Microsoft has released the first public beta version of Windows Media Player 9.0. The new program, which can be downloaded from Microsoft's website, offers faster streaming and better compression, audiophile-quality music playback, support for multichannel movie surround sound and many other features — as long as you're running Windows XP.

Although a separate edition of the new Media Player will run on older versions of Windows, you need the newest version of the operating system to get nearly all the nifty features, says Geoff Harris, group program manager of the Windows Digital Media Division.

Microsoft says this is necessary because features in Windows XP enable version 9.0's more advanced functions, although some analysts say that is not entirely true.

Microsoft and Intel are driving audio and video capabilities into the computing experience in order to convince users to buy new faster PCs and Windows XP, says analyst Steve Vonder Haar of Interactive Media Strategies.

The minimum configuration to run Media Player 9.0 with earlier versions of Windows is a 233MHz Pentium PC with at least 64MB of RAM, 30MB of available hard disk space, a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, a sound card and speakers or headphones.

Favouring Windows XP
Among the features that will only work on Windows XP systems are support for five- to eight-channel surround sound, 'lossless' audio playback (in which the original CD quality is retained) and the ability to play 20bit high-definition CDs.

Microsoft has added CD burning from within the player and users will also be able to record WMA (Windows Media Audio) files for use in standalone devices that support the format. These will include some of the newer DVD players and car stereos.

Non-Windows XP versions will be able to use most of the integrated CD burning functions, according to Microsoft. And while the new program will play MP3 files, you'll still need to purchase a third-party codec (encoder/decoder) to rip or burn MP3s.

Windows Media Player 9.0 supports music subscription services for those wishing to buy and download tracks over the internet. PressPlay is the only such service featured in the beta version of the software, but Microsoft expects to add more in the shipping version. The company says the subscription services will be available to users of older operating systems. A new internet radio tuner and media guide will be added when the full program ships.

Integrated support for music subscription services may also make the issue of buying music over the web more appetising to users, says Paul-Jon McNealy. McNealy, a research director at analysts GartnerG2, says: "I like the integration with PressPlay, especially if they pull it off seamlessly."

Online resources
Aiming to enhance the listening experience, Microsoft has added an Info Center view where you can view album art and other artist information while playing music or a DVD. Harris says the feature, available only in the Windows XP version of the program, links with a free online service that will match your songs or albums with a database of information such as discographies, artists' websites, band photos and cover art. The Info Center view also provides a 'tag' editor that lets you edit the information or even enter lyrics for later use as subtitles for karaoke.

If the user wishes, the program will monitor their music files and retrieve relevant album or song data from Microsoft's service. Songs can be rated with up to five stars and the ratings used to generate musical genre-based playlists. Songs can also be rated by the program based on the user's listening habits. These functions will be available even to non-Windows XP versions, according to Microsoft.

When building playlists, you can use a new crossfade feature to blend one song into the next. A new auto-levelling feature will eliminate sudden changes of volume between tunes and can also be used when burning CDs.

Privacy pitfalls?
Microsoft's service is bound to draw some ire from privacy advocates. In order to return database information to the correct PC, it captures the machine's IP (internet protocol) address. Microsoft's Harris says the technology will never use that information in other ways, but analysts believe it's possible the record labels or interested parties such as the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) could subpoena the data to chase music pirates.

"I believe that Microsoft has very good privacy policies [for the service] but any time you have information gathered together it's going to become valuable," says Vonder Haar. "If I were an RIAA lawyer I would like to get my hands on that."

Still, both Haar and McNealy are impressed by the Info Center concept. "It's something that every [media] player should provide," McNealy says.