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Looking beyond Media Player

Media Player is all that many computer users ever know when it comes to watching a video or playing an MP3.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 11:49 IST

Microsoft's Windows Media Player has choked off a lot of the competition in the MP3 and digital media player software market for PCs.

Media Player - delivered free with each version of Windows - is all that many computer users ever know when it comes to watching a video on the computer or playing an MP3-encoded song.

The application, after all, automatically takes over media playing chores for those with freshly installed versions of Windows.

But there was a whole world of media player software before Windows Media came along, and the strongest members of that world continue to innovate. What is more, Windows Media Player may not be the best tool for you, depending upon your requirements and wishes.

Here's an overview of what's new in media players.

Winamp is the granddaddy of MP3 players for the PC. Like Google, it had built its reputation on a combination of usefulness and simplicity. Eschewing the cluttered interface of its rivals, Winamp does not require massive computing power to run.

But that does not mean that the software has stagnated either. The latest Winamp comes in two versions - a free rendition and a fee-based powerhouse player.

But Winamp does not stop with MP3 playing.

The programme now plays videos every bit as well as Windows Media Player does, with an expandable video window and first-rate sound.

It contains respectable sound and video cataloguing capabilities, and can now synchronise play-lists with the iPod and Creative portable MP3 players.

Winamp has always been highly customisable, and the collection of "skins" - unique interface enhancements that allow users to personalise the look of Winamp - has only grown.

Winamp is now also doing radio. With tie-ins to XML Satellite Radio and AOL, subscribers to one or both of those services can use Winamp to listen to radio stations.

Yahoo! MusicMatch has been around for a long time and it has traditionally played second fiddle to Winamp, in part because of interface oddities and slow performance.

A lot has changed for MusicMatch, however. Now owned by Yahoo!, MusicMatch 10 has undergone a radical interface transformation - attractive three-dimensional elements and a cleaner look make the programme a joy to behold.

It is worth a fresh look for this reason alone.

But there is more to MusicMatch now than a pretty face. The free version offers an all-in-one music and video player, CD ripper, and music manager.

An upgraded "plus" version provides much more, including an online radio receiver and tie-ins to on-demand Internet music services. MusicMatch's focus has always been audio, however, and here is where the programme excels.

An Auto DJ Classic feature is available in the free version for those who like to create audio mixes from MP3 or other audio file types.

In the plus version, a new Auto DJ feature creates play-lists by searching the Internet for new material based upon the styles of some "seed" songs that you place in a play-list.

Real Player has long been offered in two versions - a free, "basic" version and a "plus" version.

Users have sometimes been annoyed at the difficulty of finding links to the free version on Real's site, but the free version is now easier to get to - and more powerful than ever.

Real Player is a virtual necessity on PCs today, regardless of the other media players you have installed.

That's because Real has done a good job of tying itself into many popular websites as the media player of choice. So to see live video feeds on many online newspapers, for instance, one needs at least the basic Real player installed.

The basic player gives you more than basic multimedia features, however.

Its spartan interface hides some power and can handle audio and video in every major media format used in the digital world today.

One can also use the basic player to transfer music to most portable digital audio devices on the market. The "plus" version allows burning CDs, ripping CDs, and performing audio mixes.

The good news about trying out all of the popular media players on the market is that you can use each one for its strengths. Each programme here allows you to specify which type of media it will handle. Other types will be left to another player.

So one might, for instance, use Winamp for MP3s, Real Player for videos, and Windows Media Player to rip CDs.

Choice is rarely bad, especially when the choices are all free.