My Review on the New Windows Media Player 10 The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The review was Slashdotted. Slashdot comments can be read here.
I am a Windows Media Player junkie. Having used the program for a number of years I think it is quite simply a brilliant piece of software a masterpiece developed by extremely talented engineers in so many ways. Even more spectacular is that it is free. Microsoft gives it away. If Microsoft didnt give this software away Id gladly pay money for it. I love it. Earlier today PC Magazine awarded the software a 4.5 out of 5 rating and a coveted Editor’s Choice Award. “WMP 10 at least equalsand in our estimation surpassesthe current leader in the field, Music Match Jukebox 9.”
Ive been using the surprisingly stable Windows Media Player 10 Technical Beta for the past few months but thought Id write a review on the software now that, as of 6:00 a.m. this morning it is in official release. My bias being duly noted and disclosed, what follows is my take.
1. Ripping. Microsoft did a really good thing partnering up with All Music Guide (AMG). Over the course of the past few years Ive converted my entire extremely extensive CD library to mp3. I never would have pursued this task without this partnership. Why is this important? Simply pop your CD into your burner, click on the Rip tab, and all of your track information is imported from AMG. Note that this is not perfect. Some CDs are not recognized by AMG. Most of the ones that are not recognized are fairly obscure CDs, CD Singles, Promos, Bootlegs, etc. 90% of the time all of the track information is there for your ripping pleasure. A very cool thing.
2. Meta Data Editing. Wow, so what if AMG has the data wrong? Simply right click on a track in Windows Media Player, go to Advanced Tag Editor and from there correct whatever information is incorrect. You can highlight multiple tracks to correct metadata. If I have a CD that AMG identifies the artist as THE GRATEFUL DEAD in all caps and I want it to be The Grateful Dead so that it matches my other albums, easy enough. You just select the tracks, right click, go to advanced tag editor and make the change. Really, really got this one right.
3. Mp3 ripping. Its admirable that Microsoft finally listened to their users on this one and gave in. In all of the previous versions of Windows Media Player Microsoft forced you to rip your tunes to WMA. Microsoft sought to justify this by arguing that it was a better format than mp3, etc. They didnt disallow mp3 ripping they just made it inconvenient. You had to buy a $10 add on plug in from a third party vendor or know enough about hacking WMP to figure out how to do it yourself. 180 degree change. Windows Media Player 10 fully supports mp3 ripping and high quality encoding at that. Kudos to Microsoft.
4. The new Composer menu on the left hand window is a handy feature. Check it out. Its new and I love it. Want to create a Bob Dylan covers playlist? Select Dylan under the composer menu then sort the window by artist and select all but Bob Dylan as a performer and save it as a Bob Dylan covers playlist. Very simple, very easy.
5. Ratings. WMP 10’s rating system is first rate. The key for the obsessive compulsive digital media collector is the same as the key for the obsessive compulsive LP or CD collector — organization. Before I’d digitized my music collection I’d spend hours pouring over my CDs, alphabetizing them, reorganizing them by music genre, etc. Much like the internet is significantly enhanced with filter and search tools like Google, Yahoo!, RSS, etc., a large digital library is not as meaningful without ways to organize it. One way to work with your music collection in WMP is with ratings. Microsoft developed a fine ratings system. How does this work? Rate each song you hear from one to five stars with a stroke of a right mouse click. Later when you are relaxing you can listen to only your favorite tracks.
6. Auto Playlists. Most of these are less useful to me with the exception of the Music Tracks I Have Not Rated playlist. If I select this one I can spend a few hours listening, rating and further refining my library.
7. Crossfading. In the past one of the things I hated most was that long silence between songs. One song would end and then prior to the next one there would be more silence. It was awkward. A chilling moment when outside thoughts could get into your head. Now with crossfading its like Im my own DJ. As Aimee Mann is ending, Husker Du is starting without the awkward silence that used to invade my space.
8. Improved interface. Microsoft provided a much improved cosmetic overhaul to WMP 10. One of the things I like a lot in the libraries is that they color code (light blue and a lighter blue) between lines now making it easier to follow the data on a track across the screen. The three window screen is also an improvement making it easier to work with your library while playing tracks. The only thing I wish they would do though would be to allow me to show my star rating in the now playing column. I don’t like having to hover my mouse over the track to see if I’ve rated it yet or not. I wish that they would let me resize the now playing column just a little bit and elect to add a ratings column in there. Along with the improved interface are improved tab descriptions, rip, burn, synch, library and now playing. Much better labeled and simplified than in WMP 9.
9. IROCK Beam it. Ok, now I know this has nothing to do with WMP but I cant resist giving them the plug. IROCK Beam it is one of the single best purchases Ive made in the last year. Tired of listening to crap radio in your car? Dont want to pony up for XM Satellite? Simply plug this little device into your portable devices (in my case my laptop) headphone jack and tune your car radio to 88.7 and you are your own DJ. No commercials, no bad songs, only things on YOUR playlist. You ARE the puppetmaster — spinning records for yourself as you speed 90 mph over the Bay Bridge.
Best of all I think the thing only cost me like $25. For the life of me I cannot figure out why this little device is not just automatically built into every laptop and mp3 player that exists. The only negative is that I have to plug it in all the time. How cool would it be if it were built into my Thinkpad and I could just turn station 88.7 FM on and have it play my digital library in the car. Some hardware manufacturer ought to do this.
1. The single largest problem with Microsoft Media Player 10 remains the poor performance you have with large digital libraries. If you have 5,000 mp3s or less, this is not an issue. On the other hand if you are a hardcore, diehard, digital music enthusiast like I am then this simply will not cut it. I did notice a speed improvement between the WMP 9, WMP 10 Technical Beta and the final release of WMP 10 but it still can take about 1 minute and 30 seconds to move between playlists, libraries, etc. for my collection. Microsoft needs to continue to work on indexing and possibly allowing users to run the application in RAM to improve performance.
2. Update: see this post for a workaround to the laptop as a portable device problem.
What, my laptop is not an external device? Wait a minute whats going on around here? In 1994 Bill Gates gave an interview to Playboy magazine. In the interview Bill was asked, PLAYBOY: Do you use a PDA? Bill responded, GATES: I carry a standard 486 portable machine with me whenever I travel, because I have my e-mail on it. I used one of the original Newton’s for a week, and its available if you’d like it. Im not sure if Bill carries around an mp3 player with him now but as for me, my laptop is my mp3 player. I do not want a PDA, I do not want a pocket pc, I do not want an iPod. Since I pretty much take my IBM Thinkpad T40 with me everywhere I go it is easy enough to pop the headphones into the jack, open up WMP 10 and play my music.
The problem? I cant fit my entire digital mp3 library (3 Maxtor 250 gig drives) on my laptop. The solution? Make a playlist of all of my 5 Star rated music and synch it to my portable device — my Thinkpad. It amazes me that in this day and age Microsoft refuses to view a laptop as a portable device. Accordingly I have no easy way to get my 5 star music on to my laptop.
3. Update: In the options panel of the player under the library tab there is a box you can check called “maintain my star ratings as global ratings in the media files.” This apparently allows every player accessing the media to see the same ratings. Although this feature was not as seamless as I would have liked it now appears to be working (kind of…). Initially I had to completely delete my library and reimport it as this feature was stuck. It would start to migrate my ratings but get stuck at 0% progress even if I let it run overnight. Now it does seem to work but I’m still not sure how to make the rating updates “live.” For instance, if I rate a song 5 star in either the living room on the media center PC or my main home office PC it is not reflected on the other PC until that track is played… or so it appears. Theoretically this feature should make the ratings migration plug in unnecessary. I’d love it if there were a way though to tell my living room PC to “update” to reflect all the ratings I’ve made on my office PC without having to play the file in the living room.
The Ratings Migration Plug in does not work. OK so I mentioned before that I love the ratings feature built into WMP. My problem is this. I spend hours and hours in my home office rating songs as I hear them. I build a well managed library sorted from one to five stars. Now Im sitting in my living room with my Media Center Edition PC and want to only hear my 5 star songs. Guess what? I cant do it. With WMP 9 I used to be able to use the Ratings Migration Plug in and save the ratings on my home office PC and then restore them on my networked MCE machine in the living room. For some reason with WMP 10 the Ratings Migration plug in no longer works. Thus unless I want to manually re-rate my entire library there is no way to create a five star listening list in the living room. Very, very frustrating.
4. Lack of support for some of the new lossless formats. Recently I began playing around with some of the new lossless music formats out there via downloads from places like Largehearted Boy. Much to my disappointment, many of these formats (FLAC, etc.) as well as Real Media files cannot be played on my WMP. It would be nice if WMP could at minimum convert these files to mp3 for my listening enjoyment.
5. It’s not easy to convert songs purchased from Microsoft’s new media service to an iPod. Big deal though, I’d never buy an iPod anyway. It is funny though that on a Microsoft site earlier today according to EFF Deep Links they show you how to do a workaround the DRM process on this.
“Although Apple computers and Apple iPods do not support the PC standard Windows Media format for music, it is still possible to transfer MSN Music downloads to an iPod, but it will require some extra effort. To transfer MSN-downloaded music to an iPod, you need to first create a CD with the music, and then you need to import that CD into iTunes. This process will convert the music into a format that can play on the iPod. We’re sorry that this isn’t easier – unfortunately Apple refuses to allow other companies to integrate with the iPod’s proprietary music format. If you are an iPod owner already and unhappy about this policy, you are welcome to send feedback to Apple requesting that they change their interoperability policy.”
Subsequent to EFF posting this it appears that Microsoft modified their language a little bit so as not to look so much like the pirates of Redmond Caribbean. Check out the link now. Looks like they dropped that little bit part about how to get around Apple’s DRM. Oopsie.
Update #1: EFF wrote a little opinion piece on the above referenced move by Microsoft here.