About half a year ago I did a series of reviews covering free music software applications, ranging from the free versions of commercial software to software that is free to begin with. My favorite application back then was J. River Music Jukebox, a stripped down free version of J. River Media Center. Since it was in my opinion the best mainstream application out there it’s only fair that I also take a look at the paid version. If the free version is good, the paid version should be even better, right? Read on for a review of J. River Media Center 14. Please note that since MC14 and MJ12 share a lot of features, parts of the review are similar or identical to the MJ12 review, so I suggest reading the other review first as a reference.
Back when I reviewed the free version I talked a bit about the import feature skipping some file formats by default as well as being slow with some formats. While it still takes a bit more time to import things like AAC than it does with MP3, it’s both faster and it imports those formats by default. It actually starts scanning your computer for media straight away without any warning or message whatsoever, which I didn’t particularly like, but you can easily cancel it (if you notice it’s doing it at all) and do a manual import. With all the example files, randomly placed media etc that people often have on their computer I don’t think it’s a good idea to autoscan anything without first asking the person if the Music folder is where all music is actually at.
The music library utilizes a series of customizable views to decide how to present media, with the default being artist/album etc. You can customize these in all sorts of ways, from picking what tags to sort by to choosing how to display the files, thumbnail size and spacing, select tree structures and stacking and a whole lot of other options. You save your custom views and they can then be accessed from the sidebar so you can easily switch between them. One view mode worth mentioning is the 3D Albums mode where all your albums are displayed as thumbs on a gigantic 3D wall that you can interact with, manipulate and browse. Think of it as having all your music as LPs on a gigantic wall which you can then walk by and look at. The usefulness is limited if you have a giant music collection and just want to find music quick, but if you’ve kept up with the album art tagging and the majority of you music is full albums instead of single tracks this is an awesome way to just browse your albums and see what you have.
The same system of customizable views is used for images, though the properties you sort by will naturally be more suited for photos. The default views include albums, dates, files, keywords and 3D timeline. 3D timeline is basically the same as 3D albums but with photos instead of album art, and is a nice way to view photos. It quickly displays thumbs when using graphical viewing modes so you’re not left with loading thumbnails. Clicking photos will open them in a fullscreen viewer which lets you control them as you like. Furthermore there’s even a light photo editor built in, so you can do minor changes to photos. This makes it a decent choice for photo organization if you want to keep everything in a single application, but I won’t go more into detail on the photo options as they aren’t really relevant from an Abi perspective.
Video also uses the same system with customizable views, and again with focus on different properties. Video tagging is still a very new concept, and Apple are the only ones who have been able to do this properly with how they treat videos in iTunes and on the devices, so chances are that your videos won’t come equipped with the necessary tags to use many of these views without first sitting down and tagging all the files. Whether or not you have enough videos to actually warrant any special organizing methods is another point entire- I for one have never needed anything but file/folder organizing for my videos. The point though is that the option to go all in with video organization is there for those with time and patience to make it work correctly, but don’t count of it being an out of the box solution.
Media Center uses the exact same playlist system as Media Jukebox. There are three kinds of playlists; playlist, smartlist and playlist groups. Playlists are standard playlists that you can create and do with as you please, including dragging files onto them or use the oh so common “send to” option by right clicking. Files can be videos as well as music, and you can mix the media types. Playlists groups are basically playlists for playlists, groups where you can add several playlists to a group of playlists. This would be useful if say you had playlists for various kinds of rock, and then wanted a master playlist for all rock.
Smartlist is what it sounds like, a playlist that’s “smart” and creates itself based off certain criteria. Basically it consists of three fields you combine to create rules. The left/first one is a meta tag such as media type, album, artist and down to very specific ones such as BPM. The right field is various measures depending on the first field, for example “media type” can be “audio, image” etc, “album” can
be any of your albums, duration can be a specific time and so on. The middle field binds the two others together in various ways, such as “is”, “is not”, “contains” etc. When these three are mixed, you get literally thousands of rules you can apply to your smartlists. As an example, I could do a fairly standard one and say [Album][is][Firefly OST], or I could be creative and say for example [Lyrics][does not contain][fuck] if my files all had the lyrics tagged and I wanted to make a playlist without profanity. You can add several rules per playlist, so you can make smartlists that are extremely complicated using the smartlist feature. Really impressive seeing how much you can tweak. You also have a couple of default smartlists, such as playlists containing recently imported or recently played files.
The podcast is another feature that’s identical to the Media Jukebox version of the software. Media center like Media Jukebox gives you a home page for finding podcasts that contains a few suggestions, a Google search box and a list of up-to-date podcast sites. When you find and add a podcast- which you can do manually or by clicking an RSS link in the built in web-browser, you get the option to type in a name, what episodes to download and how many to keep. You can also edit tag properties, such as choose default artist or genre tags. This would be useful for example if you have a Sansa Clip or Fuze which will add podcasts to their own section as long as they have the podcast tag, and this would let you auto-add that tag.
Downloading can be done automatically or by clicking to download specific files. There’s a nice download window on the left when a download is in progress, much better than the tiny line of text indicating a download in MediaMonkey. When the downloads finish, you can sort the downloaded files like you would music, customizing the view with thumbnails etc.
The podcast feature of the J River applications is one of the best out there and certainly worth a try for people who listen to a lot of podcasts. it doesn’t quite live up to the awesomeness that is iTunes’ podcatcher, but at the same time it gives more options useful for using it with players that aren’t made to talk to the podcatcher like iTunes does.
Media Jukebox had a very limited Amazon MP3 integration which was really just the application’s built in web browser going to Amazon MP3 online. Media Center 14 however has a downloadable module that lets you access the Performer Media Jukebox music service, which is a subscription service like Napster and Rhapsody. The service is owned by J. River as well and offers both a standard $12.99/month computer-only subscription and a 15.99/month portable option. With only 4 million songs and a streaming bitrate of 128kbps however, I doubt this would stand up to all the major music services if I did a complete review of the service, but the fact it’s integrated into the Media Center software itself is a huge bonus over all the other services out there.
DVD and TV
MC14 also supports both DVD playback and watching TV. The latter feature I couldn’t test as I don’t have a TV card (nor a TV whatsoever for that matter), but the DVD feature worked OK-ish. It had some issues with not displaying the image properly after switching between view modes but otherwise it worked well. I would prefer standalone software for more stability, though having it all in one application is also very nice.
Standard and mini view
MC14 has four different playback view modes available, each very different form the other. The default one is a playback bar on top with basic playback controls, a few simply visualizers and file info. You can customize the information showed to large degree, telling it what tags or information to display and in what order. Mini mode is basically the default view with the library part of the window removed, so you just have a small window with the playback controls.
Display view is the third and final view mode that was also in Media Jukebox 12, and is basically a fullscreen eye candy mode. Visualization is key, and you can choose from an incredible array of visualizers ranging from plain track info or album art to the run-of-the-mill WMP visualizers and up to brilliant 3D animations that use the album art in various ways. Look at the screenshots to see what I mean.
Theatre view is one of the biggest differences between Media Jukebox and Media Center, and really makes this application stand out from the rest. It transforms the application into a fully fledge media center interface that Windows Media Center can only dream of ever matching. You can switch between various skins, and those decide how the whole interface looks. Basically it makes the application go fullscreen and then gives you an interface that shares a lot of traits with those of 3” MP3 players and that is optimized for using a keyboard to navigate. The interface changes depending on what skin you’re using so I suggest looking at the screenshots for a better idea of how it looks, but generally it gives you full access to the media consumption end of the software packaged in a nice looking, easy to use interface. This makes MC14 the perfect software for media center PCs, but be warned that this view mode also requires a fair bit of power from the graphics card, which is a shame because this is exactly the kind of software that would be perfect for nettops, netbooks and especially netbook tablets. You can choose to use lower quality settings for theater mode but it still isn’t enough to run on an Atom CPU and a GMA500 graphics card, which is what most netbook sized/prized tablets use these days. I tried the software on a Viliv S5 and while it looked awesome and would have been perfect for media playback on that device it was simply too slow.
MC14 has a vast array of networking capabilities, both for streaming media to the application and acting as a server itself, but it can be too much at times. There are references to UPnP, DLNA, Connected Media and other network sounding terms all over the sidebar and menus, but for someone with limited knowledge about networking it will most likely not make any sense. For instance, I have media sharing set up on all my PCs, yet telling the application to search fro media servers didn’t bring up any results. It was perfectly capable of finding the files by using the Drives & Devices option in the sidebar and finding the networked machines that way, but not any other way. Network media sharing is a pain in the ass these days because you have random stability and different competing technologies that ironically compete to become the standard, so it’s definitely something that a lot of people will find difficult to set up. MC14 needs a wizard that guides people through the process by asking simple questions about if they want to get media from other devices or stream media to them and so on, not just a bunch of advanced but confusing and misleading options. It also has some serious work to do with the speed and resource consumption when connecting to network places as it was extremely slow and tripped up the entire computer while trying to figure out what was in the network folder, while my PS3, X360 and other computers are always able to do it with ease. I really do like what J. River is trying to do though with a software application that includes every possible Media Center feature including the ability to control other media devices via IR or DLNA, but it needs some polish to make it user friendly and not as buggy.
Plug-ins and Extras
MC14 has a lot of features, to the degree that covering all of them completely would probably result in a review the size of my Archos 5A review. As with other media software it allows you to use plug-ins, which can more or less extend functionality indefinitely. As for plug-ins and extra features that come wit
h the default install, that list is rather long as well.
First off, MC14 has a web browser built in just like Media Jukebox has. That browser is used for podcasts, media services like Audible and Amazon, YouTube and Google Video, Wikipedia lookups etc. The whole application is filled with shortcuts that nicely integrates third party websites with the media in your library, so that you can for example search Google or Wikipedia for artist info when playing a song, or look for music videos of the song on YouTube. This is a feature that many media applications have started including and it’s a nice one. Support for Audible is particularly a nice feature as that content has DRM and won’t play in most third party applications. Being able to skip standalone software for Audible is another reason why MC14 works better as a media center application than many of the competitors, because it can really act as a complete replacement of all other applications.
MC14 also has CD burning, CD ripping, file conversion and file tagging capabilities like Media Jukebox has. You can both rip and convert to formats like FLAC, APE and Ogg Vorbis which means that these features should be adequate to replace standalone applications. The CD burner is also decent, and the ability to control gaps and add sound enhancements to the CDs you burn is a very nice touch. The tagging capabilities however aren’t as good, which I pointed out in the Media Jukebox review as well. MC14 still uses YADB for tag info and doesn’t let you check Amazon or all the other services that MP3Tag and MediaMonkey use. This means that it will get increasingly useless the less mainstream your music is, so for this particular task you might have to use a standalone application- it all depends on what music you have.
Back when I reviewed Media Jukebox I came across a peculiar bug where the software was unable to determine the name of the connected MTP device and just displayed some random number strings instead. This is fixed in MC14, but it still displays the wrong image of the device like Media Jukebox also did. When connecting a Sansa Clip+, it shows a Sansa Clip and similar with a Sony player. Windows itself shows a Clip+, so I don’t know how this technology works and why it keeps coming up with the wrong picture for the connected device. Not a big deal of course, just odd.
Clicking on the player gives you a list of files on there, but since it’s MTP it only displays info- no album art/thumbs. If you have a MSC however the application will treat it as any other folder and it can display thumbnails just fine, as one would expect. It is after all a limitation with MTP, not Media Jukebox.
For MSC devices, transfer is done by dragging stuff to the device. Dragging playlists to a location works and will also transfer the associated files, which is very nice. So far only WinAmp have managed to fail at the simple task of actually transferring what the playlist links to as well, not only the playlist file itself.
For MTP, you have several options. The main page of a MTP device has the list of files, picture of the player and info on number of files and spaced used/free plus last sync date. You will have buttons for “transfer” and “options” on the main page as well, where options bring up a window to set sync options. You can set a whole range of options, including whether to bother with album art (nice to save space on a Sansa Clip for example), getting play stats from handheld, conversion settings (to convert unsupported files), file path settings allowing you to set the path for various media including data and the database (but not podcasts for some reason) and settings to rename the device (obviously needed). You can also select to sync all audio, specific playlists and all or specific podcasts. It also lists to sync photos and videos; however this is simply an error from the developer side as the free version of the software doesn’t support it. Furthermore, once you select anything to sync you can select to auto sync on connect and delete files not on the sync list. If you so please you can also transfer manually/semi-manually. Dragging playlists/songs to the device will add them to a queue of files to transfer when you tell it to, indicated by a small window to the left. This means you can take your time and select some songs or playlists at a time to add to the player manually and then transfer them all at once instead of the software immediately starting the transfer, leaving you to wait until it’s finished to add more- like some do.
You can also set up MC14 to sync your images and videos to the device, and it even includes conversion options for those media types. Video conversion is a bit simplified compared to what you get with dedicated encoders, and considering how the market today is split between devices that plays anything and devices that only play very strict formats I’m guessing that you’ll either not need to convert anything or it won’t be able to convert to the exact format you need, but that all depends on what device you have. Just the fact that it’s an option shows how advanced this application really is.
All in all the syncing feature works just like it does in Media Jukebox, which is a good thing. It works without any bugs or annoyances, and it’s overall an excellent way of managing your MP3 player.
Reviewing MC14 is basically like reviewing Photoshop; there are so many features that you’d literally need a book to cover them all. That is also what makes MC14 the best media software out there as far as I’m concerned, as it’s the only one I’ve come across that truly removes the need for any other application (maybe with the exception of tagging). It will rip, burn, import music, images and video, edit photos, interface with TV tuners, network locations, control network devices, use remotes- basically everything. I truly believe that a PC running Windows with nothing but MC14 would serve as a complete media center PC with everything you’d ever need. J. River has simply crammed so much into the application that you don’t need to outsource anything. Theater view adds to that by providing the user with a skinable media center interface that truly makes it a software package for a living room media center PC, and I just wish they would make it possible to run it a bit less resource intensive for use with tablet PCs. If all you need to do is manage the music on your MP3 player then Media Jukebox will do that just fine, but upgrading to Media Center 14 will add a lot of functionality to the mix. Bottom line, I think the $50 asking price is more than justified considering the epic array of features you get, as this is for all intents and purposes the ultimate in media organizing software.
License giveaway (ENDED)
The guys at J. River saw the review of Media Jukebox when it was first reviewed and was more than willing to provide some license codes for a giveaway when I mentioned I was going to do a Media Center 14 review. I have 10 license codes ready to go and all you need to do to enter is to leave a comment to this article stating that you want a license code. Remember to use your real email in the email field (not visible to the public) and I’ll draw 10 people at random who each get a free license to Media Center 14. The giveaway will run until the end of Sunday, April 4th and I’ll email the codes and instructions to the winners on Monday, April 5th. J. River offers a free 30 day trial of the software with all features available, so please try the application before saying you want a code so the people who really are going to use it gets them.
UPDATEThe people at J. River was so impressed with the number of people who wanted a license to their software that they doubled the number of licenses they’re providing. I now have 20 licenses to give away! Big thanks to J. River for the generosity!
UPDATE 2The giveaway is now over and the lucky 20 winners have gotten their license key. T
hanks to everyojne who particiated and to J. River for providing the license keys!