Windows Media Player 7 (WMP7) is a mammoth upgrade to Microsoft's media player software, enough so that the company might have been better served coming up with a new name. For Windows users, WMP7 replaces both Windows Media Player 6.4 and the built-in CD player, but it also potentially replaces a slew of third party applications as well. This is because WMP7 is an "all-in-one' digital media solution, offering a wide range of features that will help you find, play, organize, and even create digital music and video on your PC. In this way, WMP7 has transcended its previous role as a media "player," entering the realm previously dominated by such players as Real Jukebox and MusicMatch Media Jukebox.

In my review of Windows Me, I panned WMP7 for its bloated size and slightly schizophrenic interface. I also chastised Microsoft for including this application in Windows without providing any way to not install it or uninstall it later. But for users of other OSes, Windows Media Player 7 is an option, and I've actually started using it as my primary media player. In other areas, however--notably audio encoding and portable device compatibility--Windows Media Player 7 falls short, so I can't yet recommend it as the one-stop solution for all your digital media needs. In this review, I will take a look at WMP7 and discuss the areas where it excels as well as those where it falls flat.

First of all, WMP7 is a big application. It takes up a whopping 18MB or more of RAM, far more than media players like Winamp. But I don't see this as an issue at all: On a modern Windows 2000 system with 128 MB or more of RAM, 18 MB is a drop in the bucket, and that's RAM that would just be sitting there unused anyway. My feeling is that anyone who worries about this kind of thing has some priorities mixed, as Windows 2000 is smart enough to funnel RAM where it's most useful. If you're hitting the threshold of available RAM on a regular basis, you've got more important issues to resolve than the media player you'd like to use.

But WMP7 is big in other ways: Many people will want to run the application full screen, even on 1024 x 768 systems, simply so that they can take in all of the information it presents. Other programs--such as Real Jukebox--have far less cluttered and "big" interfaces. How big is WMP7? To simply view the entire width of the display in the Web-based Media Guide, you will need an 800 x 600 display, minimum. And you're definitely going to want to expand the window vertically (Figure), so you may as well just get used to the full screen display.

Overall, the user interface is one of WMP7's biggest limitations. It's an odd mix of a curved fascia stuck inside a rectangular window that's been rendered in HTML. And the dialog boxes, especially for setting options, are hard to navigate and poorly organized. On the other hand, one must consider the competition, and WMP7 is no more difficult to use than Real Jukebox, especially when you're first learning how it works. But Real Jukebox presents a much more refined user interface than WMP7, there's just no contest.

The main screens in WMP7--Now Playing, Media Guide, and the like--are easy to reach, however, and fairly obvious. And WMP7 basically does it all, when it comes to digital media playback: It can handle CD audio, Windows Media audio and video, MP3 audio, AVI video, and a host of other formats. Notably absent from the list, however, are QuickTime 4.0+ and RealAudio/Video, which are popular on the Web.

Using the Media Guide
If you're online, WMP7 launches with the Media Guide screen by default (Figure). This is simply a Web page that's hosted on Microsoft's Windows Media Web site and it's analogous to the MSN Web site you see when you launch Internet Explorer. I'm not a big fan of these types of sites and Microsoft's is particularly bad. However, it is updated on a daily basis, so there is always new content. But this content isn't yet rich enough to be targeted at particular users, so you'll be bombarded with information about Brittney Spears and Dr. Dre whether you want it or not. Actually, that's not strictly true: You can tell Windows Media Player to not load the Media Guide by default, and I recommend this. The current version is just too weak to be of any interest.

Most alarmingly, there's no easy way to purchase music online using this service, though that was touted as a major feature when WMP7 was launched in July. I'm still trying to find EMI's supposedly extensive collection of singles for purchase. I'm sure it's out there somewhere, but the Media Guide isn't any help at all.

Conclusion: The Media Guide is a joke.

Playing CDs
The WMP7 CD player is straightforward and easy to use (Figure). Like other PC-based CD players, WMP7 will access an online CD database such as CDDB when you insert a music CD and correctly display artist, album and track information. And, like other CD players, WMP7 lets you add CD information when it isn't available from CDDB. Likewise, you can edit the information provided by CDDB, which will change your local copy, not the Internet version. Subsequent CD plays will access the local database instead of CDDB.

Conclusion: Playing CDs with WMP7 is no better or worse than other tools.

Burning CDs
WMP7 also lets you record, or "burn," your own CDs, using music that's stored on your system in WAV format, Windows Media (WMA) or MP3 format. WMP7 can create CD-quality recordings, but your results will vary based on the quality of the source. To create your own CD, however, you'll need to first create a playlist (see Organizing music and video with the Media Library, below), which is a bit of a limitation. Programs such as Adaptec CD Creator allow you to easily create music (and data) CDs by simply dragging and dropping the files you wish to include. In WMP7, however, this functionality is exposed only through the File menu and you are presented with a list of available playlists, so you need to think ahead (Figure).

Conclusion: Burning CDs with WMP7 is needlessly convoluted.

Encoding music from CDs
The process of copying a CD audio track to your local system is called encoding, and you need to specify the format that the file will take when it is encoded. Today, this is typically MP3 format, but WMP7 only encodes in its own Windows Media format (WMA), which is a major limitation. By default, WMP7 includes licensing information when you copy audio tracks to your PC, however, and I recommend turning this feature off so that you can more easily use that music on other PCs or with other devices. On that note, I recommend skipping out on WMP7 for encoding anyway, as it won't encode in MP3 format. There may come a day when the world uses WMA as a standard audio format, but that day is not yet upon us.

That said, WMP7 is a fine encoder if you're interested in WMA format. It can copy in digital mode if your system supports it (and it probably will), which is faster and offers higher quality (Figure). You can specify the bit rate of your encoded audio tracks as well, an interesting exercise in compromise: Lower bit rates make smaller files, but don't sound as good. I generally encode MP3 files at 160 Kbps for near CD quality, but I've heard that WMA format can achieve similar results at lower bit rates. You'll want to experiment with this, however, taking into account how these recordings will sound on portable music devices, if that's a possibility. In my personal experience, WMA format is slightly better sound at the same bit rate than MP3, but I still wouldn't mess with anything below 128 Kbps. Your results will vary.

Conclusion: Unless you're married to Microsoft's audio format, skip out on WMP7 for encoding. I recommend Real Jukebox for this purpose.

Organizing music and video with the Media Library
The WMP7 Media Library is, in my mind, the reason you'll want to use this program. Audio and video that are playing in WMP7 are automatically added to the Media Library, which organizes this content by artist, album, and genre (Figure). And you can drag and drop entire drives worth of music into WMP7 to automatically add your entire music collection to the library. If you need something more specific, you can create playlists, which can contain any songs (or videos) you'd like. So, for example, you might create playlists such as "80's synth bands," "British Invasion," or whatever.

The WMP7 Media Library really makes it easy to organize and play back digital audio. You might shuffle through your entire collection, through all the rock songs, or through all the songs by Def Leppard. Or you might decide to play songs from a certain album. While it's true that other media players off similar functionality, the Media Library is the best of the lot, and it's very easy to use. The only minor complaint is that you might not want every single media file you play to be added to the library, and there's no way to turn this off. I occasionally find myself manually deleting files from the library because they no longer exist in that location on my systems.

Conclusion: The Media Library is the reason you need to try WMP7

Finding music on the Internet
WMP7 offers a Radio Tuner feature that allows you to connect to radio stations from around the world, over the Internet or, if you have the appropriate hardware, using standard AM and FM signals. You can search for radio stations by format (Rock, oldies, etc.), band (AM, FM, Internet), language, location, callsign, frequency, or keyword. While it's unlikely that I'll ever use this feature on a regular basis, it works as advertised, and you can quickly begin listening to rock stations in Seattle or Classical music stations from New York (Figure).

The Radio Tuner feature requires you to be connected to the Internet, and it offers a Media Library-like playlist feature so that you can easily save your favorite stations for easy use later on.

If you're looking for a Napster-like tool for downloading music and saving it to your local hard drive, you've got two options: The Media Guide offers this sort of functionality, but it's limited to throw-away songs from groups that are trying to suck you into a retail purchase. Or you could simply use Napster or one of its clones to find Internet music download sites, though this is of questionable legality at this time.

Conclusion: The Internet Tuner works great if you're into that kind of thing and have a 24/7, cable modem connection.

Connecting to portable devices
WMP7 supports a number of portable devices, though it's currently (and irritatingly) limited to a range of Windows CE-based PocketPCs and Palm-sized PCs, dedicated portable audio devices, and CompactFlash drives (Figure). Given the wide range of MP3 players our there, it's sort of depressing that popular players such as the RIO 100/300 are not supported, though I expect this to happen over time.

Like the CD burning function, copying music to portable devices requires that you organize the songs you want to copy into playlists beforehand. Numerous applications allow you to drag and drop any songs into portable devices, however, making this a big limitation and irritation.

Conclusion: Unless your device is supported, you're going to be out of luck. And the lack of drag and drop audio copying makes this program less than elegant for the job. Stick with the tools that came with your device or look for freeware/shareware solutions, such as the excellent J. River Media Jukebox or Real Jukebox.

Customizing Windows Media Player
WMP7 can be customized or personalized in a number of ways, including a "skinning" function that changes the way the application looks and an interesting visualization feature that provides an undulating graphical display that moves in concert with the currently playing song. You can also choose to use and/or display a graphic equalizer, and other audio-video effects.

The WMP7 "skins" feature is an interesting preview of the next version of Windows, which will offer a similar way to change the look and feel of its user interface (Figure). WMP7 skins only work in a special "compact mode," so there's actually no way to change the default WMP7 window. But compact mode offers developers a number of interesting ways to change no only the user interface of WMP7, but its functionality as well. It requires a lot of work, however, and an understanding of XML to make it happen, so the casual Photoshop user need not apply. The skins that ship with WMP7 are uniformly horrible, but you can download a number of new skins from the Windows Media Player Web site (there's a link from within the program, which is nice), some of which offer a number of powerful new features. On the other hand, most of the skins on the Web site stink as well, and they're nowhere near as refined as the skins that are available for Winamp and other popular players. I hope to see this change over time as developers get more attuned to the WMP skin programming model.

The WMP7 visualizations are interesting: When you switch the player into the "Now Playing" screen, you can view a set of animated graphics that move to the beat of the music (Figure) (Certain skins also support this feature in Compact Mode). In addition to the wide range of visualizations that ship with the player, a number of new ones are downloadable from the Web.

Conclusion: WMP7 isn't as configurable as other players, but it's skinning and visualization features are Good Enough. Something this trivial isn't a reason to choose one player over another.

Conclusion
Windows Media Player 7 is a great digital media player, but it falls short as an all-in-one tool. Many of its features--the online Media Guide, the CD burner, the WMA-only media encoder, and its support for portable devices--are poorly executed or incomplete, and a decision to use WMP7 or skip it over may rest in one of these areas. But while I do turn to other tools for certain functionality, WMP7 excels at organizing and playing digital audio, and I'll keep it in my stable of digital media tools, however, simply because of its excellent Media Library.

I recommend Adaptec EZ CD Creator 4.x for audio CD creation and Real Jukebox for MP3 encoding, so my search for that elusive all-in-digital media tool is still ongoing. But perhaps a future revision of WMP will right these wrongs. Regardless, I suspect that Microsoft's solution for digital media is here to stay.