With Windows 7 just out , Windows Media Player 12 is slowly making its way onto PCs everywhere, replacing outdated version of a software mane – including me – haven’t really had much love for. Considering the amount of people using default applications, and WMP12′s ability to use Windows 7 features out of the box, I decided to take a closer look.
WMP12 supports the Windows 7 library feature, which means that by default it will look for music in the music library folder – which is a virtual folder made up by multiple user defined folders from various places on the computer. This means that the music consolidation is handled by the OS, not the music program, and that again means you can manually tinker with the files and still have everything in (seemingly) one place.
When the music is imported (which is handled automatically as long as the Windows 7 music library folder points to your files correctly) you can browse music and videos (from the video library folder) in a variety of ways. The navigation sidebar can be customized to include thing like year, composer and folder, with artist/album/genre as the default options. The folder option is pretty nice, as it gives you the ability to browse by folder from inside WMP itself, complete with info on the folder path, number of songs and albums in the folder and the total duration. The other options work as you’d expect, sorting by artist, year etc. There’s also a search field, which instantly pulls up hits as you type.
The video library works more or less like the music library, giving you options to browse by folder as well as metadata like actors if the files support this. WMP12 supports formats like Xvid and h264 out of the box, which means it will pick up pretty much any file on your computer and display them – with thumbnails – in the video library.
Like with videos and music this gives you a library of files that can be browsed by metadata like date and tags and show up in a grid of thumbnails like videos do. Not the most advanced photo organization tool out there, but then again WMP isn’t a photo organizer.
WMP12 will pick up external devices automatically, including removable drives and MTP based MP3 players. External devices can be browsed by various metadata like the internal library, and you can also sync content from external devices to other external devices. MTP devices are a bit different, and while you can browse them you can’t play back anything from them. I also noticed that the iTunes-bought DRM-free .m4a-enclosed AAC files showed up under videos on my Sony S540, which is a weird bug since .m4a is audio only.
Windows 7 has a built in home network feature that makes sharing media extremely easy. WMP12 immediately picked up both my Vista Home Premium laptop and my Windows 7 Ultimate desktop, the latter of which I browsed through WMP12 with ease. I was able to browse and play back music just fine, although video streaming took a few seconds to start – most likely due to my slow wireless network. It still worked, and when it started it played the video just fine. The one limitation I found with network media was that it would not let me add any of that media to the sync list as it will only stream, not transfer. I doubt this will be a problem for anyone as there are other ways to connect to network devices to get files off them, but still a tad annoying.
WMP12 has a built in music store feature that basically opens an internal browser window and sends you to a music store. This feature doesn’t seem to work properly here in Norway as I could browse but not buy, so I wasn’t able to try it out fully. The help file also says you can add music stores yourself, so if you could interface this with Amazon MP3 that would make for an awesome feature.
Music playback is pretty much as seamless as it can be in WMP12. You can run it while doing other things in the program, minimize WMP12 to a window, run the playback screen fullscreen etc. Unlike older versions it has no problems switching between these modes and there’s no skipping when doing so. You have the standard options for music playback, as well as options to display equalizer, SRS WOW and other sound settings in a separate box. While the SRS WOW features built in border on completely useless as they distort the sound way too much, I’m glad to see they’re taking a more WinAmp-style approach to playback windows with the settings boxes.
One thing to note is that while the graphical (CPU intensive) visualizer was pretty much the center of attention with music playback in older WMP versions, this is a rather hidden feature in WMP12 with album art as the main focus.
I’m not complaining.
Jump lists is another Windows 7 feature that relates to the new taskbar. Jump lists are basically menus accessible directly from the taskbar. For WMP12, there are two such jumplists: The first one is accessible by right clicking the WMP icon and brings up a list of last used files along with some options top open WMP, play all music or play from where you left off. The other jump list is accessible by hovering over the icon (or left-clicking if you have multiple WMP windows open) and provides you with playback buttons directly in the taskbar. With Windows Aero activated this includes album art, whereas with Windows Basic themes get only the playback buttons.
Video playback can’t run in the background (as there would be only sound) and automatically makes WMP12 enter playback mode with a very slim window displaying the video. As mentioned before it supports several new formats including Xvid and they play back just fine. A somewhat more hidden feature is the built in support for hardware decoding with the help of Windows 7, which means it can use the GPUI (graphics card) for video playback in places where programs like VLC still rely on the CPU only. For my netbook for instance, it supports DXVA (DirectX Video Acceleration) which means that WMP12 can play back 1080p h264-based video on a computer that is barely fast enough to run notepad properly. GPU acceleration is getting more and more common, and it’s nice to see this working so well with Windows 7 and WMP12.
Since there’s a photo library, there is of course also a way of viewing photos. Clicking a photo opens the playback window where the photos will start showing as a slideshow. I personally can’t stand slideshows and prefer controlling the photo viewing myself, but if you like slideshows at least you have the option.
Since this is an MP3 player website, the main reason to review software is to see how it holds up when given the task of managing your player. WMP12 supports syncing to both UMS and MTP devices, as it clearly showed by hinting for me to sync my SD card while testing the program. While it’s annoying to see every single removable drive as a «device» in WMP12, it couldn’t be easier when you have a device you actually want to manage.
When I first connected my Sony, I tried dragging various files to the sync list to the right and sync them. When that «synced» and I realized it hadn’t actually don’t anything, I tried the «configure sync» options you get when right clicking the device in the sidebar. After accepting WMP12 to sync it, I tried to sync again and it started working. I didn’t think of all the videos in the library and after letting it run for a while and getting puzzled over the time it took to sync, I looked a bit closed at the sync list and saw that it was converting my entire video library to work on the player. To make it sync only music I had to right click again and then find the real sync options (that should frankly have popped up the first time I did that) which let me remove videos and photos from the list. After another sync it transferred only the music and everything worked fine (and it didn’t delete anything that was on the player already).
Playlists are also very easy to create and transfer using WMP12, all you do is create a playlist, drag files to it, and drag the playlist to the sync list. It will transfer it over and it will show up on your player, unless the player has playlist issues (*ehem*Cowon D2*ehem*)
Basically syncing is flawless. It will sync everything and even try to convert files that the player can’t read if there are any. Third party software will however be better for converting files, so I recommend having everything sorted out before adding it to the library.
Options and other features
WMP12 is massive, including features like CD ripping, playing to network devices, streaming, plug-ins, DVD playback, TV recording, Internet radio etc. As with converting video and music files, I recommend an external application for ripping music – EAC – so I didn’t include that feature here. The rest are more related to using WMP12 for media center features and so not directly related to using it for music organizing.
WMP is also responsible for the MTP drivers on a system, which means that having it installed also gives you the best MTP support even if you never use WMP itself. This includes format aware file transfers (where it will let you know if you transfer files that aren’t supported), options to convert files, playlist creation within Windows Explorer and so on. This means that if you ha
ve a MTP player, you will notice the effect of WMP12 on your system even if you don’t use it.
The last music playback program I tried was pretty much not usable on a slower computer due to it being very demanding on system resources. WMP12 is not, by any means. WMP12 ran fine on a 1.33Ghz netbook under-clocked to 800Mhz (power save mode) while it was syncing to my Sony player, playing music and with Photoshop running. At no point in the testing of the program did I come across lag caused by WMP12, which is simply very very good considering the slow system I tried it on.
Windows Media Player 12 is a very competent program, a lot more so than I’d ever have guessed. The annoyances from previous versions are gone and what remains is a music playback and organizing program that I have a hard time finding any negative aspects with. I do wish there was a podcasting feature included as it already have features like streaming and TV recording, but I’m starting to realize this isn’t at the top of anyone’s list of priorities. The strength of WMP12 lies in the full compatibility with the new Windows 7 as well as the «it just works»-aspect which is frankly very unusual for a bundled Windows application. I’m especially surprised how well it performed on my netbook while multitasking at the same time, and also the ease of use with syncing to devices – once you find the right options to click to stop it from syncing all your videos. WMP12 stays true to the Windows 7 mentality of a better OS out of the box, and for many people this will be the only playback and organizing program they will need on their computer.