Microsoft Windows Media Player 10 & the Handheld PC

Originally when some bright spark put the idea of the Handheld PC and music together, Microsoft outing into the Digital future was nothing more than a music player and a little known codec called NetShow. Do you remember Windows Media Player 6? Chances are if you've ever used an older version of Windows you do. All you had to do was double click a music file and it'd play the song. It was that simple because that was all it did.

How times have changed.
With the release of Media Player 7 things started getting a little more complicated. The new player had built in support for the new breed of Media enabled devices that Microsoft were churning out. As well as music management and even the first real attempt at Digital Rights Management (DRM) to copy protect digital content.

In 2001 Microsoft released Windows Media Player 8, exclusively for the new Windows XP. This unfortunately had one key drawback. It removed support for what is know as a Legacy Device. A legacy device in IT is just something that is considered antiquated by overpaid IT consultants. Alas Windows CE based Handheld PC's, with their serial connections and older Windows Media Player 1.2 for H/PC were considered antiquated. As a result Windows XP's new media player and the H/PC could not coexist. This was again reinforced with the 2003 release of Windows Media Player 9 for Windows.

It's now 2004, and Microsoft are currently in the process of developing Windows Media Player 10. A technical preview release has been made available via the Windows Media home page on microsoft.com. So where does the Handheld PC stand with this new release?

Welcome to Windows Media 10. Where X certainly marks the spot

The technical preview is now available for any Windows XP user to download and install for free. Before you all run off to download it, remember that this is still a beta application. In testing for this article I have had a lot of problems with it, so would advice that most readers wait the extra couple of months until it formally arrives. If that hasn't put you off. In true Microsoft fashion, WMX doesn't have an uninstall. You have been warned.

Aesthetically the new player takes some getting used to. I still prefer the cumulative looks of Media 9, although there are features about the interface that are nicely designed. Something Microsoft are very good at. If it tickles your fancy, we have a Skin for the H/PC media player of the same.

But what of it's ability to talk to the Handheld PC?
I'm pleased to say yes it can, and in this Technical Preview at least it can even do so over the legacy serial cable connection running at 115 kbps. All on the same connection as Microsoft ActiveSync.

Windows Media Player Technical Preview is free to download. However is currently only available for Windows XP. System Restore profiles are required to remove the program, which may interfere with other applications on your system.
The new Portable Media Manager is housed in the Sync area. Renamed as part of the interface cleanup exercise undertaken in WMX to try and simplify things a little.

Of note in this release is Microsoft's attempt to implement ActiveSync like functionality - called Auto Sync - into the Portable Device engine of Media Player. The idea being that whether you connect a PDA, MP3 Player, Web Pad and so on. Synchronisation can automatically occur between your host music library and the 'snippet' of that collection stored on your Portable Device.
Unfortunately this is a step too far for the Handheld PC. Auto Sync is most definitely not supported against Media Player 1.2 for the Handheld PC. You can still manually synchronise media up to the H/PC.

'Snippets' are defined using Windows Media Playlists or via collective groupings in ID3 tags (such as by Artist, Album, Genre and so on).

Sync houses the main interface for moving media back and fourth between Host and Device

The interface looks simple enough. However unfortunately it's not drag and drop. You have to get the tracks You want to copy over to the device in the list on the left hand side. Order them and then press the start Sync button. Sounds simple enough?
Wrong. I couldn't imagine the process being any more unintuitive, especially if you're not used to using Windows Media Playlists.

With nearly 8GB of music, making a custom track selection for upload is easier said than done

You can't just place a tick next to a track or artist. You have to cumbersomely move things around between the Windows in the tiny interface above. The saving grace is that You can go into the main media library and "highlight, right click, add to, sync" the tracks that You want. Which for me, who is used and always will be used to the Windows Media 6 way of doing things. Is just mind boggling.
You can drag tracks from Windows Explorer directly into the left hand sync Windows. Media Player automatically creates a new playlist for it. The down side is that in this Technical preview at least. It only works once. Once you've clicked the "Start Sync" button once. If You want to drag drop tracks into the list. You have to exit media player completely and come back in.

When You Press the "Start Sync" button. The first step is for each media file to be converted. Naturally as this is Microsoft's own player. They are converted into Windows Media Audio, in the case of the Technical Preview WMA version 9. After conversion they are automatically uploaded to the Portable Device. If You have a library of MP3 files this can be something of a bind, however the space saving when converting down into WMA is well worth the wait.
In my example. The track 'Everlasting Dream' weighing in at a 2.14MB 192 kbps MP3 is converted down into 750KB 64 kbps WMA. Technophiles will be happy to hear that the conversion is seamless and the reduction of the bit rate has no bearing on playback on the Jornada 720's sound system. Internal Speaker, head phones or in the car by ways of an adapter.
For any Technophobes, take that as a good thing.

An unknown error, there's a surprise... and hold on... where's it put the WMA

The error message displayed above seems to be perpetual. It is an unknown error within the DRM module. My believe is that the Sync manager is attempting to copy protect the music file. However it can't get the necessary information from the old Media Player on the H/PC. Media player also thinks that the error message is a music file, and if You double click it, locks up the playlist nicely.

The other problem that occurs on the sync is that no matter where You click. It always places the music files on the root of 'My Handheld PC'. Hopefully this will be fixed by the release, even if the DRM error isn't.
You may also notice the absence of any Storage Card folders. There is one in the Jornada. However interestingly enough Media Player treats it as a separate device altogether.

The devices properties screen. Note that the Sync settings are disabled

You can also create folders as well as delete folders and files from the device in the Media Player Sync interface. Provided that Media Player on the H/PC is closed down.

... and there it is on the Handheld PC. Playing a Windows Media 10 generated WMA

While going into more detail on the over all player is beyond the scope of this article Windows Media Player 10 looks like it will be a good overall release. The fact that in this Technical Preview it can talk not only to USB equipped H/PC's but Serial devices as well is a welcome relief, and one I hope will remain. I can't help but think it would be better if Microsoft hadn't removed the full support when they released Windows Media Player 8.
The best all round solution to the media problem would of course be a new Media Player release for the Handheld PC. At least for HPC2000. However with Microsoft Mobile's strategy now being based around CE 4 and soon CE 5. That idea is now nothing more than a dream.

Windows Media Player can be found at the following URL.
http://www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia/

Chris Tilley
Editor-in-Chief

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