Two features that Microsoft chose not to include in Windows XP are ripping CDs and DVD playback—features that are near and dear to the home user's heart. Contrary to early reports that Windows Media Player (WMP) 8 wouldn't support MP3s, the product contains full MP3 playback support. The only format that WMP 8 can rip music to is Microsoft's Windows Media Audio. XP contains no native support for DVD, in any form.

Think what you will about Microsoft's reasons for these decisions, but the bottom line is that the WMP 8 architecture supports the concept of third-party plug-ins to add capabilities for the player. Three vendors already have committed to supporting plug-ins for MP3 and DVD. Keep in mind that if you've already installed a DVD application, XP can use that application to play back DVDs, and you don't need to add a plug-in to WMP 8 (The same isn't true if you have an existing audio application that rips MP3 files; to use WMP 8 to rip audio files, you still need to add a plug-in).

The people who most likely will need to buy DVD plug-ins are technical hobbyists such as myself because we search for the best prices on the best equipment when we build our systems, which often means buying a bare drive with no software. Most retail DVD-drive packages include at least a basic DVD player, which is all you need for DVD playback in WMP 8.

My company recently authorized the purchase of a new notebook for me, and I selected an IBM ThinkPad T22, which is on the official "Ready for Windows XP" list. The ThinkPad arrived about the same time I got the XP release to manufacturing (RTM) code from Microsoft, so after configuring the notebook to use on our corporate network, I upgraded the machine to XP. The notebook came with a DVD drive, and IBM ships the Mediamatics DVD player, which is an OEM-only product (you can't buy it retail) from National Semiconductor. The first time I tried to play a DVD under XP, Mediamatics informed me that I needed a different version of the DVD software, which I downloaded from its Web site.

If you bought an XP system without a DVD drive directly from a vendor who shipped the system before the official October 25 release date, or you purchased a new system with an earlier version of Windows and a guaranteed upgrade to XP and later decided to add a DVD player, you might have trouble finding a DVD plug-in for your system. Officially, the plug-ins should be available by October 25, although some of the vendor Web sites just state that the devices will be available in October. That being said, some sites currently have the DVD encoders available, even though the button in WMP 8 has no direct link to the sites.

At press time, three vendors are offering DVD or MP3 plug-ins for WMP 8: CyberLink, best known for its PowerDVD player, is offering both a DVD player and an MP3 encoder; InterVideo, which makes WinDVD, also is offering both DVD and MP3 plug-ins; and Ravisent Technologies, which will ship its MP3 plug-in and its CineMaster DVD software. Pricing isn't available yet from all the vendors, but the Cyberlink price of less than $20 for both plug-ins should be representative—a pretty good value because DVD player software often sells for $40 to $80.

Ravisent Technologies