The techno elves up in Seattle have certainly been busy packing features into Microsoft's digital media suite. The snappily titled Windows Media 9 Series comprises not just a new player and encoder, but enhanced codecs, server and SDK (software development kit) too. Put it all together and you have what Microsoft calls "the most complete platform available for the creation, distribution and playback of digital media".

Microsoft predicts that by the end of the decade, 90 percent of the audio and video we deal with will be digital — and it no doubt wants the majority compressed with its codecs, served by its servers and played through its player.

In addition to increasing the compression rate of files, the new codecs offer support for surround sound and lossless compression. The Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 Professional codec supports up to six channels — making it suitable for 5.1 surround sound — with 24bit 96KHz sampling.

WMA 9 lossless allows you to compress files, while retaining all the audio information — guaranteeing faithful reproduction when compared to lossy compression standards like MP3 and normal WMA. Compression rates aren’t as great, but the claimed 2:1 to 3:1 compression improves on the 10MB a minute necessary for raw audio.

Stream your content with Windows Media 9 Player from a server running Windows Media Services 9 and you can take advantage of Fast Streaming. No more waiting while the system buffers a file — simply click it and it plays.

Media management in the Player itself has also received an overhaul. With people now storing thousands, rather than hundreds, of music files on their PCs, keeping tabs on what's what and where is no easy task. The new system gives you a hierarchical view of all your music and the rating system means you can indicate which tracks are your favourites in your collection.

If the thought of manually sifting through all your files and assigning them a value from one to five is off putting, then you can let the software do it automatically based on how often you listen to certain tracks. The facility for automatic playlists is also handy — particularly the 'Music I like but haven't listened to recently'.

These new auto playlists are spookily reminiscent of the latest updates made to Apple's iTunes audio player, which can also compile lists of songs based on how often you listen to them. Another case of Gates playing catch up to Jobs perchance?

While the tweaks and additions here and there are impressive the system is at its peak when working as a whole, and the best bit is it's all still free. If you want to take a look at what it has to offer, you can download the beta here.