Get up to Speed on Windows XP

Windows XP

Story Contents


Facts & Figures

Home & Pro Differences

Behind the New Wheel

Folders & Special Folders

Looking at 'My Pictures'

Windows Media Player 8

Internet Explorer 6.0

Functional Improvements

Personal Firewall

Remote Assistance

Backup & Restore

Product Activation

Hardware and Setup

Will Your Programs Run?


Beta Conclusions

Playing with Windows Media Player 8

Although it was a significant upgrade with a wealth of new features, the last version of Media Player -- Windows Media Player 7 -- is buggy, unstable, and slow to load. As a result, we weren't looking forward to XP's version 8. But the new Windows Media Player (WMP) offers a significant improvement over WMP7 both in terms of stability and features. WMP8 will only be distributed with Windows XP. Microsoft notes that users of older versions of Media Player, such as 6.4 and 7.0, will be able to receive any media created for WMP8. And Windows Media Player 7 will continue to be available for download.

Down the left side of the WMP8 window there's a slew of buttons for browsing the main functions. "Now Playing" brings up the current selection, including a visualization option, or a sort of strobe-like image that changes in time to the music. "Media Guide" opens the homepage. "CD Audio" lists the current CD tracks (if there's one in your CD drive). "Media Library" -- our favorite option -- brings up a very nicely organized list of all the media currently on your PC. "Radio Tuner" maintains a list of Internet-based radio stations. "Portable Device" transfers files to a portable media player. "Skin Chooser" lets you select among several themes for WMP8 when it's in its "compact" form. One thing we've noticed: People are often confused about the differences between Media Guide and Media Library.

Pop in a CD and you can play it directly. Or convert it to the WMA format and store it on your local system or a portable device. It took about one minute to copy a four-minute song at the 96kbps conversion ratio, and if the album information is available through the All-Music Guide, attributes like the song and album title are recorded with the file. MP3 ripping is also supported, but only at 56kbps. Copy protection for WMA files is enabled by default, but you can turn it off.

Although we were prepared not to like it much, Windows Media Player 8 is a major improvement over its predecessor. It's also downright fun to use.
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Although we were prepared not to like it much, Windows Media Player 8 is a major improvement over its predecessor. It's also downright fun to use.

Unless you have some kind of hardware or software DVD decoder, you can't natively play DVDs in WMP8. With this in mind, we installed Cyberlink's PowerDVD, one of the best software DVD players, and fired up WMP8 to see what would happen. Sure enough, The Matrix came up in MP8 and worked perfectly, replete with enhanced features, subtitles, and menus. Playback doesn't look quite as good as from PowerDVD, though; in particular, reds looked fuzzy on our test machine.

Navigating the wealth of menus can be a little bewildering, and sometimes counterintuitive. For instance, the drop-down menu at the top-left of the WMP8 window shows the current disc in the drive when there's a disc there, leading me to think it once contained an Explorer-type tree for the system. But in Beta 2, all it contains are the options "All Audio Clips," "All Video Clips," "Radio Presets," the current media, and the current playlist. The three buttons near the drop-down also seem kind of haphazardly chosen: Equalizer toggle, Playlist toggle, and Shuffle button (which randomizes the playlist order). You can reorganize the buttons with new skins, but most of the skins packaged with MP8 aren't all that attractive, and they still use up a lot of screen space. (Of course, maybe we don't know how to have fun!)

To sum up, Windows Media Player 8 is a big step up from the rather shaky bootprints of its predecessor, Windows Media Player, which debuted with Windows Me. If you're a no-frills type of person, NullSoft's WinAmp is still a better choice. On the other hand, WMP8 has a lot going on, and you make it look and work like you want it to.

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