Windows Media Player 9.0 beats the pants off of older versions of the app, both in terms of playback quality and features. While it touts an improved look and better media-management skills--the very same found in September's beta, by the way--version 9.0 has one big fault: It won't let you encode CD audio tracks in the MP3 format unless you pay for a third-party plug-in. Even so, we still think that it makes good sense to upgrade to this media megastar. But if you own an older OS, don't rush; the most attractive goodies are reserved for XP users. Before you download the player, you'll need to choose between the 98/2000/Me version and the XP edition. Both programs took us just a few seconds to download over a cable modem. From there, installation was no sweat; the wizard does most of the work for you.
Importing songs from CDs is as simple as inserting a disc and clicking the Copy button. Windows Media Player automatically grabs all the tagging information if you have an online connection.
When you start Windows Media Player 9.0 for the first time, you'll be asked to specify whether you want copy protection on or off. If you choose to activate this feature, you can rip CDs to secure Windows Media files only, meaning that the songs can be played on only your computer and can't be copied. If you choose the default off setting, you can make unlimited copies, but you'll be reminded to "engage in legal copying."
Version 9.0 builds on the standard interface of its predecessors, but you can now shrink the player so that controls appear on the Windows taskbar. You can also access videos, album info, or eye-candy visualizations
from an optional window that's nice for background work. If you like, you can view visualizations and videos on the full screen. Many of the new features in Media Player 9.0 are designed to make organizing, managing, and playing your libraries of ripped CD tracks, downloaded music, and videos easier. Auto Playlists, which work off your songs' ID3 tags
to create lists of music, let you easily switch up your tunes depending on your mood. For example, you can create playlists of tracks that you generally listen to at night or put together the best songs for road trips. Like Apple iTunes
, Windows Media Player 9.0 lets you rate songs on a one- to five-star scale, so you can create automatic playlists made of your favorite tunes. The program even remembers which songs you play often and which you hardly play at all, and it automatically organizes your library based on those preferences.
Version 9.0 offers links to a variety of streaming-content options. However, at this stage, the links from RealOne give you a lot more choices.
Can't seem to keep tabs on all your tracks? Windows Media Player 9.0 makes it easier to manage libraries of ripped CD songs, downloaded music, and videos. For example, when you delete a media file from the library, you can choose to have it removed from your hard drive at the same time. You can also rename batches of tracks ripped from Unknown Album by Unknown Artist, using information automatically grabbed from the Internet.
And if you tend to be overly meticulous about tagging your files, look to the advanced tag editor, which lets you view and edit more than 35 fields of info, so you can add photos, videos, and even synchronized lyrics. We've already seen players that offer a composer tag, telling you who wrote the piece (good for classical-music fans), but Microsoft even offers a conductor tag, letting you know who conducted the orchestra (great for classical-music fanatics).
This edition of Media Player comes populated with a variety of Auto Playlists for grouping your music according to your mood.
If you use an older OS, you'll enjoy the Smart Jukebox features, but the big guns--such as the advanced tag editor, the ability to add lyrics to a file and synchronize them with a playing song, Video CD playback, autoplaylists, volume leveling, and cross-fading--are available in only the XP version. Still, we love how much easier it is to organize music files with version 9.0, and we think that the ability to synchronize playback with the lyrics is an excellent idea, even if it does threaten to turn every party into a karaoke night. Windows Media Player 9.0 loads more quickly than its predecessor--especially for streaming media--and crunches native Windows Media formats so that they're smaller and sound smoother. From the Media Guide tab, you can check out entertainment and news video clips, some of which are encoded especially for Windows Media Player 9.0 (clearly marked with a big "9" icon). Feedroom
, a Web site linked to from that tab, serves up some content that is optimized for version 9.0 as well as some that is not, so you can compare experiences.
A link from this Options panel brings you to a Web page selling third-party MP3-encoding plug-ins.
Version 9.0 imports music from CDs into only WMA files and deliberately leaves holes for plug-in vendors to fill. While we understand that including full MP3-encoding abilities adds a licensing cost to this free software, that doesn't change the fact that most people still prefer MP3 for various reasons. A link on one of the Options panel brings you to a Web page offering MP3 plug-ins, but both options cost $9.95. If you want to encode a lot of MP3s, that price tag throws a wet blanket on what is otherwise a pleasurable, free digital-media experience. The trade-off for free software has always been lousy support. Here, you're limited to help files and online forums. That's fine, but we wish that the built-in help files included some diagrams. While reading them, we often wanted a picture to replace a thousand words. Still, you can find a wealth of information about the Media Player 9.0 series on Microsoft's Web site