Next up in my series of software reviews is an old champion that hasn’t changed much over the last few years. How will it hold up to the more updated music applications?
Download and installation
Like MediaMonkey, WinAmp is available as both a free, limited version and a premium paid version. This review covers v5.56 free version. WinAmp can be downloaded from WinAmp.com. During install, you will be prompted to choose what files to associate with WinAmp, so make sure you tweak these options if you don’t want WinAmp to take complete control of the media on your computer. WinAmp will also try to shove more or less useful “features” in your face during install, including browser toolbars, background services, free MP3 offers and so on. Basically, spam. If you don’t want these to be installed, you have to read make sure to pay attention during install and actually check what’s checked off in the install settings when they appear, instead of going next-next-finished.
Skins and extensions
WinAmp is one of those applications that rely heavily on plugins and skins, and the layout of the application changes in some ways from theme to theme. In this review I’ve used the Big Bento theme that’s bundled with the installation as it’s the most modern of the included skins. I have also used only the stock plugins. The review will therefor reflect the applications with that skin as a basis and no extra plugins installed. As I’ve said in other software reviews, it’s impossible to cover all the extensions and tweaks you COULD do to the application if you wanted to, so to make things fair the ground rule is stock skins, stock plugins.
The WinAmp media library is more or less completely text based, and frankly looks more like an ebook than anything else. Basically the concept of default views is redundant in WinAmp as it instead operates with a list of custom layouts available in the sidebar. You enter the settings and then select to “edit view” or “add smartview”, at which point you’re prompted with a variety of settings to add columns, what the columns should show etc. These layouts will then be saved in the sidebar under the name you give it, so instead of using the sidebar to sort by artist, album, folder etc like most software you use the sidebar to switch between various custom layout styles. If you want to sort by artist, you have to have a layout profile that has that in it, etc, at least with the theme I used. Sounds confusing? It is. Basically, with Foobar2000′s excellent custom layout settings in one end and MediaMonkey’s tree structure filter mode in the other, WinAmp’s solution is some sort of weird mix of the two that requires a bit too much time to make work properly IMO. As an example, to get the music library that is on the main screenshot on the WinAmp website, you first have to make a custom view with only album art list, and then go into the settings on top of the viewing box (not the same place as the other settings) to choose to display only album art, no info. This basically reflects the main issue with WinAmp; every setting is hidden so deep within random sub menus that making sense of any of it is very frustrating. Half the view mode settings are located in a sub menu you can’t actually access from the windows you’re trying to customize, while the other half may or may not be located on top of that window, depending on what view mode you have chosen. Certain settings should not be dynamic.
The sidebar also contains other items than the custom layouts, such as a podcast feature, bookmark list, playlists, online services and various external devices. There is also a video listing which you can also customize like the video to display either lists of text, text plus thumbnails, or thumbnails only.
WinAmp supports video and can even have the video running somewhat in the background as a tab in the music library window. However you will probably not want to use WinAmp for video, as it has very poor format support by default and very poor performance. Not only was it incapable of playing back h.264, perhaps the second most used format today, but it used a lot more resources to play Xvid than dedicated video players like VLC or Media Player Classic Home Cinema. Again this is a case of “you can use it, and you can make it work better if you want, but why would you?” since there is free dedicated software that is so very much better.
The podcast feature is also extremely limited, offering only two settings: when to download, and whether it should download automatically. Considering the MediaMonkey podcast feature which is very extensive, this is frankly useless. Podcatching is a feature where if you need it, you need it to work well, not just “barely work”- which this does.
Internet radio and services
Internet radio support is one of these things that I hate seeing advertised heavily as a massive feature with music software. The reason is that Internet radio is really only a playlist file that tells the software to play a track from a URL instead of a local file. Internet radio directories are just collections of bookmarks. I’m not saying that it’s a useless thing to have, I just hate to see it being as advertised as heavily as it is with WinAmp, with Internet radio being several items on the feature list. Then again WinAmp is owned by AOL now.
WinAmp also comes with a ripping feature which is limited in several ways. The free version can rip to a few formats (not MP3) but with limited speed, and the free version can also burn at a limited speed only. It will find the track information for you online so you don’t have to manually tag it, which is nice. You also have the option to rip both to AAC, WAV, WMA and FLAC, so not all is lost, but if you’re going to rip CDs I’d really recommend some free, dedicated software with more features and no restrictions such as EAC.
WinAmp also has a built in browser like the one in MediaMonkey, which is used to access online services like music stores. It’s also available as a tab in the music library windows, which means you could use it to su
rf while listening to music, although you wouldn’t really want to as the window height is limited by the playback controls and as a web browser it’s a gimmick. You most likely have at least one good browser on your computer that you have tweaked to work like you want, and you don’t need one inside your music playback application in my opinion.
Once you get past WinAmp’s “creative” media library organizing and actually find your files to play, you get the standard list of features for the playback bit. There’s a visualizer which is also one of the tabs in the music library windows along with browser, playlist and video (again, this is skin specific). You will get a window on top showing album art and song information as well as playback controls, a few small visualizers and some playback mode settings easily accessible. There is also a basic equalizer available to tweak the sound. You can as always download a myriad of extensions to improve the sound quality, add more visualizers etc if you so please. There is also a plugin that will add Windows 7 jump list capabilities to WinAmp (see WMP12 review) and this will most likely become integrated into the application in later releases.
As with every feature in WinAmp the syncing options are very limited. As with all WinAmp settings they’re hidden in a sub menu of a sub menu and from the looks of it when you plug the player in there is no sync feature at all since all you get when you right click the device is an option to eject the player or create a new playlist. In the main preferences however you can find your device and then you can configure auto-sync, including syncing selected playlists, podcast sync, autofill , transcoding and advanced settings. The advanced settings are only available if the device is a MSC device, and allows you to specify the location of playlist files, file name format and select what formats it supports. With MTP devices that’s all automatic. The autofill option will let you randomly transfer files until the player is X% full, as well as specify some parameters for what files are transferred. The transcoding option will let you select to transcode files if the player doesn’t support it (MP3 encoding is pro only according to the website) but this is audio only, not video. Sounds good so far, but unfortunately the sync part is not really working that well. When I selected to specifically transfer only a single playlist with 5 songs and then hit sync it prompted me that 650 songs would be transferred. Apparently you can tell it to sync only specific playlists, but it wills till transfer the entire library as well. In other words there doesn’t seem to be a way to transfer only a playlist and the content it links to without transferring the entire library, at least I can’t find the setting for it.
You can also handle music manually. You can select files from your library and send them to the device and they will then be added. If this is done with a playlist, it will act somewhat randomly. On a Sony MTp player I tried, it seemed to transfer the content but not the playlist. On a Sansa Clip I tried in MTP mode, it transferred the playlist but not the content, making the playlist show up empty on the player. Both Windows Media Player and MediaMonkey managed this fine, transferring the playlist and the required files so it would work on the player. To make a playlist on the device that worked, I had to create a playlist by right clicking the device in the sidebar, create a new playlist and then find the songs on the player (not the media library) and right click -> send to playlist -> “playlist name”. Dragging and dropping onto the playlist in the sidebar doesn’t work. Where other applications have the “send to” feature as an alternative, WinAmp has it as the only option for creating playlists manually. You can however drag files form the music library onto the player icon in the sidebar, however this doesn’t work with videos.
WinAmp is one of those applications that should come with free aspirin as it will most likely give you a headache if you’re a first time user. As with all software it has some users/fans that will protest to the criticism saying that you can do this and that to tweak it to do what it should have done in the first place, but you shouldn’t have to perform brain surgery on your music software to force it to do a job. There is software out there- free software- that will give you a stock install that does what WinAmp does wrong the right way, without having to turn the screen upside down and look at it in the mirror to make the settings make sense. Yes, you can tweak WinAmp heavily, make it your own, make it work for you. Many people have, while others hate it, and some even use versions before 3.0 to get the pre-AOL WinAmp. Bottom line is that for an off-the-shelf music organizing application for your MP3 player, the features it has are vastly inferior to MediaMonkey and standalone applications, the settings menus are messy, the music library hard to make sense of out of the box and the syncing feature very flawed despite having some nice settings. The free version also has limitations which you need to pay to remove, and using the free version also means it will try to spam you with various ads and background processes during install (which you can of course uncheck). If you’re a long time WinAmp user you probably have your reasons and that’s fine, but if you’re looking for straight up software that pays off quickly without investing a lot of time forcing it to work, I’d go with MediaMonkey or WMP12. To end it off with I want to add a quote from a commenter, Aaron, which I think captured the essence of WinAmp incredibly well:
I think Winamp’s biggest problem is that it’s always targeted the power user. Let’s face it – most of us using winamp today were using it 10 years ago. We love it then because we were managing our library in a very different way than most people… /on our computer/. Winamp has grown with us, but at the same time it’s kept true with its user base (not becoming intrusive like iTunes, or babying like WMP12). Most of it’s history pre-dates other surviving media players – and the fact it still exists and has a great user base is because it fills a niche. There are things found in Winamp that I can only wish for in other players (mostly because of it’s long lived and prolific plugin architecture). That said i’m still amazed by the searching capability for large libraries, shade mode for that minimalist in me, and milkdrop still amazes me with it’s visualizations. Sure – I wish AOL would just give up – release the source and let the community take it over (and drive new features). I think the key here is that if you’ve been around long enough to learn it’s quirks – you find Winamp to be charming and powerful. To you, it will always whip the lama’s as*! For the rest, well they’ll carry on with their mp. Sometimes there is no ‘best’ solution in software – there are only ‘solutions’. Winamp is a good solution for those willing to pay the cost of entry – figuring it out.