Because of the current proliferation of free and nearly free media players, choosing the one that's right for you is getting harder. In the April 10, 2002, issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, I discussed some obvious choices in media players; based on several reader responses, I decided to investigate alternatives. I immediately abandoned the popular but aging Nullsoft Winamp player because it lacks all-in-one tools such as a media library, which I consider crucial. Winamp also requires you to interact with the file system, which I believe to be needlessly complex for most users.

A more traditional player, however, is MUSICMATCH Jukebox, which is available in free and paid versions. The free version-Jukebox Basic-lets you play, rip (i.e, record), and burn (i.e., create your own CD) MP3s and audio CDs, and works with a selection of portable audio devices.

The paid version-Jukebox Plus-adds numerous features, including drag-and-drop burn support, faster CD-burning capabilities, automatic MP3 tagging, CD-label creation, and a volume leveler for normalizing volume among songs. This version costs about $20 for the standalone player, or $40 for a lifetime of free upgrades, which seems like a decent price. I evaluated MUSICMATCH Jukebox 7.1 Plus for this review.

The Jukebox UI is like Winamp on steroids. In addition to the standard small window, the Jukebox comes up with a docked (i.e., visually attached to the main window) playlist window, which displays the currently available musical selections. Jukebox offers numerous dockable windows-all of which you can detach if you want to-for tasks such as viewing your complete music library, finding Internet radio stations, and viewing a Web-based music guide. To select music to play, simply load the music library (i.e., My Library) and drag the songs, albums, or artists you want into the Playlist window. From the Playlist window, you can manage the current playlist, clear it out, burn a CD, and perform playback tasks such as making the playback shuffle or repeat.

For general playback, Jukebox works much like Winamp, although it's not always as successful. For example, you can view the player in a miniature version that can tuck into a corner of your desktop, a la Winamp, and that feature works well enough. But Jukebox's UI skinning facilities, which change the appearance of the UI, are not nearly as nice as Winamp's, and Jukebox has far fewer skins available, most of which are quite basic.

I also get mixed results when I use Jukebox to import music that's already on my hard disk. Most previously ripped music imported well, but the player cut off many song, group, and album names, so the last letter was missing (e.g., "Offsprin" instead of "Offspring"). Jukebox, of course, beats Winamp in several areas because of Jukebox's all-in-one design, which lets you manage your music from within the player instead of using the file system.

Overall, Jukebox is quite capable. Although it doesn't take over the screen by default, as does Windows Media Player (WMP) and RealNetworks' RealOne, it does offer all the features you would expect from an all-in-one player. And Jukebox has a minimal memory footprint, which some users might want. It's definitely worth considering, especially if you're interested in a full-featured player that doesn't dominate your system.