Friday, November 17, 2006

Why I hate Windows Media Player

I haven't posted since Tuesday because work has been nuts, and as a result I've been exhausted at night. It doesn't help that I lost a day and a half from a "rush job" because someone else at work couldn't be bothered to take the rush seriously.

Anyway, I see that Microsoft's iPod killer, the Zune, is out. I first heard about this thing a couple of months ago, shortly after I got my own MP3 player. Microsoft is selling it for the same price as an iPod, with roughly the same capabilities.

The reason Microsoft got into this business, other than the fact that they want to own the world, is because they've been disappointed in the lack of market penetration by other MP3 players. Funny enough, I know only one person with an iPod and two (not including me) with another brand. Microsoft wants a device that connects to Windows like the iPod connects to an Apple.

Microsoft is likely to fall flat on its face with this one if the Zune's synchronization software is anything like Windows Media Player. This is the program my own MP3 player uses. I hate it.

I'm not a Luddite. In a previous life I was a programmer and systems analyst. I like techie things. I'm also, now, a dad. My time is precious. I don't have the time to figure out something that's unintuitive. Microsoft Media Player is not intuitive. If I have an issue with it, I can imagine the less technical being frustrated.

Most folks know Windows Media Player because they have it as the default sound and video player on their Windows based computer. If that's all you use it for, it seems easy enough. You can also use it to burn CDs. It's a little less friendly than a dedicated burning program, like those by Roxio, but it's not too hard to figure out. The MP3 synchronization part of the program is where the real ugliness hits.

When I first got my MP3 player, it came with a short tutorial on how to make a playlist and synchronize it with the player. It wasn't difficult, but I remember a step or two that weren't exactly obvious. When my old laptop crashed and I had to reinstall everything, I managed to create a new playlist but the process seemed more onerous than the first time I did it. Then I synchronized the device, and ended up with twice the number of files on my hard drive and the MP3 player filling up as Windows Media Player tried to fill it up with duplicate songs. This is because the player did not actually synchronize with the device, it just copied everything. There was no way, that I could see, to tell the program to just pull from my MP3 player.

The other issue is that Windows Media Player insists on creating files in WMA format. This is Microsoft's equivalent to the MP3 format. Microsoft claims they have better sound than MP3s. I disagree. They sound a little different, but neither is any better than the other.

I couldn't find a way of changing the bit rate on a file, either. This isn't something the average person will want to do, but it's something I will want to do. Sound and video files are measured in "bit rates". A bit rate is the number of bits of information that has to be read per second to decode the file into sound or video. The more bits of information the less the player has to "guess" (okay, it's an educated guess) to fill in the sound. The more bits, the bigger the file. If you use a smaller bit rate you save space on your computer or MP3 player, but you lose sound quality. The "standard" bit rate for MP3s is 128kbs (kilobits per second, or 128 x 1024 bits per second). MP3 editors will allow you to increase it in certain increments all the way up to 320kbs, and down to 56kbs. The 128kbs rate is good enough for most headphones and most places with noise, but a growing number of people are going for 192kbs for better sound quality, particularly if they are hooking the device to a home or car stereo.

At any rate, I can't see where I can modify the bit rate in Windows Media Player. This isn't something the average person wants. It's something that someone who can figure out Windows Media Player might want.

This is the dilemma. If you're a techie you'll have less problem with the program but find it limiting. If you are a non-techie you will find the program less than intuitive to use. In my opinion, of course.

Maybe I just have a mental block with regard to Windows Media Player and it's not as bad as I think it is. Or maybe this is another case of Microsoft over engineering its software.

From what I've read the Zune (which sounds like a stupid name to me) has a different software package with it. However, I'm not at all impressed with what Microsoft has done up until now with MP3 players. If there's a reason cheaper MP3 players haven't made any substantial dent in iPod sales, it's partly because of the difficulties with syncing via Media Player. Presumably Microsoft has made strides in this department with the Zune. They had better, if they want to capture iPod market share.

For the most part Microsoft's hardware is pretty good. I like their mice, keyboards, and Logan loves his X-box. I wouldn't be surprised if the Zune does well, as long as they have fixed the device's synchronization software.

(I see, on Wikipedia, that the Zune has come under some criticism. Here's the Wikipedia link on the Zune:


For the record, I plug my player into the computer. I drag and drop files onto the player as though it was a disk drive. I use three different freeware programs to edit files. Audiograbber lets me rip songs and convert them to WAV or MP3 files. Audacity allows me to edit a file (if one song runs into another, I can fade the song out at the end). Both allow me to convert from WAV to MP3 formats, and to change bit rates. MP3 Tag Tools lets me do anything I want with the tags in the file (like the name of the song, the album, the track number, etc.).

To burn CDs, I use Roxio's RecordNow, which came with the laptop.

I don't bother organizing my songs. If I wanted to do that, I can use a bunch of programs — including iTunes — that either came with the laptop or that I've installed.

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