Windows 7 aims to streamline playback, too--so much so that it offers two different lightweight ways to consume media without employing full-strength Windows Media Player. You can listen to music and watch video by using the preview pane in Windows Explorer, without launching Windows Media Player at all. Or you can load up WMP but work with a simple view that hides you media library and fits comfortably into a small floating window on your desktop leaving the rest of your display visible (and usable).
No matter how you play your files, Windows 7 handles a bunch of non-Microsoft formats that Vista and Windows XP don't, including AAC audio and H.264 video--the standards favored by Apple--as well as DiVX video and AVHDC, a format used by many high-definition camcorders. That ecumenical approach lets the media player tap into entertainment libraries that you've created using iTunes. Not surprisingly, it can't play iTunes music and movies shielded by Apple's FairPlay copy protection; but rather than showing them and then choking when you try to enjoy them, it doesn't show them at all. In our tests, the updated WMP handled unprotected AAC music without a hitch; an H.264 video podcast that we downloaded from iTunes played, but it looked much blockier than it did when we watched it in iTunes on the same Windows 7 PC.
The new OS aims to play traffic cop for an array of media types and devices that may live on your home network. It can find media stored on multiple PCs on the Internet (including ones in HomeGroups), and it can route media files from them to media-streaming devices that support the Digital Living Room Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, such as the Sonos Multi-Room Music System. If a particular piece of media is saved in a format that a specific streaming device doesn't support, Microsoft says, W7 will convert it on the fly. That sounds very slick, but the proof is in the playing: We haven't tested these networked features yet, but we'll report back when we do.
Windows Media Center, the uber-application that does everything from record live TV to distribute Windows' media features to networked Xbox 360 consoles. is back in Windows 7. (Microsoft hasn't announced details regarding the versions of W7 that will be available, but Media Center will presumably be included in one or more high-end consumer editions of the OS.) Microsoft says that Media Center includes new Internet TV features that give users a single guide and playback interface for video content from all over the Web. Again, that sounds intriguing--but if the feature is available in the Windows 7 preview edition we examined, it's so well-hidden that we couldn't track it down. Media Center also works with HomeGroup networking to let you find recorded video and other media files no matter where they're hiding on your network.