover compatible PCs and devices on the network automatically (Figure). If you're familiar with Windows Media Connect (WMC), then you understand what's happening here: Microsoft has embedded WMC directly into the WMP 11 client where it belongs. Now, WMP 11 behaves like iTunes, essentially, when it comes to sharing.

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 To Go 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 URGE (Figure) service, which Microsoft briefly advertized as the new savior in its fight against iTunes. (Talk about a quick turnaround. URGE itself was quickly deemphasized at Microsoft when the company announced its Zune MP3 player and online service.) For the most part, I don't see what the big deal is with URGE. 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, which dominates this market). 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. Furthermore, other Windows Media-compatible online services will soon ship upgrades that offer the same deep integration with WMP 11 that URGE utilizes.

The problem here is that Apple's iTunes Store is so dominant and so well designed that it's unlikely any Windows Media service--including URGE and the upcoming Zune Marketplace--will ever do much to excite consumers. They certainly do very little for me, despite some interesting technical features. Also, since these services are not compatible with the iPod, they're sort of a non-starter for the most part for most digital media lovers.

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 on my PCs. 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)and other Windows Media-compatible devices, 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, and though Microsoft had told me previously it was working on getting podcast functionality into the final version of WMP 11, it's nowhere to be seen. 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 and command only a tiny sliver of market share. Ditto with portable devices: Some of them are nice, but none are as good as the iPod, and all of them combined sell about 10 percent as well as does the iPod.

Availability

Windows Media Player 11 is now available for various 32-bit and 64-bit (x64) versions of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), including Windows XP Home with SP2, Pro with SP2, Tablet PC Edition 2005, or Media Center Edition 2005. See the download links on the right side of this page for more information.

A separate WMP 11 version will ship with Windows Vista later this year. The Vista version of WMP 11 will include various unique new features that are not available in the XP version, including unique Aero-based chrome elements and the ability to view and playback media from other PCs and devices around the home using the WMP 11 Media Library. I'll examine these features in my eventual Windows Vista review.

Like previous WMP versions, Windows Media Player 11 for Windows XP is free.

Conclusions

While I enjoy the Windows Media Player 11 look and feel, and appreciate the steady evolutionary improvements that Microsoft has made to this product, I feel that the software giant needs to face reality. Windows Media Player 11 lives in a world dominated by Apple's iTunes and iPod, and this product does nothing to embrace either of those de facto standards or offer customers compelling reasons why they should switch. Sure, WMP 11 is better than its predecessor. But its missing numerous necessary features, such as integrated support for podcasts and a decent tag editor. I won't be switching to WMP 11, and recommend that most users simply use iTunes, whether they have an iPod or not. On the other hand, WMP 11, like Internet Explorer (IE) 7 (see my review), is a solid offering and will likely be quite satisfactory for many, many people. If you're currently using an earlier WMP version, or a Windows Media-based portable player, you should upgrade to WMP 11 immediately. It's a nice improvement over its predecessors, albeit with one that continues to ignore Apple's market realities.