Typically, I'm comfortable doling out advice about various digital media- and connected home-related topics, but if my recent attempt at writing a roundup of Windows XP-compatible media players has proven anything to me, it's that I still have a lot to learn. That experience taught me two important lessons. First, modern media players are complicated and offer a wealth of features, many of which won't interest the average user. Second, everyone seems to want something different from a media player. You can see why picking one product as the best all-around solution is often impossible.
The sheer range of media player choices for PCs has the contradictory effect of making the selection even more difficult. For Mac OS X, the choices are more simplistic and, frankly, less unsettling: Apple Computer provides an excellent streaming video player (QuickTime Player) and digital music management/playback tool (iTunes) with every Macintosh, and both work well enough that you have little reason to look elsewhere. What Mac OS X lacks is good Windows Media Audio (WMA) integration (iTunes isn't compatible with WMA, and Microsoft's Windows Media Player—WMP—for the Mac is designed solely for streaming playback and is quite limited) and compatibility with RealNetworks' popular streaming formats (RealOne for Mac OS X will likely be announced this week, however).
On Windows, the media player situation is a mess, especially if you have an old Windows version. However, XP ships with Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP, aka WMP 8), which is an excellent product, albeit one with some serious performance problems. I love MPXP's media-management capabilities and use it to organize my media library, create custom playlists, rip (i.e., record) and burn audio CDs, and copy music to portable devices. It excels in these areas. For most XP users, MPXP will fit the bill. Where MPXP falls short is in MP3 compatibility: If you want to rip digital music in MP3 format with MPXP, you need to purchase a $10 add-on. (Conversely, MPXP can play and manage MP3 files out of the box.)
Older WMP versions don't fare so well. WMP 7.x, which is available for Windows Me, Windows 2000, Windows NT 4.0, and Windows 98, offers poorer performance than MPXP, slower CD ripping and writing speeds, and a dire UI. I recommend that non-XP users look elsewhere (I'll examine the best complete solutions a little later).
After you consider a media player's simple playback and media-organization features, you need to think about the ways in which you'll use a media player. If your needs don't go beyond what we've already discussed, then you can stick with what comes with Windows. After all, Microsoft's products are good, and they're free in the sense that they don't impose any additional cost over what you paid for the OS.
But if you need more than just the simple features, one of your main considerations will be file format compatibility. The two most popular non-Microsoft streaming formats are RealAudio/RealVideo and QuickTime Player, and neither of them will work with WMP or, for that matter, any other Windows-based media player. So, you'll need to download at least the free versions of RealNetworks' RealOne and QuickTime Player (see the URLs below) if you want to take advantage of all the digital media content that's available online. RealOne is visually attractive and, if you shell out $20 for RealOne Plus, an excellent competitor to MPXP as well, with media-management, CD ripping and burning, and other MPXP-like capabilities. However, RealNetworks' products are awash with advertising, even in RealOne Plus, and I don't like that. The products are basically just ads for RealNetworks' monthly subscription services ($10 per month and up), which I also don't appreciate. Because of the in-your-face advertising, I'm not a big fan of RealNetworks' products and don't recommend that you pay for RealOne Plus.
The Windows version of Apple's QuickTime Player is another nonstarter. The freebie version will play back QuickTime clips (but not full screen), and the $30 QuickTime Pro version offers full-screen playback and a host of other features. However, the product performs poorly on Windows, and unless you need full-screen playback, I recommend sticking with the free version (this recommendation doesn't hold for the Mac, where QuickTime Pro looks and performs much better than its Windows counterpart).
Beyond compatibility, you need to consider media player features. MPXP, RealOne, and the excellent MUSICMATCH Jukebox all let you rip audio CDs, burn custom-mix CDs, manage your music library, listen to Internet radio stations, and play MP3 and WMA music. Each product offers a few unique features that might tip the scales when it comes time to make your decision. If you choose RealOne or MUSICMATCH Jukebox, however, I recommend purchasing the paid version (RealOne Plus or MUSICMATCH Jukebox Plus; both cost $20) because they offer faster CD speeds and other features not found in the free versions.
In the unique-features department, MPXP includes support for DVD movie playback if you have compatible decoder software, a feature the other two products lack; Microsoft offers decoder downloads for $15 if the feature doesn't work on your system out of the box. MPXP also includes automatic album art downloading, which is wonderful; MUSICMATCH Jukebox 7.2 Plus added a similar feature. MUSICMATCH Jukebox also includes software to print custom CD labels and playlists, a handy feature when you're reaching into a box of CDs in your car and don't want to waste time popping in unlabeled CDs until you find the right one. RealOne and MUSICMATCH Jukebox offer analog (line-in) recording, a boon to anyone trying to digitally record legacy audio from cassette tape or other audio formats (I'll look at this feature in a future column). RealOne also offers a unique toolbar mode, which significantly reduces the onscreen real estate the product occupies.
Later this week on the SuperSite for Windows (see URL below), I'll provide more in-depth information about the differences between XP-compatible media players. But in the meantime, if digital music is important to you, you'll benefit from spending time reading each manufacturer's Web page and downloading and testing each product before you choose. The media player that's right for me might not be the one that's right for you. But if you look hard enough, you'll find the right product. It's out there.