Microsoft Lets the Digital Media Play

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Microsoft is making a major push into the entertainment world with the launch this week of its Portable Media Center platform. The software, which will be available first on a device from Creative, allows you to play audio and video, and to view still images on a handheld device. Also this week, Microsoft is launching a beta version of its long-awaited MSN Music store--a rival to Apple's popular ITunes--as well as version 10 of its Windows Media Player software.

Portable Media Center OS user interface
Portable Media Center OS user interface
The Portable Media Center platform resembles Microsoft's Windows Media Center OS for PCs, with a very similar user interface, but it's designed to be used with a small-screen device. Portable Media Center devices, which will be designed and manufactured by Microsoft's hardware partners, have hard drives for storing and playing back media files.

"This is an entirely new category of devices," says James Bernard, lead product manager with Microsoft's Portable Media Centers group. "They are not meant to replace audio players. There will always be people with audio players."

All of the devices will have screens that measure at least 3.5 inches diagonally, Microsoft says. In addition, devices that conform to the Microsoft spec must have a hard drive with a capacity of 20GB to 40GB, as well as a clean, simple design. They must also offer sufficient battery life to play two full-length feature films back to back, Microsoft says.

Creative's Zen Portable Media Center will be the first such device available for purchase. (For a brief review of the device, see PC World's staff blog.)

Creative Zen Portable Media Center
Creative Zen Portable Media Center
The $499 Zen, equipped with a 20GB hard drive, will be available on Thursday in Best Buy stores nationwide. Amazon has been accepting pre-orders for the Zen for several weeks. Samsung and IRiver will manufacture competing Portable Media Centers that will be available later this fall. Samsung's YH-999 will be available with a 20GB hard drive for $499, and IRiver will offer 20GB and 40GB versions, for $499 and $549 respectively. All of the devices will be available in time for Christmas, Bernard says.

Portable Media Centers connect to your PC via USB 2.0, and work with any Windows XP or Media Center PC. You can transfer any audio, video, or still image stored on your hard drive to the portable device (after converting the file to a supported format); and according to Bernard, you can transfer a 2-hour movie in less than 3 minutes. If you have a Media Center PC or an XP PC with a TV tuner card, you can record any television program you choose and transfer it to the device for viewing when you're away from home.

Portable Media Centers also connect to a TV via the composite jack. You can't record content directly to one of these devices, but you can use the TV to view content stored on the Portable Media Center. For example, you can display a slide show of your digital images, or you can hook the device up to the TV in your hotel room to watch a movie you transported from home.

Microsoft has established partnerships with CinemaNow and to provide content for Portable Media Center devices. CinemaNow will offer 200 movies, and will provide downloadable baseball highlights and features for viewing on the devices. Both services are fee-based.

Portable Media Centers are likely to appeal to frequent travelers and commuters, according to Microsoft. "This is about getting your entertainment off the Internet, and taking it with you wherever you go," Bernard says.

But the devices have some limitations. "I'm not going to strap a Portable Media Center on my arm to go jogging, but I am going to use it while I'm going home on the train," Bernard says.

Let the MSN Music Play

MSN Music Home Page
MSN Music Home Page
Users looking for audio content to play on a Portable Media Center have a new option in Microsoft's MSN Music store. A beta version of the music service is available to try now.

Because the service is Web-based, there is no need to download anything in order to access content or buy tracks. Alternatively, you can use Windows Media Player 10 to access the service. (Windows Media Player versions 7.1 and higher will play back tunes downloaded from MSN Music.)

At launch, the service holds more than 500,000 tracks, which you can download directly to your PC. By the fall, the service will have at least 1 million tracks available for download, says Rob Bennett, senior director of MSN Entertainment.

The beta service's appearance was simple, with minimal graphics and an emphasis on search and browse options. "We are making it extremely easy for people to sign up with MSN Music and get started discovering, downloading, and listening to the music they love," Bennett says.

Each song includes a short free preview and is encoded using the Windows Media Audio (WMA) codec up to 256 bits. According to Bennett, WMA supports higher-quality audio than does Apple's ITunes service, which encodes using the AAC codec at 128 bits.

MSN Music requires no subscription fee or software purchase. All you need is a PC running an Internet Explorer 5.0 browser or better on at least the Windows 98 SE operating system. Tracks cost $1 each on average, and some entire albums are available for $10--about the same pricing structure as other digital music services use. You can burn tracks to disc and transfer them to digital audio players.

Macintosh and IPod users won't be able to use the service, however. MSN Music only works on the Windows operating system, and music downloaded from MSN Music won't play back on IPods without performing an undocumented workaround.

Apple's ITunes service uses only the AAC codec and converts music saved in Windows Media Player (unprotected WMA files) to AAC format when you transfer digital music files to the IPod player. Because the WMA files downloaded from MSN Music have digital rights management (DRM) associated with them, they can't be converted directly to AAC.

The undocumented workaround involves burning MSN Music files to a CD disc, which strips music tracks of their DRM limitations. You can then rip the tracks from the CD and transfer them to an IPod.

Restrictions on use of songs downloaded from MSN Music are comparable to those associated with ITunes downloads. You can store the music on only five PCs at a time, and you can burn a playlist a maximum of seven times, after which you must alter the playlist before burning it to CD again. The purpose of this limitation is to prevent mass duplication.

MSN's monthly Radio Plus subscription service ($29.99 per year or $4.99 per month) has been updated to offer commercial-free versions of terrestrial radio stations. Using publicly available FM radio playlist information, MSN will create commercial-free versions of thousands of popular radio stations, Bennett says.

Other enhancements include music reviews, additional music-related editorial content, and RSS feeds of top albums and downloads.

Windows Media Player Turns 10

The MSN Music Store and many of its rivals will be accessible directly from the newly launched Windows Media Player 10.

Windows Media Player 10 certainly won't dominate the digital world. But Microsoft has incorporated enough new, user-friendly features to give competing music players a run for the money.

The free media player completely overhauls version 9, offering a simple, clutter-free interface that reflects the influence of massive consumer and focus-group testing.

The new player's features are quickly accessible from easy-to-read toolbar drop-down menus. The menus are turned off by default at first, resulting in a streamlined look. Users can turn the menus on with a right mouse click.

Organizing user libraries of purchased music and video, CD-ripped music, and recorded TV is much like using Windows Explorer, but even easier. Users can search by title, artist, album, or their own star rating. Playlists can be created quickly by dragging and dropping titles into playlists that appear as folders.

Users can copy CDs into WMA or MP3 formats and then drag and drop them into a portable device or burn them to a CD. WMP 10 recognizes a wide array of portable devices (it integrates the necessary drivers for many of them) and promises seamless syncing.

The player recognizes and works with numerous online music and video stores, including Napster and MSN Music. Downloads from these and other stores are automatically stored and organized in the user's library.

The software incorporates Microsoft's new Windows Digital Rights Management, also known as Janus. Previously, if you belonged to a subscription-based music service, you could access your music collection only while at your PC, says Erin Cullen, lead product manager with Microsoft's DMD division. With Janus, you'll be able to transfer that content to your Portable Media Center or to another handheld device such as your MP3 player. When your subscription expires, the DRM technology will automatically make the content unavailable.

Napster will be the first music service to use Janus, which will roll out first in Portable Media Center devices, Cullen says. But expect to see the DRM scheme extended to existing handhelds as well as to upcoming devices, she adds.

Under WMP 10, synchronizing with portable devices and mass storage devices such as USB memory keys is as seamless as moving a file from one place to another. The player provides high-quality sound and video, too: It can support video resolutions as high as 1920 by 1080. On the audio side, WMP 10 supports 7.1-channel sound.

Microsoft promises more digital entertainment-related announcements in coming months.

Liane Cassavoy, Michael Lasky, and Tom Spring contributed to this report.

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