Since networking and multimedia are so closely linked these days it makes sense to look at them together. Microsoft seems to have finally cracked easy home networking, too, in the shape of HomeGroups. When you set up a HomeGroup all you need do is stipulate what you'd like to share, as well as if you'd like to allow streaming. You're then given a password you can input into other PCs to allow them to connect to the network. That's it! It takes all the pain and randomness out of home networking; the only caveat being it's not backward compatible with older Windows PCs in your network (this being a major caveat as setting up a conventional home network is still a real pain - Ed.).
Windows Media Player, now in its twelfth edition, sees quite a few new networking related features, too. 'Play To' allows you to push media playback to connected devices (e.g. an Xbox 360) or a PC, while you can now stream your media library over the Internet by pairing your Windows 7 user account to your Windows Live ID. This latter feature has garnered plenty of press, but given it requires your home PC to be powered-up, one has to wonder how useful it'll be in a world dominated by Spotify, Napster and other streaming services. Moreover, if you really need such functionality, a low power NAS box is a far more sensible option.
On a more superficial level WMP12 sees another, relatively minor, UI refresh. Again everything is just a bit cleaner and less cluttered. The 'Rip', 'Burn' and 'Sync' tabs have been shifted to the list pane, making them easier to use in conjunction with the library. Format support has also been improved, now including DivX (Xvid), AVCHD and H.264 video formats. And, though FLAC, OGG and wrappers like MKV aren't natively supported, there are already workarounds available to enable all of these in WMP itself. On a more general note, WMP12 - native format support aside - has become an outstanding media player. It's not perfect by any means, but its integration with the rest of the OS and the new libraries system (more on which in a moment) means it's very quick and intuitive to use. Quite why anyone would voluntarily use iTunes instead of it is beyond us.
Media Center, meanwhile, has seen a smattering of interface improvements, including the addition of Internet Video support (e.g. Sky Player) and a 'turbo scroll' feature to make navigating very large libraries easier. Of greater significance, though, is how you can access more functions without entering WMC itself. This includes the new Media Center gadget, one of the few useful gadgets available, as well as Jump List support.
What's really intriguing, however, is the previously alluded to libraries system. Superficially it's just as before, folders being divided by 'Documents', 'Music', 'Videos' and 'Pictures', but these are no longer function like regular folders. You can now add folders from other locations, such as separate partitions, hard drives and even external storage, to the libraries to be listed and indexed together.
This helps organise collections very quickly and saves constantly pointing programs to different folders (other than the default ones), but Microsoft has missed a huge trick by not supporting network attached drives! This is because libraries have to be indexed (i.e. searchable) and network drives can't be indexed. You're left with two options: synchronise the network drive locally (defeating the point of a NAS) or use an already available workaround. We haven't tried the latter yet, though we've heard it can cause issues when backing up, but in any case Microsoft ought to have added this ability in the first place.