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Whether you call them media players, jukeboxes, mp3 apps, music managers, or whatever, we all need a proggy to listen to our digital music. For the sake of this article, I’m only going to talk about the players that you can get for free and I’m not going to go into the p2p apps.

So with that, let’s dive right in. For my money, there are only 3 options: Winamp, iTunes or Windows Media Players, but I will also talk a little about RealPlayer 10. All these applications share basic features: playing various media files, cataloging digital media, etc. We will focus on the things about them that are different.

In the past, we had Winamp and it was good. Unfortunately, the original Nullsoft team has moved on and instead of the hacker reputation that Winamp used to have when Justin Frankel and everyone were at work, it is now just another corporate media player with a hazy future.

Winamp lost a lot of momentum it had when it released a (very) bad Winamp3, but with the release of Winamp5 they seem to be up and running again, it’s usable, responsive, and has a lot of plugins and skins built for it. .

The main problem is that, for all its features, it is not much better, if any, than the two dominant media players that are tied to the successful iTunes and WMP music stores. Also, you have to pay $ 14.95 to get the pro version which adds features that iTunes and WMP include for free. One of the benefits of using Winamp is the ability to tune in to all the great Shoutcast radio stations.

iTunes is, of course, the front-end of the digital jukebox for the iPod and the iTunes music store for the Apple computer. The iTunes music store was the first to receive the correct payment for digital music downloads and it still has the largest legal downloadable catalog on the net, giving the iTunes jukebox a huge advantage.

If you’re using a Mac, then it’s a no-brainer – you should be using iTunes as your media player, but even if you’re using Windows, iTunes offers an attractive alternative. The iTunes store is superior (IMHO) to Windows Media-based stores like Napster and with Apple’s legendary ease of use in full effect, iTunes makes a great Windows-based Jukebox. It should be noted the Apple Lossless codec that allows you to copy CDs to the ACC format that sound as good as the CD itself to our ears. On the downside, the iTunes jukebox feels heavy on moderately powered PCs compared to Winamp or WMP. It runs a bit slower, seems to use more resources, etc.

Lastly (of yes, except for RealPlayer …) Windows Media Player 10 is one of Microsoft’s best pieces of software and it’s way better than the latest generation of MS media players. The jukebox itself is packed with features like its ability to monitor changes to your digital media files and update itself, simple syncing and recording, ratings, and the auto-tag features are very nice.

One of the changes in V.10 is the ability to copy files if formatted and with (or without) the DRM of your choice. You also have the ability to listen to internet radio broadcasts with WMP, and while they tend to be more corporate than trendy shoutcast radio, you can still find some great music. WMP also features lossless CD copy, but I was less impressed with the results than with Apples Lossless.

And finally there is RealPlayer. The free RealPlayer 10 is better than the previous version, although that doesn’t say much IMHO. It still takes control of your file formats by default, tries to force it to sign up, runs in the background (calling home?) Unless you can find the settings to tell you not to, all the trouble you’ve always had. Dyed. I tell her to stay as far away from Real as possible, even if she can use “Harmony” to use her iPod with the Real store. While I may be being overly critical of Real’s jukebox, I think there are other alternatives that are less intrusive and have better feature sets.

All things considered, I think iTunes or WMP is a solid option and by far the best media players available. Winamp is fine too as long as you don’t need to rip music or burn it to CD, but it’s worth downloading and installing just to listen to Shoutcast stations every now and then. Personally, I use WMP at work and iTunes at home, so take it for what it’s worth. I think I like WMP a bit more, but not so much that I take the time to change iTunes settings at home.

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