First Look: Windows Media Player 10 Technical Beta

The Windows Media team released the Technical Beta for Windows Media Player 10 on June 3. I'm currently running the Technical Beta build on my laptop, with no serious glitches so far. In fact, I've had fewer issues with the beta of Player 10 than I experience when running Player 9 on the box I use to serve all my media. While I don't recommend installing this new player on your primary system (as I have) until it gets closer to official release, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about dramatic improvements to the default media player.

Windows Media 9 Series introduced better media codecs and a generally improved player. However, Player 9 continues to frustrate me with a convoluted series of buttons haphazardly placed around the perimeter of the main program window. Player 10 is completely different. The interface is a graceful replacement for the ugly stepsister that was/is Player 9. Number 9 is pretty on the inside, with powerful features, but lacks the finesse of some of its rivals. Player 10 functionality takes ideas founded in Player 9 and delivers a walloping upgrade, making Windows Media Player a joy to use for the first time since version 6.4 (which is still accessible via the Run command line by typing in mplayer2 and hitting Enter).

Interface Upgrade
The interface takes all the buttons wrapped around Player 9 and organizes them cleanly and sensibly at the top of the UI, not unlike the IE toolbar buttons. A quick access panel makes switching between albums or playlists a snap. There's almost a solution for player interruption, by clicking the Back button to resume playback of the previous item. I say almost, because in a perfect world, I should be able to create a playlist, listen to the playlist, interrupt the playlist with an item outside the playlist, and then pickup where I left off when the solitary outsider is finished (think listening to music, interrupting the music to listen to voicemail, and returning to the music when voicemail is finished).

Windows Media Player 10 Interface

Other interface improvements include scrolling of streaming media during playback (an impossibility in Player 9), which is essential for fast-forward and rewind functionality. A mini-visualization located just to the right of the volume slider adds subtle finesse to the play control area. The Enhancements view is almost identical to Player 9, with the navigation moved to the top of the visualization pane, making the interface more consistent.

Premium Services
Integration with premium services is now fluid in a way that should give iTunes a run for its money. Where launching a premium service inside the player used to be akin to invoking some arcane incantation and generating an annoying series of external windows, the new integration (demonstrated with new versions of Napster and CinemaNow in the Technical Beta) is considerably more seamless.

Napster appears to understand just how important the user experience is. Microsoft provides space for premium service navigation in the player window and Napster takes full advantage. Using Napster via Player 10 makes you forget the player is anything other than the Napster player. Buttons navigate cleanly to Napster specific features. Interacting with the music and radio services seems snappier inside Media Player 10, instead of the more sluggish response found in the Player 9 integrated version, when compared against the standalone version of Napster. So far, I've had to install the Napster upgrade twice in order to navigate successfully; I'm willing to write that off as a beta issue for the time being.

Windows Media Player 10 Napster Premium Service

CinemaNow is still learning, their movies require a browser pop-up in the beta release, just like the Player 9 version of the video-on-demand service. Browsing movie titles is distinctly more robust than in the previous version. CinemaNow is still not sizing the pop-up windows correctly either, with the play controls partially obfuscated by the bottom edge of the browser window (and no resize allowed). These are show-stopper issues I guarantee will be repaired by the time Player 10 is officially released.

Portable Device Integration
The most important improvement in Player 10 is the integration with device support. Device synchronization is one area where iTunes has kicked the collective butt of the entire portable player meets software player market. Player 10 one-ups iTunes by making portable device discovery automatic, optionally filling all available space with music based on your most listened to tracks. Further improvements help insure transfer stability, making sure devices aren't completely hosed if an impatient user unplugs the device before transfer is complete. iTunes is notoriously known for completely wiping out the iPod hard drive if the device is unplugged mid-transfer. At worst, Player 10 will lose the last song transferred if interrupted.

All this functional improvement takes place using the new Multimedia Transport Protocol (MTP). Unfortunately, MTP is not backward compatible with older devices. This does not mean your portable player won't work with Player 10; it means you might not be able to take advantage of the enhanced transfer capabilities. In theory, device manufactures could include support in older players by issuing a bios upgrade for the device (although I'm sure the manufactures prefer you to buy a new device so they make more money).

Currently, 60 devices, including the upcoming Portable Media Center hardware, support MTP. It is assumed that all future devices (except iPods) including Pocket PCs, portable players, and hopefully Smart Phones will be compatible with this new synchronization.

Digital Rights Management
The other major improvement for the player is in the realm of Distribution Rights Management (DRM). Previous DRM implementations for Windows Media have been frustrating at best and downright impossible to deal with in some cases (Buy.com's music store, for instance). With Player 10 comes a better implementation of DRM, which Napster is poised to take full advantage of. While it doesn't seem to be quite ready in the beta, one of the key advantages of the new DRM scheme is portability. Consider the Napster subscription service, which currently lets you download any song in the Napster library and play it over and over on your PC as long as you pay the $10 monthly fee.

With the new DRM, you can download the same song and play it over and over on your PC or your portable player, for as long as you subscribe to the service. With half a million songs to choose from, you can't possibly get bored. Detractors will argue this is nothing more than renting music, which sucks compared to buying CDs. For someone like me who is inclined to buy many CDs for $10/each only to forget I own them a short time later, this is a great way to try music on, without having to keep wearing the stuff that doesn't fit.

The Road Ahead
Windows Media Player 10 is still far from perfect. It lacks the ability to run multiple instances--one of the best features of version 6.4. Microsoft is hand-selecting a predetermined list of premium services, just like they did in Player 9. This means independent artists remain under-represented. If I had my way, I would be able to plug-in any third party service of my choosing.

If you elect to download the beta, I highly encourage you to provide feedback regarding your experiences, especially if you encounter any bugs. The best place to applaud, trash, or make general inquiries about Windows Media Player 10 is by posting to the microsoft.public.windowsmedia.beta newsgroup.