Note: This article is adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 11: Digital Music and Audio. --Paul

Windows 7 includes a number of audio and video technologies that are dramatic improvements over previous Windows versions. Key among them is Windows Media Player 12, which supports all kinds of digital media content, including digital audio and music, videos, photos, recorded TV shows, streaming Internet media, and more.

In Windows 7, Microsoft has augmented Windows Media Player in several important and exciting ways. The player thoroughly integrates with new Windows 7 shell features, providing a custom Jump List and taskbar thumbnail preview window for a truly unique experience. It is far more compatible with important new audio and video formats like Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), the successor to MP3, and H.264, the video format used by the iPod and Zune. It offers a nice new Now Playing Mode that lets you place the player to the side while you get other work done. And it offers a neat new Play To feature that lets you wirelessly push your media library around your home to other PCs and compatible devices, including the Xbox 360. You can even share your media library across the Internet. It's the full meal deal. As the front-end for your digital media content, Windows Media Player really is the only digital media software you'll ever need. (Well, almost. Windows Media Player still doesn't natively support Apple's dominant iPod, the best-selling portable MP3 player on the planet.)

There's a lot going on in Windows Media Player, but many of its rich features have been around for several years. In this article, we'll just focus on what's new.

 

Windows 7 shell integration

While most users will prefer to manage their digital media content directly from within Windows Media Player, Microsoft has added unprecedented digital media integration into the Windows 7 shell, and some of this functionality will make accessing digital media directly from the Explorer shell a viable option as well. Key among these integration pieces, of course, is the new Library functionality, which provides rich new Arrange By views and other niceties. (Read my Libraries feature focus for more information.)

But Windows Media Player integrates with the Windows shell in other ways too. For example, it heavily utilizes the new Windows 7 Jump List feature, which exposes itself when you right-click the Media Player's taskbar button when the application is running. As you can see here, the Windows Media Player Jump List provides access to recently played content as well as Media Player-related tasks and other shortcuts.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Windows Media Player Jump List.

Additionally, Windows Media Player provides a unique taskbar thumbnail live preview. This thumbnail replaces an option in previous versions of the Player that allowed you to minimize the application as a taskbar toolbar. As shown below, this thumbnail is indeed live, so you'll see album art, playing video, visualizations, or whatever else is happening in the Player at the time. It even includes minimal playback controls.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
The Windows Media Player live taskbar thumbnail is indeed live.

Advanced codec support

Like previous versions of the player, Windows Media Player 12 supports a wide range of legacy audio and video formats, including MP3, WAV, Windows Media Audio (WMA), MPEG-2, Windows Media Video (WMV) and WMV-HD, and AVI. But Media Player 12 finally makes good on its promise to be the only audio and video player you'll eve rneed: It also supprts modern and popular formats like AAC, DivX and XViD, Apple QuickTime, and, most important, MPEG-4/H.264. In the past, you had to download and install balky codec packages to get these formats working, if poorly, in Windows Media Player. Now they're just part of the package.

Windows Media Player also includes DVD playback capabilities. In pre-Vista versions of the player, you needed to download a $10 DVD decoder in order to add this functionality.

Now Playing Mode

In previous versions of the player, Now Playing was a view style, like Library, Rip, Burn, or Sync, that would literally take over the entire player window. This time around, Microsoft has come up with a more elegant solution.

You toggle the new Now Playing view by clicking the Switch to Now Playing button, which can be found in the bottom right of the Windows Media Player window. When you do so, the player switches into the small and clean display shown below. In this view, only the necessary UI bits are available, and then only when you mouse-over the window. Leave it alone, and the player window will display only the song name, artist, album title, and album art of the currently playing selection.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
The new Now Playing view is small, uncluttered, and graphical.

When you do mouse over the player in this view, you'll see a miniature version of the universal media playback control, with Stop, Previous, Play/Pause, Next, and Volume controls.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Mouse over the player to access the playback controls.

There are also three other buttons. A Show List button toggles the current playlist inside of the Now Playing view, covering up the album art. The Switch to Library button, to the right of the universal media playback control, switches Windows Media Player back to the default application window view style. And the View Full Screen button, as its name implies, switches the player into full screen mode. This mode makes a lot more sense for video, of course, than it does for music. In fact, unlike with music, video content played in Windows Media Player actually causes the application to enter Now Playing mode automatically, and resize to the dimensions of the video.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Now Playing Mode with a video playing.

Play To

In Windows 7, Windows Media Player includes a unique new feature that allows you to configure the player to remotely control other instances of Windows Media Player and a growing collection of compatible devices, including the Xbox 360. In a related vein, Windows Media Player 12 can also be configured so that it can be remotely controlled by other instances of Windows Media Player, again on your home network. This functionality, collectively, is called Play To.

In traditional media sharing scenarios, you access, or pull, media content from other media libraries. But Windows 7 also allows you to push media content to other end points, including Windows 7-based PCs. Because of the dual nature of Play To, you'll need to configure a number of things to make it work.

First, you must enable media streaming. To do so, click the Stream button in the Windows Media Player toolbar and choose Turn on media streaming. When you do, the Media streaming options control panel appears.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
It's just one big switch, and when you enable it, your media can go out over the network.

Click the button titled Turn on media streaming. Now, the control panel changes to give you more fine-grained control over the devices in your network. You could just accept the defaults, though I recommend at least providing your PC's shared media library with a unique name. Close this window when you're done.

Now, click the Stream button in the Windows Media Player toolbar again, but this time choose Allow remote control of my Player. You'll be confronted with the Allow Remote Control window shown below. This is an either-or question: You are either going to allow other computers and devices (including Windows Mobile-based smart phones) to push media content like music, pictures, and videos to this PC's install of Windows Media Player, or you aren't.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Choose wisely, grasshopper.

Finally, you will actually enable Play To. This functionality requires at least one Windows 7-based PC (the "sending PC") and then either...

1. Another Windows 7-based PC (the "receiving PC").

2. A compatible media device, including the Popcorn Hour or a Windows Media Center Extender (including the Xbox 360).

Since the simplest example is PC-to-PC Play To, let's look at that. To push content to another Windows 7 PC via Play To, you must first enable media streaming on both PCs. Then, you must configure the receiving PC to allow remote control via the instructions above. Once you've done that, you will see a new Play To sub-menu appear in the menu you get when you right-click any content in Windows Media Player on the sending PC, as see here.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
The Play To menu lets you push content to any compatible devices on the home network, including other instances of Windows Media Player 12.

To push media to the receiving PC, simply select that PC from the Play To sub-menu. When you do, the new Play To window appears on the sending PC.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
The Play To window helps you control the pushing of media content to other PCs and devices on your home network.

Meanwhile, on the receiving PC, the media will simply begin playing in Windows Media Player.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
On the receiving PC, media simply begins playing.

The Play To window on the sending PC provides a few simple management features. You can add and remove items from the Play To list that appears in this window, for example, and control features like volume and repeat. You can even drag items in from the main Media Player interface if you'd like and create a kind of on-the-fly playlist.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
The PlayTo window provides simple playlist management features, including the ability to drag and drop content in from Windows Media Player.

Tip: Some devices--like Media Center Extenders--don't allow you to adjust the volume from the sending PC.

While Play To is applicable to a variety of uses, it makes the most sense in a home entertainment situation. For example, you may have an Xbox 360 or a Media Center PC in your living room, attached to a good stereo and HDTV. But your media collection may be otherwise trapped on a PC in your home office. While you could always pull the media from the living room-based device, you could also sit down at your home office PC, construct a playlist for a party or other event, and then simply push it to the living room device using Play To.

Neat!

Tip: In case it's not obvious, the receiving PC isn't a slave to the sending PC. From that PC, you can always stop the playback, change the song, and so on. You can view the currently playing Play To playlist on the receiving PC by clicking the Play tab.

Secret: To use Play To with an Xbox 360, the video game console has to be running the Media Center Extender software. Otherwise, it won't show up in the Play To menu on the sending PC.

Sharing Your Music Library Over the Internet

One of the nicest features of Windows Media Player is its media sharing functionality. This feature lets you share your Media Player?based music library with other PCs that are running Windows Media Player, various Windows Media-compatible devices, and Microsoft's multimedia game machine, the Xbox 360. This was true of previous versions of Windows Media Player, too, within the confines of your home network. But Windows 7 adds an exciting new twist to this functionality: Now, for the first time, you can also share your media library over the Internet.

Accessing your media library over the Internet is the final frontier: With this option, you can bypass the limitations of this mortal coil and ... well, it's not that good. But if you do enable Internet access to home media, as Microsoft calls it, you'll be able to share your digital media content far beyond your home network. In fact, you should be able to access it from anywhere in the world. The trick is that you have to enable Internet sharing on two Windows 7 PCs, one that will remain at home (or wherever) and the other that you'll bring with you on your travels.

Tip: Some corporate networks block the firewall ports required for this feature to work, so this may not work in your corporate environment.

Here's how you make it work.

Click the Stream toolbar button and choose Allow Internet access to home media from the pop-up menu that appears. You'll be confronted with the Internet Home Media Access window.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Here is the launching point for your Internet-based media sharing.

Click the link titled Link an online ID. This will display the Link Online IDs control panel. Because this is the first time you've encountered this window, you need to add an online ID provider. As of this writing, the only online provider is Windows Live, so you'll need a Windows Live ID first. Potentially, other online ID providers will come on board over time, so if you maintain an online persona at another service that's supported here, you could use that instead.

Click the link titled Add an online ID provider. This launches your default browser and navigates to Microsoft's online list of Windows 7 online ID providers. Click Windows Live. You will be prompted to download the Windows Live ID Sign-In Assistant. Do so and install it; the Windows Live ID Sign-In Assistant Setup is straightforward.

When the Sign-In Assistant is installed, return to the Link Online IDs control panel. As shown below, you will now have an option to link your Windows Live ID to the user account you configured on the PC.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Once the Windows Live Sign-In Assistant is installed, you'll see an option for linking your Windows Live ID to your user account.

Click the link titled Link online ID. You'll be prompted to sign-in to your Windows Live account. Once that's completed, you can close the Link Online IDs control panel and return to the Internet Home Media Access window. Click the link titled Allow Internet access to home media. You will now be told that Internet home media access is now correctly configured.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player
Success! You can now share your media library over the Internet.

You will need to repeat these steps on a second PC, of course.

In use, Internet media sharing works just like sharing over your home network with the following caveats:

1. It's slower. As you might expect from such a thing, changing content is accompanied by a bit of a lag, and you will experience much better results with music than with video.

2. You will only see the shared libraries from PCs for which you have configured Internet sharing. That means that you will typically only see a single library in the Other Libraries section of the Windows Media Player navigation pane.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Player

Tip: Internet sharing of digital media content is not available in Windows 7 Home Basic or Starter editions.

But wait, there's more...

There's much more going on with Windows Media Player 12, but you'll have to check out Windows 7 Secrets for the rest, including an exhaustive rundown of the WMP user interface, playing media, finding and managing media, ripping CDs, burning music CDs, sychronizing with portable devices, sharing your music library, accessing online media stores, and much, much more. The book is available now from Amazon.com and other booksellers. Click here to find out more about Windows 7 Secrets.