Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Windows Media Player

Once upon a time, long before Napster, or MP3s were 'cool', I was a hard-core Winamp kinda guy. Of course back then, that was pretty much the only player around. But it did the job well, and didn't take a lot of CPU or memory. In those days I had more MP3s then anyone I knew (thanks to a college ethernet connection), and my collection totaled maybe a hundred or two MP3s. It was easy to organize the MP3s in folders, I had a strict scheme for naming the files, and where they should be stored (in folders by genre).

Flash-forward 4 or 5 years. I decided to bite the bullet and start ripping each and every one of my 100+ CDs to MP3 files. This added a whole separate categorization of MP3 files on my hard drive, the full CD collections. Complemented by (at that time) 1,000 or so individual MP3s. Some duplicating what I had on CD, some duplicating each other at new and better bitrates (since the 96k modem sized MP3s suddenly sounded pretty bad compared to a 256k vbr MP3).

Over the next few years my filing system started getting more and more creaky with age. Not only did I have full CDs, and individual files sorted somewhat sporadically in genres, but I also had a whole second subdirectory of files that hadn't been written out to CD yet and thus couldn't be 'sorted' with the first set of files. (That was so that I could make sure I had backups of everything). Even worse, the naming started to get more and more diverse, as I crumbled under the weight of way to many files to manage, and just stopped worrying about getting them organized and named correctly.

It was pretty much impossible to manage all these files in Winamp, since it had no concept of a media library. All you had were playlists. Which were fine, but almost instantly out of date. And trying to find where a particular song was stored (across 2 drives, and several different directory structures) was difficult for me, and neigh impossible for anyone else.

Around this time, I finally caved and tried out Windows Media Player. Previously I had only tolerated Windows Media Player for its ability to play video files, but scorned its memory hungry, relatively clunky setup for anything like playing songs on a daily basis. But Windows Media Player 8 was a huge step in the right direction, and Windows Media Player 9 is pretty dang good.

It was still somewhat painful to use WMP on my old computer, as loading a media library the size of mine took quite a bit of my relatively scarce memory. But, oh the joy of being able to find an MP3 file regardless of where it might be stored on the hard drive. And to be able to get dynamic lists of songs in a particular genre at the click of a button. Or all the Paul Oakenfold MP3s, or all the MP3s making up the two versions of The Wall that I have.

It did make me realize what a mess the ID3 tags in my files were. Especially the older files that didn't even have anything, let alone incorrect, or misspelled information. Eventually I had to write a couple perl scripts to populate the files that were completely missing information based off my known naming scheme. And I also had to make good use of WMP's snappy ability to bulk-edit the information of files.

Now, when I said earlier WMP is pretty dang good, that should perhaps be qualified as 'pretty dang good, relative to the alternatives'. Because WMP certainly has its problems.

For one, the cd-burning interface is completely useless. As far as I can tell, when you have Nero installed, there isn't a way to burn an audio cd from inside WMP. All I can do is copy files onto a data disc. Which is rarely what I want to do. So instead I am reduced to hunting through 33.5GB of files for the particular ones, and dragging them into Nero to burn onto a mixed cd. It feels like 1999 all over again.

And while WMP's auto playlists are cool, they aren't nearly as useful as you might think. For example, I like single MP3 mixed trance concerts (say from Oakenfold). If I am feeling lazy about picking music, I can queue up one of these, and be choice free for the next hour and 15 minutes (or more). But how do I find these in Windows Media Player? I have to know what artist they are under, or finding in a genre by sorting the list by length and then picking them out.

Ah-ha, I said to myself tonight, I'll just make an auto-playlist of songs that are longer then an hour. So then whenever I want to listen to a long string of techno, I can just queue up the playlist and put it on shuffle. But the only playlist criteria for Duration is a drop-down list of seconds: 30,60,120,180, 240, 300, 360. WTF? I have (apparently) 921 songs in my library that are longer then 6 minutes. Exactly what benefit am I getting from having to select from a hard-coded list of numbers of seconds? Even worse is the option to find songs whose duration IS X seconds. When was the last time you saw a song that totaled out at exactly 6 minutes?

Who thought it would be user-friendly to make a drop down list for something like 'length of song'? I can't believe a Program Manager actually tried this feature out and was like 'Hey look, I can finally find all my songs that are 2 minutes long, customers are going to love this!'

Along the same lines, are the auto-playlists that are 'favorites - one audio cd worth', or 'favorites - one data cd worth'. That sounds awesome, right? I mean, you want some mixed CDs, just burn that playlist. Except that (as I mentioned before), you can't burn audio discs in WMP directly. So after you struggle through tracking all those files down and get the CD burned, then what? The playlist never changes. So you can't say 'OK, now give me another CD of favorites'. You are stuck with the same list you already burned. And that list isn't exactly 'random'. In my case, the audio cd (which is only 59:05 minutes BTW, hardly a full CD) has 15 songs; from only 7 artists. Including a ridiculous 7 songs from one artist, and 3 from another.

Obviously the intention was there to have that be an incredible feature. But the responsibility for getting it implemented must have fallen to the same PM who had a hard drive full of 120 second songs.

And then there is the rating system. In theory, that sounds like an ├╝ber-feature: The ability to automatically rank your songs by how much they are played (or by manual ratings). But implementation leaves quite a bit to be desired.

First off, you only have 5 rating choices. A bit coarse for a media library of 7,679 songs, you think? All songs start out at 3 stars. And when you play a song once it becomes a 4 star song. If you play it a time or two more, it becomes a 5 star song. That seems to be ramping up a bit fast, but I could probably deal. The problem is nothing ever loses rating when it isn't played (AFAICT). So I have songs I've never played the entire time I've had my new computer, that are still rated at 3 stars. And then there are songs I listened to once, and haven't touched again, that are now 4 star-rated. So then they make all the auto-playlists of 'favorites'. I played it once, 6 months ago, its not exactly a favorite!

WMP would be so much better if it used a 1-10 rating system (or at least the option to use that instead of 5 stars). And if it would auto-reduce the rating of songs are they aren't played. Then if you throw in a usable cd-burning feature, and better auto-playlists, you could have a super program.

Maybe Microsoft needs another PM for WMP. :)

[ On a side note - Rumor has it Windows Media Player 10 is supposed to address some of these issues, at least some of the cd-burning issues (although they have been talking more about its integration with MP3 players/portable devices, then CD burning). ]

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