I've used a lot of media players over the years, but I've always avoided Windows Media Player like the plague. Then I encountered Windows Media Player 12 on Windows 7, and suddenly I find myself singing a different tune.
Note: We realise that after almost six months in the wild, Windows 7 is far from cutting edge, but if you're still under the misconception that Windows Media Player has nothing worthwhile to offer, do yourself a favour and read on.
Early on, Winamp used to be the go-to media player of the day, until one day, I started finding new releases of the program a little too bloated for my taste. Nevertheless, I remained loyal until I found myself wanting something called an iPod. This six-year old iPod had a caveat: it only synced with iTunes. Thanks to my iPod devotion, combined with a snazzy way to browse your music (look at those covers go!), I eventually — though reluctantly — made the switch to iTunes.
The problem with Windows Media Player was always that, frankly, it never seemed that good, and I could never think of any compelling reason to use it. That's all changed since Microsoft released Windows 7 and Windows Media Player 12.
Seamless Media Integration with Libraries
One of Windows 7's biggest strengths are its organisational tools, like Libraries. With the ability to customise libraries and group various folders, it organises your files by type or purpose easily. Since I like complete control over file structure, I've never particularly liked iTunes' insistence to manage my music folders (or its inability to monitor folders — and no, the single, undefinable watched folder isn't good enough). Besides a new interface to sort your music in Windows Explorer, I found that all the music that I put into this library was automatically added to Windows Media Center and Windows Media Player. I no longer had to manually add it via iTunes.
WMP 12 Offers Dead-Simple Media Sharing, Too
With several in-built features with Windows Media 7, it's also easier to share music, movies and photos with any other Win7 computer over the internet or to other devices on your network. Coupled with a Windows Live ID, linking other music libraries to your Windows Media Player is simple.
There's also a unique "Play To" feature embedded in Windows Media Player. It can stream to other computers in the HomeGroup networking feature or play back to your sound system. Through Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) technology, you can set up other devices as well. Microsoft has a list of supported devices, but theoretically, you can set it up using any device that supports DLNA, including your Xbox. Each device being Played To has its own playlist and playback settings and is controlled through its own little window. We'd like to see anyone do that with iTunes.
Better Codec and Syncing Support
While it's still a poor player for syncing to your iPhone or Apple device (iTunes now lives on in a precarious state on my PC), Windows Media Player allows you to sync with other media devices. When you plug your device into your computer, it'll ask you to identify your device and if you want to sync it to your library. If you're using a device that doesn't require proprietary software, it's one less headache saved.
On the codec support front, older versions of WMP were always dragging a little behind, requiring users to hunt down and install codec packs to play pretty common file types. Luckily Microsoft's also added a lot more video and audio support in Windows Media Player 12. It now supports H.264, Xvid and DivX video codecs along with AAC, 3GP, MP4 and MOV formats natively.
One Less Thing To Install
I like to run a mean, clean efficient machine with the bare minimum to get me by. Sometimes when I think about installing software, I know that it's going to change my registry, and possibly leave a lot of junk on my computer. It gives me a headache. But Windows Media Player plays my music and video, is easy to use and integrates with Windows 7. It's snappier to use than waiting 9382 seconds for iTunes to open. With additional features and a nicer interface, Windows Media Player isn't still quite perfect but it's no longer quite the pariah of media players anymore.
Maybe the biggest thing I've learned? I can live without cover flow.