Media PlaybackFor version 12, Windows Media Player has had a facelift, replacing the old tab-heavy interface with one more focused on switching easily from one form of media to another - music, video, pictures and recorded TV are no longer as segregated - and on achieving common tasks, such as burning playlists to disc to synchronising with a PMP. Along the way, it incorporates two new features that make streaming media inside and outside the home that little bit easier.
If you have an Xbox 360 console, a networked media player or some other media streaming device hooked up to your network, you can now right-click on any item in your library and select Play To from the context-sensitive menu. This trick also works with networked PCs, though you'll need to enable the option on the system handling playback first (select Stream > Allow Remote Control of My Player).
Better still, you can now allow access to the media stored on your home PC over the Web, providing you with a path to your music, pictures and video files from a remote work system or laptop. The only catches are that a) you have to link your Windows 7 user account to an online ID, which at the moment means a Windows Live ID and b) your PC cannot be set to 'sleep' while this Internet access is enabled.
Video file format support is improved, with native playback of DivX, xVID, AVCHD and H.264 files, not to mention Apple's MOV (though many recent files still don't play back reliably). Sadly, this hasn't been backed up by enhanced support for audio files, with no FLAC or OGG VORBIS, for example.
One new feature which will make a difference to those of us with media spread across different hard disks - or even different computers - is the concept of libraries. Libraries appear to be folders, mimicking the approach of the old Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos folders from Vista. In fact libraries are able to aggregate content from across a range of folders, including folders held on another internal or external hard disk, or folders held on another Windows system connected to your home network.
Once set up, you no longer need to check or synchronise multiple folders to access all this content - libraries do all the hard work for you. Unfortunately, while this sounds like a boon to those maintaining a central media library on a NAS device, there's no immediate way of getting libraries to work with a NAS without using workarounds (Google Windows 7 Libraries and NAS for details).
Windows Media Centre has not been left untouched, either. Highlights include larger video thumbnails, a new 'Details' view exposing common tasks or providing album details in specific library views, and a new 'Turbo Scroll' feature that makes it easy for users with large music or photo libraries to scroll through them at lightning speed without losing their place.