Microsoft is boosting Windows desktop multimedia with the beta release of Windows Media Player 7. More than just a streaming media tool, this update combines a jukebox, radio, and player for music and video. Microsoft is posting a technology preview of the player for download starting Monday, but suggests putting this beta on a nonproduction system until the second quarter release. It will also bundle Windows Media Player 7 with Windows Millennium Edition, expected to ship in June. Macintosh and Unix versions are in development. Flashier but easier The update offers a less boxy interface with easy-to-find playback controls and a choice of ‘skins’ to change its look. It also adds full and compact modes, already offered by RealJukebox from rival RealNetworks, more library options, and language support. "We wanted to make it integrated - one place to find, manage, and play content - and we wanted to make it simple," says Brooks Cutter, lead program manager in Microsoft's Digital Media Division. But while the large Play button is hard to miss, finding the Record control is tricky. You have to select the track and hit a small Copy button. Similar obscurities exist for copying music to portable players. "We've added more personality with the skins," says Sean Alexander, technical product manager for Windows Media Technologies. The skins, along with visualization graphics that move with the music, give the player a dynamic feel. But looks aren't everything; the skins hide many of the player's controls. The skins give you choices of the player's appearance, but they lack the pizzazz of some competing skins, says Stacey Quandt, a Giga Information Group analyst. RealJukebox has a wider selection of skins with more intuitive controls, she adds. In the full mode, you can see your music library and buttons to play your CDs, browse the radio tuner, or record on a portable device. You can view album art and store videos in the library with your music. A direct link to the Windows Media guide points you to Windows Media content on the Web. The Windows Media Player also uses the guide to identify songs, with to database information from American Music Guide, Alexander says. "AMG is providing full album details, cover art and discography." Player or platform? The Windows Media Player 7 supports MP3 files, but defaults to Windows Media Audio. It records CDs as .wma files, at bit-rate conversions ranging from 64 kilobits per second to 160 kbps. RealJukebox records MP3s at 96 kbps to 128 kbps, while MusicMatch goes as high as 320 kbps. Windows Media Player 7 can transfer music to the Diamond Rio, RCA Lyra, and Creative Nomad II, as well as Windows CE devices and the upcoming Pocket PC. Sony devices will also soon support WMA, but many players do not, so you may have to record in MP3. Microsoft intends Windows Media to be a platform, not just a player, Alexander says. The WMA format is a key element. "MP3 is 12-year-old compression technology that has a lot of piracy," Cutter says. "Windows Media Audio files are half the size and have built-in security." With its digital rights management and sound quality better than or comparable to MP3, the WMA format could become a de facto standard, analyst Quandt says. Even competitor RealNetworks recently licensed it. Soon, Windows Media Player will accompany the operating system and Pocket PCs; will you need anything else? You'll still need a RealPlayer or QuickTime player for some Web files, but you might not bother to download a jukebox. "Microsoft's offering will force competitors to provide more services," Quandt says.