Microsoft has released new beta software for Windows Media Player (WMP) 10, and it's available as a technical beta. By technical beta, Microsoft means that it's an unsupported software release that the company wants to get feedback about. The software has known problems that Microsoft will resolve in a future release, but Microsoft provides no guarantee that you'll be able to simply upgrade this release to the final release version. To obtain support and provide feedback, use Microsoft's online support and feedback forum for the beta.

There aren't a lot of compelling reasons to rush right out and try out the WMP 10 beta, although it does contain many new features that are worth examining. WMP 10 provides a framework for some interesting content-purchasing applications--designed, one would think, to compete with the iTunes services. Synchronization with media devices is now integrated into WMP 10, but because few people are likely to be using multiple different devices, this integration doesn't seem to be much of an improvement over devices that worked with WMP 9. I currently use a Dell Digital Jukebox (DJ) 20, and when I tried out the WMP 10 beta I saw no real improvement in the way the DJ 20 handles files, although the DJ 20 is featured prominently in the WMP 10 promotional material. As with earlier versions of WMP, users who want to view DVDs or rip MP3 files will need add-on products to support such capabilities in WMP 10.

In my case, I've been looking for improved performance in scanning for music and manipulating large collections (more than 20,000 tracks) of media files. The WMP 10 beta seems to offer few improvements in these areas, although I don't expect such improvements to be in the product until WMP 10 is released (functionality first, then performance).

My impression of WMP 10 is that Microsoft wants it to be the central console for your digital media experience: recorded music, TV shows recorded by Windows Media Center Edition 2004, DVD playback, pictures from your digital camera--all to be found and managed from the WMP 10 console. Although the playback experience isn't bad, I still find managing a large amount of content through the WMP interface to be a less-than-ideal experience; it still takes a long time to load the library, for example, even with a gigabyte of RAM. For someone who doesn't have thousands of files of every type supported by WMP, it might not be a bad tool. However, given the amount of digital content even the average user is starting to acquire, it will be quite a while before any single tool can adequately serve the needs of most users