Get more from Media Player

Whether you want to organise your media files, burn CDs, or listen to radio from around the globe, the latest version of Microsoft's controversial Media Player software has it all, plus a raft of new features. Windows Middle East looks closer.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  April 29, 2004

|~|MPWorkshopStep1.gif|~|The Info Center View button adds features such as new types of plug-in.|~|Windows Media Player software has been bundled with Microsoft's operating system since Windows 95’s worldwide release in 1995. Since then the program has been regularly improved and updated, often independently of new versions of Windows. You may have noticed that Media Player has received more than its usual share of news of late, and if you've been paying attention you'll know that this isn't because of any new features. Instead the software has been at the centre of a legal storm. The European Commission (EC) is in dispute with the world’s biggest software firm over its bundling of Media Player with its Windows OS. The EC claims Microsoft's dominant position in the OS market gives it a monopoly advantage in the fast-growing media player market, a similar gripe to the US Justice Department’s issue with Microsoft bundling its Internet Explorer browser with the OS. After recent talks between Microsoft and the EC collapsed, the EC chose to pursue Microsoft for 497 million euros (roughly $600 million) as punishment for the company not allowing its competitors a fair crack of the media player whip. While the doomed talks between the two parties did see Microsoft offer to include competing media player software with Windows, the EC wants more, much more, and as such is looking for MS to offer two distinct versions of Windows - one featuring Media Player, one without. It's highly unlikely there will be an outcome to this case any time soon, which means until that time users buying or upgrading Windows should still receive Media Player software bundled with the OS. The latest incarnation of Media Player is version 9 (MP9), which can play a range of audio and movie file formats, incorporates what the firm describes as “digital jukebox” features, and CD burning functionality, meaning if money is tight, you don’t need to invest in standalone data burning software. MP can also identify tracks on a CD and transfer (or 'rip') these to your computer's hard disk. If you've not watched movies or listened to music on your computer, it’s quite possible you haven’t realised just how comprehensive Media Player's list of features has become. Microsoft has had to improve and develop Media Player for the software to remain competitive in a market that has become saturated with programs such as its longstanding rival RealPlayer. In this workshop, Windows examines how to use and get the most from Media Player. To keep our guide four pages in length, we focus on Media Player 9 (MP9), taking our pick of what we consider its most useful and interesting features. If you have a previous version of Media Player installed, we recommend that you first update your player by logging on to www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/download/. If you are running Windows XP (which MP9 is optimised for), this download will be around 10MB in size, though for users of older versions (Windows 98, ME and 2000) this figure rises slightly up to 13MB. Step 1 Obviously if you want to open and play a media file, you can head for File/Open within Media Player 9 (MP9). However, let’s say you’re browsing in Windows Explorer, double-clicking a media file will open that individual file and right-clicking files presents more options. You can right-click and Play, or choose Media Player's all-new Queue-It-Up function, which adds the file to the end of your Now Playing list. You can 'queue up' many files to be played one after another this way. A quick note though - to do this you need to have MP9 set as your default media player (this can be done as part of MP's installation procedure. Alternatively, open such files by right-clicking them and choosing Open With… then pick the Media Player option). When a file is playing, a whole raft of new, interesting MP9 features come into play, accessible in MP9's Now Playing window. Through the Info Centre View button at the bottom left of the Now Playing window, you can access more information about the movies you're watching or the music you're listening to via MP's built-in web browser. Another new MP9 feature is variable speed playback, which allows you to speed up or slow down audio and video files without distorting their sound or altering their pitch. This might prove valuable if you need to get to a particular point in a presentation or are struggling to transcribe or understand a particular piece of dialogue. This feature is again accessed via MP’s Info Center View button (click this button, then Enhancements/Play Speed Settings). For users who like their sound as fully featured as possible, MP9 offers five new plug-in types (audio effects, DVD decoder, MP3 creation, Powertoys and rendering). These offer functions such as cross-fading (eliminating gaps between tracks for DJ-style playback), automatic volume leveling, and surround sound optimisation for users with surround sound speaker systems. Although these plug-ins are largely restricted demo versions, we tried them and were impressed by the improvements they made to MP's sound quality. They are again accessed via the Info Centre button. We installed the free version of DFX's Sound Enhancement plug-in and while we could only move its audio slider bars a little, it noticeably improved audio playback quality. Step 2 Thanks to the increase in popularity of file sharing programs and software like MP and its rivals being able to 'rip' files from CD to PC, many users now have hundreds (in some cases thousands) of multimedia files on their systems. Navigating these files is a process that benefits from some streamlining, which is where Media Library comes in. MP’s Media Library window presents you with various ways to access your media files. At the simplest level, the top of the left-hand pane shows media files by their file type (music, video, and other media). Each of these categories is broken down into sub-categories, so if you are looking to locate an audio file for instance, you can view your audio library by artist name, album title or genre. Video files are arranged by genre and actor name (although, quite surprisingly, not by movie name). MP9 includes many new features, such as Auto Playlists, which Microsoft describes as "dynamic mixes that are up-to-date according to your listening habits.” These are what Microsoft talks about when it refers to MP9 as offering 'smart jukebox' functionality. MP9 includes 15 auto playlists to start you off. Rather than creating your own playlists (in other words your own lists of favourite files, such as favourite rock songs or classic movies), MP9 automatically creates lists based on your habits. For instance, auto playlists include one list called 'Fresh Tracks - yet to be played', and another named 'Favorites - Listen to on weekends'. Some playlists are also based on the media ratings files have received. Files are automatically given a rating of between one and five stars depending upon how often you use them. Should you feel so inclined, you can assign your own ratings to files. These ratings therefore determine what files are played when you choose to access the auto playlist called '4 and 5 star rated'. While MP9's auto playlists are interesting in theory, they are a little hit and miss in terms of their relevance and may not be to everyone's taste. In this case user-defined playlists are a more appealing option. To create these, click the Playlist button at the top of the Media Library window and choose your files from there, or right-click a media file within Windows Explorer and choose Add to Playlist. If you are hunting through Explorer, in your My Music folder you'll find that Media Player's playlists show up as .wpl files. These can be played instantly by double-clicking them or right-clicked to 'queue them up'. Adding new files to the Media Library from elsewhere on your computer is equally simple. The Add button at the top of MP's Media Library window lets you browse all the files on your system. Also in this top toolbar is a button for the new Queue-It-Up function. The Playlist button meanwhile allows you to edit, delete and create new playlists, as well as burn the playlist highlighted in the left pane directly to blank CD. Step 3 Why would you want to transfer or ‘rip’ files from CD to PC when you can play them direct from disc? Because it saves loading a CD every time you want to access your media. Once files are on your PC, you can access them directly, or transfer them to external devices like your MP3 player or some form of external storage. Media Player makes the ripping process simple - it's all done from within MP's 'Copy from CD' window. Just pop your CD into your computer's CD or DVD drive, open MP, and choose which files you would like to transfer (by default these are all highlighted - via small ticks or checks next to each file). Then just hit the Copy Music button. Note - transferred files will, by default, be automatically saved in your My Music folder in My Computer, though you can easily change this destination folder in Tools/Options/Copy Music. Step 4 Media Player allows you to burn media content on data CDs using your PC’s CD-R/CD-RW or combo drive. MP's automatic volume leveling ensures audio files are not loud one song, quiet the next, and while MP may not burn CDs as quickly as specific burning programmes like Ahead's Nero for instance, it does ensure the job is a simple one. Click the left-hand 'Copy to CD or Device' tab in MP, use the Items to Copy menu to choose the files you want to burn and check the tick boxes to confirm the files in the left-hand pane are the correct ones to transfer to CD. Alternatively, if you come across any files within My Music or Windows Explorer that you would like to burn, you can right-click these and simply choose the Copy to CD option. Files will then be instantly added to the copy window in MP. The pull-down menu at the top of the right-hand pane lets you decide upon the device or media you will copy these files to (i.e. a blank CD via your CD-R drive, your connected MP3 player, external hard disk and so on). If you look at the Options/Copy Music section of MP's Tools menu you can also choose to copy protect music so that it cannot be duplicated on other PCs, and a slider bar allows you to adjust the audio quality of the music you burn (though be aware that as audio quality rises so do file sizes). MP9 supports external devices that connect using USB (1 and 2) and FireWire interfaces, but no longer supports serial or parallel interfaces. That said, almost all modern devices of this type do offer a USB connection. Step 5 MP's Radio Tuner is one of its most intuitive functions. Featured Stations are simply those being promoted at present, My Stations are those you have accessed and chosen to keep a record of, Recently Played Stations are just that. A Search function also lets you locate genre or name-specific stations (be they classic Asian or techno). Once you have tracked down a radio station you like the sound of, you can add it to My Stations, click to open the station's web site in a separate browser window, or in some cases play it directly from within MP. Users with broadband internet connections will have the best internet radio experience as far as streamed online content is concerned, but dial-up users should not be disheartened as most of the time listening disruption is minimal. It's also the case that with many internet radio stations content their content is not streamed live, but instead is based upon playlists relating to a particular genre or artist. The many stations offered by AccuRadio for instance, available through Media Player 9, are actually pre-defined playlists of different musical genres, though it’s possible to edit these to a degree by selecting the artists you don’t want to listen to. The Competition Musicmatch Jukebox Basic 8.2 www.musicmatch.com Link to music download sites, listen to and organise songs, burn CDs and listen to radio. This program is an audio-only player (so no movie watching), but it is one of the easiest players around to use. If you like the Basic version, a fuller version is available for $19.99, which adds CD labelling, tag editing, faster burning speeds and more. RealPlayer www.real.com RealPlayer is the closest program to Windows Media Player in terms of its functionality as it offers CD ripping and burning, a media jukebox, library functions, radio station access and so on. A paid for and more fully featured version of RealPlayer 10 is also available. QuickTime 6.5 www.apple.com/quicktime/ Tech-heads walk this way... QuickTime 6.5 is not only a PC and Mac compatible media player (audio and video), but features 3GPP and 3GPP2 for enhanced playback of multimedia over high-speed wireless networks. At $29.99 QuickTime Pro offers more functions such as movie editing and a slide show creator.||**||

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