In terms of maturity, Microsoft Corp.s Windows Media 9 is similar to Internet Explorer 4.0, the version of the browser that beat competitors feature by feature. However, although Windows Media 9 edges competitors in most areas, it falls short of being the best, and most users should keep versions of Apple Computer Inc.s QuickTime and RealNetworks Inc.s RealOne player on their systems.
One of the biggest new things in Windows Media 9, which was released this month and can be downloaded from www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/, is the opening of the licensing and codecs of Windows Media. Microsoft has made it possible for third-party developers to use the codecs in any application and on any platform, paving the way for Windows Media to be used on any number of devices at a licensing expense that is more cost-effective than MPEG license contracts.
eWeek Labs found the free Windows Media 9 Encoder to be a big improvement over the bare-bones encoders used by previous versions. The encoder has much greater usability and now provides several starting templates for common tasks such as capturing media, converting file formats (it converts nearly everything but QuickTime) and broadcasting live events. The encoder also supports multichannel audio, making it possible to create audio that takes advantage of surround sound systems.
Digital rights management has been improved in this version, with features that make it much easier to create protected content. However, when we tried to find license providers, the program was unable to display any.
Windows Media Player 9 has thankfully avoided the major interface changes that were common in previous releases, instead focusing on improving usability and customization for users. One new feature we welcomed was the post-install routine that asked us how we would like to set our privacy options, making it very easy for us to opt out of the invasions of privacy that most media players try to sneak by users.
Several enhancements make it possible to improve use of audio and video media, including features such as volume leveling and Dolby 5.1 surround sound support. Streaming has been improved to reduce buffering, and a handy new feature made it possible to speed or slow content without changing the sound of the audio—nice for moving through long newscasts without turning the anchors into chipmunks.
Unfortunately, almost all of these new enhancements are available to only those using Windows Media 9 on Windows XP, meaning they will not be available to most users.
Windows Media 9 will play almost any media format. However, it will only create content in Windows Media formats (although it is possible to convert from these formats, and third-party plug-ins can add MP3 support). This means most users will probably have to keep other media software on their systems besides Windows Media. The quality of video and audio in Windows Media 9 formats was uniformly very good.
The server component of Windows Media 9 will become available upon the release of Windows .Net Server 2003.
East Coast Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.