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Using Windows Media Player (part 1)

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Windows Media Player has been a part of Microsoft Windows for nearly two decades. Through the years, Microsoft has steadily improved its capabilities, polished its design, and tightened its links to other parts of Windows. All editions of Windows 7 include Windows Media Player 12.

You can use Windows Media Player to play sound and video files stored on a local disk (including removable media such as flash drives, CDs, and DVDs), or stream the output across a network (or over an internet connection) to and from other computers, servers, or devices. You can rip tracks from audio CDs (that is, copy them to your hard disk) in a broad range of quality levels, create custom CDs using a CD or DVD drive that has recording capabilities, and download songs to a portable audio player, as long as it isn't an iPod or a Zune. You can use the player as a jukebox to listen to all of your favorite songs, in custom sequences that you devise (called playlists) or in random order. If you have a DVD drive, you can use the Player to screen your favorite movies and concert videos on a desktop or portable PC.

Windows Media Player also serves as the engine for other media-related features in Windows 7. For example, when you use Windows Media Center to play music, view pictures, or watch a video, Windows Media Player is actually doing the work in the background.

The arrangement of the basic building blocks in Windows Media Player hasn't changed much over the past decade, although its visual design is greatly streamlined and much more sophisticated in Windows 7. For the most part, you'll switch between two primary views of Windows Media Player. The Player Library view, shown in Figure 1, is used to browse, search, and arrange your media library. It consists of five main elements, some of which might be hidden.

Figure 1. Five basic elements of the Windows Media Player interface.

  • Address bar Contains a breadcrumb trail that helps you find your current place in the library. The Back and Forward buttons at the left of the Player taskbar work just as they do in Internet Explorer. Below the address bar is a toolbar whose contents change depending on the current selection. At the right of the toolbar is a search box.

  • Navigation pane This customizable, resizable pane serves the same basic function as its counterpart in Windows Explorer. You can choose any major node in the media library, select removable media such as CDs and DVDs, work with portable devices, and view any libraries that are available over the network.

  • Details pane The contents of this pane change, depending on the type of content you've selected from the library and which view is applied. In Windows Media Player 12, the Now Playing option is no longer available for this pane.

  • List pane This resizable pane displays the contents of the current playlist when the Play tab is selected. The Burn and Sync tabs allow you to create or edit a list of tracks to be burned to a CD (or DVD) or transferred to a compatible portable device, respectively. An info box above the list shows album art for the current track. Click any tab to show or hide its associated list.

  • Playback controls Manage playback of audio and video files, using DVD-style controls to play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind files; this area also includes a variety of special-purpose buttons that control volume and the appearance of the Player. If a file is playing, details appear to the left of the controls. The button to the right of the playback controls allows you to quickly switch from Library view to Now Playing view.

Inside Out: For the list pane, wider is better

Making the List pane wider also makes it more informative. As you expand the pane's width, it displays additional fields. When playing music, for example, the default list shows the song title and playing time for each track on the list; for most tracks, all or part of the artist name is also visible (in gray). When you drag the left border of the pane to its maximum width, the graphical one-to-five-star ratings appears on the list. Because the rating field is "live," you can click to adjust each track's star rating as you listen to an album or a playlist.

The toolbar beneath the address bar offers access to Windows Media Player features and options specific to the part of the library you're currently working with. General options (including the ability to change the layout and choose which columns are visible) can be found on the Organize menu. The same options are also available via more conventional menus, which are normally hidden. To make these menu choices visible temporarily in the form of a cascading menu, tap the Alt key. To show or hide the menu bar with its traditional pull-down menus, press Ctrl+M or press Alt and click Show Menu Bar.

After you've begun playing an album or playlist, you can click the Switch To Now Playing button in the lower right corner of the Player Library view. That immediately changes the view to the minimal one shown here, with a 240-by-240 pixel album cover, basic playback controls, a display of the track/album name above the cover, and a Switch To Library button in the top right corner that takes you back to the full Player Library view.

The search box allows you to search the library for any item in the currently selected category. If you begin your search with a particular view already selected, the text you enter in the search box filters that view only. So if you select the Artist view under the Music heading in the navigation pane and type Dylan in the search box, you'll see all items where that name appears in the Artist field. If you start from the main heading for the Music library, however, the search results show matches for song titles and albums as well.

Inside Out: Find hidden information in the playback controls

The playback controls at the bottom of the Player window illustrate the universal advice for Windows tinkerers: when in doubt, click and right-click. If you follow that advice, you'll be amply rewarded. Clicking the icon in the lower left corner while a music track is playing, for instance, cycles through a tiny thumbnail of the album cover art, an icon that indicates whether the track is playing from a local file or streaming from a network server, and a miniature frequency spectrum. Hover the mouse pointer over this region to see the bit rate of the current track. Click the time indicator to cycle through different views of elapsed and remaining time. Right-click the Play/Pause button to choose slow, normal, and fast playback modes. If you're ripping a CD, a progress indicator to the right of the playback controls tells you how many tracks remain to be ripped; click the message to jump directly to the track list from the CD.

The keyboard shortcuts Ctrl+1 and Ctrl+3 also allow you to switch between Player Library and Now Playing views. Ctrl+2 takes you to the decidedly retro Skin view, a feature that never quite caught on; it continues to exist only for backward compatibility, and we don't cover it in this book.

1. Playing Music

When you play back a music file or an audio CD in Windows Media Player, the playback controls look and function like those on common consumer devices, such as CD and DVD players.

The oversized Play button becomes a Pause button (as shown here) while a track is playing. The Mute button is a toggle; click one time for silence, a second time for sound. The Next and Previous buttons move ahead and back one item within the current playlist. Click and hold the Next button to fast-forward through the current track. You can drag the Seek slider in the blue progress bar just above the playback controls to move to a different place within the item that's currently playing. For example, to start the current track over again, drag the Seek slider all the way to the left.

The Player plays the current playlist—which might be an album from your library, a CD, or a selection of tracks you've picked individually—in order, once, unless you turn on Shuffle or Repeat (or both):

  • If you turn on Shuffle by clicking the Shuffle button on the playback bar, by pressing Ctrl+H, or by choosing Play, Shuffle, the Player moves through the playlist in random order.

  • If you turn on Repeat by clicking the Repeat button on the playback bar, by pressing Ctrl+T, or by choosing Play, Repeat, the Player plays the current playlist continuously—that is, it repeats the playlist each time it finishes the final track.

Playing an audio CD in Windows Media Player is almost as easy as playing it on any conventional CD player: insert disc, close drive, enjoy music. The almost has to do with your CD (or DVD) drive's iAutoPlay settings. If you have set up your system so that the default Auto-Play action for audio CDs is Play Audio CD Using Windows Media Player, your disc starts playing within a few moments after you insert it (provided that the Player is not busy doing something else). If you haven't chosen a default AutoPlay action for audio CDs, Windows displays the AutoPlay dialog box. To set the AutoPlay default and begin playing the CD in one action, leave the Always Do This For Audio CDs check box selected and click Play Audio CD Using Windows Media Player.

2. Watching Videos and DVDs

Windows 7 Home Premium and higher editions contain everything you need to watch standard DVDs in Windows Media Player. For Starter and Home Basic editions, you need to add a small but crucial software decoder before DVDs will play back properly. (This same software is required to play back videos recorded in MPEG-2 format.)

After all the requisite hardware and software is in place, playing a DVD movie in Windows Media Player is as transparently simple as playing an audio CD. If Windows Media Player is the AutoPlay application for DVD movies, it will start automatically and begin playing your movie. If it isn't, start Windows Media Player yourself. Then click Library, click the icon for the DVD in the navigation pane, and click Play. You can also click the Videos library in the navigation pane and choose a file saved in your Videos library.

While your movie is playing in Windows Media Player, playback controls appear at the bottom of the Player, with title information and a Switch To Library button in a black bar across the top, as shown in Figure 2. Right-click anywhere in the Player window and use the shortcut menu to show or hide the DVD title and chapter list. This list provides one means of navigation within the movie—you can jump to a particular chapter by double-clicking it on the Play tab of the list pane. You can also get to the movie's own menu screens by clicking the DVD button (to the left of the playback controls on the Navigation bar), or by clicking the arrow to the right of the DVD button and choosing Root Menu or Title Menu.

Use the playback controls to play or pause your movie, to fast-forward or rewind, or to adjust the volume. To jump to the DVD menu (which typically includes options for choosing the language of the soundtrack, adjusting audio settings, and showing subtitles), click the DVD icon at the bottom of the Now Playing screen, to the left of the playback controls, or choose View, DVD Features. (Remember, the traditional menus are normally hidden; to make them visible tap the Alt key.) You can also adjust the soundtrack and subtitles from the Play menu, by choosing Audio And Language Tracks or Lyrics, Captions, And Subtitles.

Figure 2. DVD playback and navigation controls are readily accessible within the Player window, but they distract from the playback experience.

To fully appreciate the DVD playback experience, you probably don't want to see any part of the Player except the portion that shows the movie itself. Click the View Full Screen button to switch from the Player window to a full-screen display. You can also toggle between these two views by double-clicking the movie or by pressing Alt+Enter.

In full-screen mode, the playback controls along the bottom of your screen normally fade from view after a few seconds and reappear whenever you move the mouse. The controls remain visible when you cause them to reappear while playback is paused. To switch back to a window, double-click the playback window or press Alt+Enter again.

3. Customizing the Navigation Pane

If you previously used Windows Media Player 11 in Windows XP or Windows Vista, you'll find the navigation pane in Windows Media Player 12 more consistent in its organization and certainly easier to use. The top of the list contains your existing playlists, followed by media libraries, arranged by category. Any currently connected portable devices appear at the bottom of the navigation pane. Shared libraries from other PCs or devices appear in a separate group below your local libraries, with the list of available online stores at the bottom of the pane.

If you find this lengthy list overly cluttered (or, conversely, if you find that one or more of your favorite options are missing), you can customize it. To see all available options for changing which items are visible here, click Organize and then click Customize Navigation Pane. This opens the dialog box shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Use this dialog box to change which libraries and views are visible in the navigation pane.

Each bold-faced entry in the list represents a top-level node in the navigation pane. Underneath each heading is a list of available views. By default, every top-level node is visible, but most views are hidden—only three views under the Music heading are shown by default. If you don't want to see a particular node (Other Media or Pictures, for example), clear the check box to its left. If you want to see a particular view for a given heading, including the ability to browse your Music library by folder, select the box for that view.

To remove all shared network libraries from the navigation pane, right-click the Other Libraries heading and choose Hide Other Libraries. To hide the entry for an individual user's library, right-click its name beneath the Other Libraries heading and choose Remove From List. To restore the Other Libraries hierarchy, open the Customize Navigation Pane dialog box, choose Other Libraries from the drop-down list at the top of the dialog box, and click Show Other Libraries.

The View Options menu above the details pane, to the left of the search box, allows you to customize the display of information in a given view, in much the same way that Windows Explorer works with files. In the default views of the Music library, you can switch between Icon, Tile, and Details arrangements (or Expanded Tiles if you select the main Music heading). The Details option provides a plain list of albums, artists, or genres, with no album art or thumbnails. You can also customize the list of columns visible in the details pane: right-click the visible column headings and then click Choose Columns, or click Organize, Layout, and then click Choose Columns. As Figure 4 shows, you can use this option to display a Yes/No field in the Protected column (identifying tracks that are copy-protected with Windows Media DRM) and show the File Path. Clicking a column heading to sort on one of these fields allows you to quickly locate groups of media files that meet a common criterion.

Figure 4. Use these check boxes to show or hide columns in Details view.

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