Microsoft has just made a public beta of Windows Media Player 11 for XP available today. The initial reviews are highly positive. Here's one from PCMag, for example - "it's a lot more fun to use than any other media player, and just as powerful," they say. And having used the app in the latest Vista betas, I have to agree - this is one big step up from current generation media players, including WMP10 and iTunes. You have to try it!

One of the most strikingly noticeable changes in WMP11 is the UI overhaul. Gone are the days of the boring, unending flat list of songs. Instead, you get a much richer media library that takes advantage of album art to make navigation easier. The default library view, for example, groups tracks together by album and displays album art for each one, clearly separating them out. Other views display album "stacks" that are not just visually appealing, but are also a much more natural way of grouping similar items together. It's very cool. You have to play with it to see what I mean.

WMP11 Stacks

(Image courtesy of Microsoft)

The synchronization engine has also undergone some big changes, and you now get the ability to "reverse sync" as well, which means you can pull songs off your portable media device and into your library. I'm not sure if this is allowed for DRM-protected files, but I imagine those would be restricted. Other than that, there are lots of other little changes that just make the whole experience a whole lot better.

WMP 11 also includes the new URGE music store, which is the result of a partnership between MTV and Microsoft. CNET has a glowing review and calls it "a fantastic service that we recommend trying, even for just the 14-day free trial." You can use URGE as either a subscription service like Napster or Yahoo Music Unlimited, or as an a la carte music store like iTMS and MSN Music. But one thing that really stands out is the incredible level of integration that URGE has with WMP11 - you can search through the entire store...however many millions of songs that is...using the same search box that you use to search through your local library. It's instantaneous and it does auto-completion.

Everytime I used my laptop or booted back into the XP partition on my desktop, I missed having WMP11. Not anymore!