Another week, another beta release from Microsoft. Windows Media Center 11 is the latest program getting a bunch of attention from the media – here’s Paul Thurrott raving about it, here’s CNet’s lukewarm review, here’s a negative review from the Washington Post.

I’ve been using WMP11 for the last couple of weeks. I went in with high hopes – the interface is completely redesigned and the database engine under the hood is supposedly much better at handling large music libraries.

WMP11 is unquestionably a big step forward from Windows Media Player 10. If you have a library of a few hundred songs, it’s the program you want to use – clean, easy to navigate, flexible, fast, pretty.

If your music library is bigger than that, though, it’s not as clear. Personally, I found the screen layout frustrating – lots of wasted screen space to get that “clean” look. I work hard to tag files correctly and get cover art and I wasn’t impressed by what WMP11 offered to accomplish those chores. (There’s still nothing like J River Media Center for big libraries.)

WMP11 is clearly a beta in some ways. It’s just terrible at reading mp3 tags – it displayed artist and album information incorrectly on the majority of my library, and I found it slow to change views despite the much touted database improvements.

One of the alleged drawing points is the partnership with MTV on a new music service, “Urge,” intended to compete with iTunes. It’s deeply integrated into WMP11, for better or worse, with the usual catalog of songs to purchase. There’s a rental service similar to Napster and Rhapsody – ten bucks a month or so to download unlimited songs and play them on the computer or on some portable devices. You can’t burn them to CDs and if you stop paying, they stop playing. That strikes me as a fair deal, worth considering if you have the right kind of portable player or if you’ll play music on your computer. It doesn’t work with iPods!

Will this begin to move the audience away from iTunes? The iPod phenomena is due to subside, like any fad, and at some point WMP11 will appear preinstalled on new computers – so the new Urge store will likely gain an audience. By itself, though, it brings nothing new to the table. iPods are nicer devices than any competitor offers and iTunes is at least as appealing as the new store for browsing, sampling, purchasing.

Maybe I’m out of touch. Does MTV have any relevance for anybody? Are there a lot of under-25 year olds who are excited about this? The press repeats the wisdom from the press releases – boy, the association with MTV will sure draw an audience. Really?

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