Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column in the May 21 Business section incorrectly described two aspects of Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11 software and its Urge music service. The software can be uninstalled using the "Add or Remove Programs" control panel by clicking the "Show updates" checkbox at the top of that window. Also, songs downloaded from Urge can be played on a Windows Mobile device if they are transferred using Windows Media Player 11's "Sync" feature, but not if they are copied to the device in any other way.

New Media Player: Nice Features, but It's No ITunes

Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 11 boasts an easy interface with the MTV music store Urge.
Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 11 boasts an easy interface with the MTV music store Urge. (By Microsoft Corp.)
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Microsoft has spent the last few years getting smacked around by Apple in the digital-music market, and it must be getting tired of this treatment. So it's doing something drastic: It's throwing its own MSN Music store under the bus and launching a new music program that spotlights another company's service.

Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 11, released in test form last week, looks and works little like older versions of the company's music and video organizer -- starting with its front-and-center placement for Urge, a new music store from MTV.

Microsoft and MTV say this integration of software and store offers an ease and simplicity to match iTunes. But if a week's trial of the service is any clue, Urge will have a hard time competing with such also-rans as Rhapsody, Yahoo and Napster, let alone Apple.

Urge's biggest departure from earlier Microsoft-based music stores is also its biggest problem: its integration into Windows Media Player 11. Not only does this new, Windows XP-only software promote Urge to the exclusion of other retailers, you can't shop at this store-- or even just play your Urge downloads -- in any earlier version of Windows Media Player.

But Windows Media Player 11 ( ) isn't any old beta release; it's essentially a system upgrade, one that can be removed only with XP's System Restore tool. Nobody should install this kind of preview software lightly.

The immediate reward for taking that risk is a cleaner, simpler interface. Instead of the dense, screen-filling track lists of earlier releases, Windows Media Player 11 displays songs on your computer as a collection of thumbnail views of album covers (it fetches these images automatically from online databases). It cleverly represents how many songs you have in a given category -- from one artist, in one genre, released in a particular year and so on-- by stacking these thumbnails on top of each other.

Aside from the way this redesign still places the play/pause/stop buttons at the bottom of the screen, as far as possible from every other control, this interface is a smart, creative way to organize a digital music library.

It's too bad that Windows Media Player didn't locate cover-art images reliably -- most of my library was illustrated with generic blank-CD icons. For every obscure indie artist's cover art that the program found, it missed two or three releases from big-name acts. And this feature doesn't work at all if your music files (like many Internet downloads) haven't been tagged with the right artist and album data; Windows Media Player 11 is supposed to fill in such missing information automatically but often did not.

Fortunately, this new software provides a search box at the top-right corner that, as in iTunes, finds songs as you type a query instead of waiting for you to hit the Enter key. Windows Media Player 11 also catches up to iTunes by simplifying the process of collecting a set of songs to transfer to a player or burn to a CD -- and it passes Apple's software by letting you copy music from a player to your library.

Lastly, this update makes it easier to change many settings -- instead of diving into a program-options window, you can select commands from the menus that drop down from the tabs at the top of the window.

The right-most tab links to the new MTV Urge music service. Urge sells music under the same basic terms as other stores: Songs (99 cents each) and albums (usually $9.99) can be played on five computers at any one time, and you can burn seven audio CDs from any one playlist of these downloads.

Urge also lets you rent songs: $9.95 a month (or $99 a year) lets you download all the tracks you want to a computer, while $14.95 ($149 a year) lets you transfer those downloads to most newer Windows Media-compatible players. These rented songs can't be burned to CD and go silent if you stop paying the fees.

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