Audio: The power of 10

For those that have not yet checked Windows Media Player 10 out, here's what you can expect.

Click here to view a screen shot.

Streamlined interface

It's immediately noticeable that WMP 10's interface is new and streamlined, and key tasks have been made a little easier. WMP 9's drop-down menus (File, View, Play, etc.) were set to auto-hide by default, which sometimes meant they popped up or disappeared at the strangest of times. WMP 10 has a Show Menu Bar toggle in the top right so you can see the menus or opt for the now squared-off menu-less view. Right-clicking in the top area when in this view will bring up the same menu options.

The left-side 'chrome' taskbar last seen in WMP 9 (displaying Now Playing, Media Guide, Copy from CD, Media Library, Radio Tuner, Copy to CD or Device, Premium Services, Skin Chooser) is replaced in this beta by a simplified top row of tabs: Now Playing, Library, Rip, Burn, Sync and Guide.

The Now Playing tab still features a drop arrow for quick access to Internet Radio in addition to your saved Playlists and music/video Library's contents, and the Now Playing view remains largely the same, bar a few minor tweaks. The right-side playlist column and left-side visualisation window are still present, though the latter's Now Playing Options controls have been moved from the bottom to the top.

Clicking on the TV-like icon for the Now Playing controls provides you with the same options as in WMP 9: a list of visualisations, plug-ins and enhancements. All the enhancements found in WMP 9 are back, including my personal favourites: 10-band Graphic Equaliser, Crossfading and Auto Volume Levelling, and Playback Speed (slower or faster playback).

Playback controls borrow some aspects from Apple's glossy Mac OS X interface, and feature song information together with a small graphic equaliser displayed just to their right during playback.

Improved Library view

WMP's Library view is where most of us will spend the majority of our time, as the multiple view arrangements display all sorts of information about your music and video files. Microsoft has improved WMP 10's Library by adding an always-on (unless you elect to hide it) far-right playlist pane. This is a better implementation than Nullsoft's Winamp 5, and allows you easily to manage playlists for playback or to burn to CD. Search functionality is now also provided and works quite well - though perhaps not to the same degree as iTunes or Winamp 5.

Other new Library features include dedicated views for recorded TV (useful for Media Center Edition PCs) as well as purchased audio/visual content (from services such as BigPond Music), or stores built into WMP 10 including MusicNow, CinemaNow and the (now Roxio-owned) Napster shopfront. Accessible at the top-right of WMP is the beginning of Microsoft's Digital Media Mall strategy which is intended to provide more choice than, say, iTunes Music Store.

WMP 10 also has a dedicated view to see which files have been copied to a removable device such as an MP3 player, or the forthcoming Microsoft-based Portable Media Players (PMPs). WMP's Janus digital rights management (DRM) now supports over 60 portable devices - you'll need a compliant device if you intend to transfer music obtained from online services such as the afore-mentioned BigPond Music. A full listing can be found at www.microsoft.com/cooldevices/.

This is also where WMP 10's other most interesting new feature - the Sync view - comes into play. Microsoft has developed a technology called Multimedia Transport Protocol (MTP) that allows MTP-supported portable devices to be recognised automatically without the need for drivers, third-party applications or other fiddling. Whether this becomes widely supported remains to be seen, but one benefit includes a 230MB USB 2.0 MP3 player that automatically synchronises music rated 4 stars or more in your Library.

PC Remote Controls

If you're a PC lounge lizard and fancy sitting back on the couch and controlling audio/visual jukebox software such as Winamp or Windows Media Player, these two infrared PC remote controls are a blast.

The $82 IR501 from Anyware Computers (www.anyware.com.au) and the $US50 SnapStream Media Firefly (www.snapstream.com) have small boxes that connect to your PC's USB port with which the remote unit communicates. Each has unique features but both should work nicely within a 3m range. How cool is that?

WMP 10's Library view includes a playlist pane. Right-click a track and go to Properties to view licence information for purchased music.

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