Windows Media Player 9 beta debuts

Microsoft has released the first public beta of Windows Media Player 9, offering faster streaming and better compression, audiophile-quality music playback, and support for multichannel movie surround sound, plus other features--if, that is, you're running Windows XP. The free beta version of the media player can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site.

To get the most out of WMP9, which is scheduled for release late this year, you need to have a Windows XP PC. A separate edition of WMP9 will run on older versions of Windows back through Windows 98SE, but you need the newest version of the operating system to get nearly all of the nifty features, says Geoff Harris, group program manager of the Windows Digital Media Division. Microsoft says this is necessary because features in Windows XP enable WMP9's more advanced functions, although some analysts say that is not entirely true.

"Microsoft and Intel have to drive audio and video into the computing experience" in order to convince users to buy new faster PCs and Windows XP, says Steve Vonder Haar, analyst at market research and consulting firm Interactive Media Strategies.

Microsoft is not giving details about some of the WMP9 features only accessible with XP. The minimum configuration to run WMP9 with earlier versions of Windows is a 233-MHz Pentium PC with at least 64MB of RAM, 30MB of available hard disk space, a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, a sound card, and speakers or headphones.

Favoring Win XP

Among the WMP9 features that live only on Windows XP systems are support for five- to eight-channel surround sound, so-called "lossless" audio playback that retains all original CD quality, and playback of 20-bit high-definition CDs.

Microsoft added CD burning from within the player, and you can also burn Windows Media Audio (WMA) files for playing in devices that support WMA, including some of the newer DVD players and car stereos. Non-Windows XP versions will be able to use the integrated CD burning functions, although with fewer features, according to Microsoft. And while WMP9 will play MP3 files, you'll still need to purchase a third-party encoder/decoder (codec) to rip or burn MP3s.

WMP9 supports music subscription services, so you can seamlessly buy music online. Only PressPlay is featured in the beta, but Microsoft expects to add more in the shipping version. Microsoft says the subscription services will be available to users of older operating systems. A new Internet radio tuner and media guide--available to all--will be added when WMP9 ships.

Integrated support for music subscription services may also make the issue of buying music over the Web more appetizing to users, says Paul-Jon McNealy, research director at analyst firm GartnerG2. "I like the integration with PressPlay, especially if they pull it off seamlessly," he says.

Online Resources

Aiming to enhance the listening experience, Microsoft has added an Info Center view where you can view album art and other artist information while playing music or a DVD. Harris says the feature, available only in the Windows XP version of WMP9, links with a free online service that will match your songs or albums with a database of information such as discographies, artists' Web sites, band photos, and cover art. The Info Center view also provides a "tag" editor that lets you edit the information, or even enter lyrics for later use as subtitles for karaoke.

If you choose, WMP9 will monitor your music files and retrieve relevant album or song data from Microsoft's service. It lets you rate songs (from one to five stars) and note the music type, then uses those ratings to automatically generate playlists--say, only mellow rock songs that you rated at five stars. Alternately, WMP9 will rate songs for you based on your listening habits. These functions will be available even to non-Windows XP versions, according to Microsoft.

When building playlists, you can use a new cross-fade feature to blend one song into the next. A new auto-leveling feature eliminates sudden changes of volume between tunes, and can also be used when burning CDs.

Privacy Pitfalls?

Microsoft's service is bound to draw some ire from privacy advocates. In order to return database information to the correct PC, it captures your PC's Internet protocol (IP) address. Microsoft's Harris says the technology will never use that information in other ways, but it's possible the record labels or their trade group--the Recording Industry Association of America Inc.--could subpoena the data to chase music pirates, analysts say.

"I believe that Microsoft has very good privacy policies [for the service] but any time you have information gathered together it's going to become valuable," says Vonder Haar of Interactive Media Strategies. "If I were an RIAA lawyer, I would like to get my hands on that."

Still, both Haar and GartnerG2's McNealy are impressed by the Info Center concept. "It's something that every [media] player should provide," McNealy says.

Beyond the Audio

WMP9 integrates the capability to play DVDs, although only via a third-party decoder. On PCs with video output, it can generate interlaced video for display on regular television sets. Another feature lets you create a video sequence from a still photo by panning and zooming on the image. WMP9 also adds support for variable bit rates and resolutions so it can automatically choose the best bit rate and resolution for your network connection.

In addition, a new miniplayer mode lets you shrink WMP9 into a small window, complete with controls that can sit in a corner of the screen while you do other work. Another function provides variable-speed playback of both audio and video clips without changing the pitch of the original. With that function, you could watch a speeded-up news clip and still be able to understand the speakers without their voices sounding like chipmunks.

Audiophiles will have a few months to evaluate the beta version of WMP9 before its release--and perhaps to assess whether its advanced features are incentive enough to jump to Windows XP. The updated Windows Media Player is not included in Windows XP Service Pack 1, which is scheduled to ship next week. It is likely, however, to be part of future updates of Windows XP.

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