Microsoft today launched a new version of its Media Player software. Version 11.0 has been in beta since May, but until now UK consumers weren't able to get much measure of its capabilities and breadth, as the online services Microsoft integrates in WMP11 were included only in the US beta.
In fact, just a fortnight ago a Microsoft UK spokesman told us that deals, such as the MTV Urge music video and download service long ago hammered out in the US and now officially live, were still being negotiated here. Today's WMP11 launch sees few other offerings, with just three online stores and a handful of radio stations – accessed from the less-than-obvious Media Guide button – that, as with the download services, you can subscribe to.
With today's debut of the full version of Windows Media Player 11.0, Microsoft adds the Packard Bell Music Station and the less obvious eMusic service to the VidZone music video streaming tool that was included in the beta version made available for a month this summer.
So is it worth downloading the new version, and how does it stack up against the other media players out there?
Turning it up to 11
Microsoft's player gets a new livery, moving from its familiar blue skin to a shiny black that is more befitting of its central role in the soon-to-be-launched Vista OS (operating system). It also reorganises your music, photos and video in a slightly less scatty way, although it still suffers the categorical glitches we noted in the beta version.
Occasionally movies end up listed as photos and the new Recently Added category randomly contains either your entire music collection or none at all. You can now list an album as being launched in 2006 – something the beta didn't take kindly to.
Even so, the player is still not without its sticking points, despite being far easier to search than WMP10 and featuring a much friendlier look, thanks to the default inclusion of album art and some more exciting visualisations that accompany whichever track is currently playing.
You get tabs running along the top of the player providing access to the Library, Rip, Burn and Sync features for CDs and DVDs you want to add to your collection. There are back and forward navigation buttons, an Options customisation list and a search bar, but the area of interest is the link to Online Stores.
Curiously, Microsoft refers to these elsewhere as its Digital Music Mall. While the intention may have been that you can window-shop and grab anything that appeals from a specific store, it's nowhere near as slick as that metaphor implies. We also got regular IE script error messages when we tried to access the stores – something we're sure Microsoft will fix very quickly.
Digital music mall
Music, music videos (and, we assume, video film downloads at a later stage) and online radio stations are all accessed individually on a one-by-one basis. Once you've signed up to any or all of these, they don't add themselves to the dropdown list under WMP's Online Stores tab unless you specifically request their inclusion. This isn't a bad thing, as you don't get annoying links insinuating themselves on to your favourites bar, but is rather odd if you've signed up to said service.
Similarly, when you want to switch to, say, eMusic, you get an alert saying the service is requesting permission to switch to it – this is presumably designed to prevent in-progress download cutoffs, but is another peculiarity.
Thankfully, once you've got the music or videos you desire on your desktop you can then access them centrally, but we'd have preferred a better thought-through grouping together.
While Microsoft will eventually broaden its range of online services, we reckon a lot of people will be happier with the convenience of a one-stop shop, getting their music, music videos, podcasts and film downloads from a centralised location such as the iTunes Online Store.
Windows Media Player 11.0's online stores
eMusic: An eclectic assortment of independent and obscure music offered in MP3 format. eMusic prides itself on being a place to discover new music and offers peer reviews and feedback in an integrated, recommendations and featured artists along with biographies and discographies. Its opening gambit is a top album by a band called Flugelschlag. Never heard of them? Nor had we, but for the record they are an 'edgy three-piece piano ensemble'. There was also plenty on offer from the likes of The Fall and Bauhaus for those with a thoroughbred indie or goth background.
There's a two-week trial before you sign up on a month-by-month basis. Subscriptions cover unlimited CD burning and transfers.
eMusic Basic costs £8.99 a month for 40 downloads after the initial 14-day trial; eMusic Plus gets you 65 downloads a month for £11.99 while eMusic Premium offers the best value with 90 downloads a month for £14.99.
The pricing structure is pretty unfavourable in comparison with Napster, which is integrated with Windows Media Player 10.0 offering unlimited streaming and downloads to your PC and portable music player so long as your monthly subscription is active. You could also elect to own tracks outright for 99p or much less for bundles or entire albums.
Having signed up, we asked eMusic to let us listen to Johnny Cash's Man In Black album but, on top of buffering issues that may or may not have been the fault of the service, we found we were treated to less than 30 seconds of each track. Thankfully, downloaded tracks were provided in their entirety and you can choose between individual songs or whole albums, though each track cost a credit, with no bundle discounts.
Packard Bell Music Station: Packard Bell's Music Station seems to have been included as a direct substitute for Napster, which Microsoft previously favoured and which a company spokesman told us two weeks ago would be included with WMP11 (perhaps it will be added later). No matter. What you get is an interface broadly similar to that of iTunes with 30-second samples of featured tracks, downloads for 99p a pop and unlimited streaming for £5.99 a month.
As you'd expect, its offerings are far more mainstream than those of eMusic, which prides itself on its eclecticism. With the PB Music Station you get current and recent pop hits while the list of albums is perhaps geared to a post-teen audience. Top of its charts is Beyonce's Déjà Vu, while in the Fresh Sounds section Justin Timberlake limbers up with SexyBack.
Recommended albums were topped by the Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not – great, award-winning album but hardly new, and you have to subscribe to the service in order to listen to it or download it for £7.99 anyway. In third place on the Recommended album list was Back to Bedlam by professional aggravator James Blunt. Coincidentally, Packard Bell doesn't expect you to pay to tune in to a 30-second clip of this.
Packard Bell's Music Station is clean and slick and, while it may not offer much out of the ordinary, its 750,000-strong library and ease of use make it an appealing service, and we liked the fact you could stream all you like for only £5.99 a month.
Vidzone: Vidzone was the music video service that Microsoft included with the UK beta of Windows Media Player 11.0, and was the only online store that was on offer in WMP11 until today's full launch. After trying out for free for a day or so, you are encouraged sign up for three months. There aren't masses of videos to choose from, but we like the Napster-style interface, which automatically collates videos you've watched into a potential playlist over to the lefthand side for easy future retrieval.
There are mini-biographies of each artist along with listings of their other videos on the site. As with the music sites, you get panes listing the most recently added songs and a chart listing. A horizontal thumbnail strip of videos scrolls across your screen by way of temptation, with smaller thumbnails for new releases sandwiched between this and the alphabetical artist, album and genre listings. Vidzone is certainly the most neatly organised and most visually impressive of the three online stores Windows Media Player 11.0 integrates so far.
Competitors: iTunes and Napster
Apple's iTunes and the Napster rental and download service come closest to what Microsoft is trying to achieve with the online elements of the new Media Player.
Apple.com/uk/iTunes: iTunes has some clear advantages, with its ordered and easily searchable online store. Its various elements are neatly integrated and cover audiobooks and film clips as well as music. Apple is testing the water with a limited selection of full-length feature films on its site. Music videos – of which it has a 3,500-strong library – can be bought for £1.89 each, while songs cost 79p each. With radio stations and iPod games in its arsenal too, iTunes is a clear choice for anyone who has bought into the iPod family.
Napster.co.uk: Napster sounds fantastic on paper, leading the way with its subscription-based service that allows you to stream and download to both your PC and a supported portable music player as many of its two million tracks as you wish for £14.95 a month as well as tuning in to more than 60 radio stations. It was tightly integrated with Windows Media Player 10.0 and had strong tie-ups with MP3 player manufacturers of the non-Apple variety – Creative chief among them.
But in some ways the all-you-can-eat-so-long-as-you-keep-up-your-subscription idea sent out the wrong signals, as people wrongly assumed that meant you couldn't own your songs outright. In fact, you can. Napster Lite lets you do just this on a commitment-free basis, while the £9.95-a-month unlimited playback and download service and Napster To Go both let you buy songs.
While top whack for a song is 99p, Napster offers whole albums for much less than this and regularly bundles cutprice collections and guest editors' picks. The music video archive is strong, as is the provision of live video footage, the biographies and the peer recommendation element.
If Microsoft can fix the online portal element of Windows Media Player, making the overlapping commercial third-party services that provide the music store element of the player fit naturally together, we'll probably start using it as our default music player and gateway to new digital music and videos. For now, we'll continue to flit between the Napsters and iTunes and music download services as whimsy takes us.