Microsoft's Windows Media Player is a basic application for playing music and video files that rides along as part of the base Windows install. While there have been plenty of updates along the way, the player has remained light on the bells and whistles you're likely to find in competitors. Microsoft is changing all that with version 11, now available in public beta for Windows XP (click here to download).
Microsoft has overhauled the entire Windows Media Player user interface. Playback controls are now front and center. The Next and Previous track controls, moved to logical positions on either side of the Play button, now take on a dual role, granting fast forward and rewind functions with a click-and-hold. Rounding out the control interface are separate shuffle and repeat buttons, as well as a mute button and volume slider.
The changes continue along the top of the application. WMP 11 still uses the tabbed interface from the previous version, but now features a drop-down menu under each of the tabs, making the specific options for that tab available quickly and easily. For example, under the "Rip" tab, its drop-down features relevant options such as Format and Bit rate. Similarly, the options under the Burn tab allow you to quickly change the options to create a CD on the fly. These sub-menus mostly eliminate the need for the traditional text menus present on previous versions of Media Player, so Microsoft turned these "classic menus" off by default. The menus are still available by right-clicking anywhere on the frame of the application window, and can be turned back on.
Back and Forward navigation buttons are now present, providing a function similar to a Web browser. While these buttons give WMP a feel common to other applications, they were only really useful while navigating the online music store.
Even more impressive than the playback control updates, the overhaul of the Media Library is simply stunning. Album art has been rolled into Media Player in a big way. Navigation through the music library is a matter of selecting the album you are interested in, then picking the song from that album. In the artist view, multiple albums by the same artist are represented by a virtual stack of records. I was very impressed by how fast I was able to get to the music I was interested in just by seeing the album it was on. This is a definite improvement over the thousands of rows of text to read through on previous versions.