Windows 8 Media Apps and Media Services

I’ve written before about the issues I’ve had with the “Play to” function in Windows 8. Paul Thurrott wrote an article yesterday: The Sad Tale of Play To and Windows 8, with much the same conclusions. It is worth reading the comment by John Galt after the Thurrott article. He lists a number of shortcomings in the media “features” that Microsoft have implemented in Windows 8, any one of which has me tearing my hair out.

For example, the Music App

  1. has a tendency to play advertisements even when you’re playing your own music.
  2. has no support for open audio codecs such as FLAC, and no apparent way to add such support
  3. constantly forgets the contents of my music library, and has to rebuild the index from scratch practically every time I fire it up.
  4. has no support for accessing media stored on NAS devices
  5. has no support for Microsoft’s own eHome remote control standard (used by Windows Media Center since 2001)
  6. has no support for acting as a “Play to” target, i.e. as a Digital Media Renderer.

Issues 4, 5, and 6 are also common to the other Microsoft-supplied Media Apps, i.e. the Video App and the Photos App.

One wonders how Microsoft can be so dismal in delivering products that should delight, and not disappoint in so many ways.

Addendum: here’s a secondary rant about the Music App, triggered by a comment below.

Navigation in the Music App is really badly thought out.

Take the Album view, for example. Choose it, and you’ll see a list of your albums.

W8 Music 10

The question is, how do you rapidly navigate through the list? The answer is: you can’t. You have to manually scroll up and down, using either your mouse or your finger. Since I have over 1,000 albums in my library, this gets very tiresome, very quickly.

The answer that Windows Media Center came up with in 2001 is that pressing a character on your keyboard will cause the display to jump to that position in the list. So pressing “m” for example, will immediately skip the display to the start of the list of albums beginning with “m”.

But the keyboard is dead in the Music App’s list displays… You can only scroll up or down.

What I find really irritating is that the developers of this App have also learned nothing from Apps built for Windows Phone. Here, there is support in the operating system itself for viewing lists at two levels of zoom. You can see a view at the level of the alphabet (a,b,c, etc.), and by touching a letter, you instantly zoom into the detailed list at that level.

This can be done for Windows 8 applications as well. Here for example, is the Media Center Remote app built by Brad Mauk, and available for both Windows Phone and Windows 8. These are screenshots taken from the Windows 8 App. On entering the Albums view, you are presented with the zoomed-out view of your library:

W8 Music 08

Notice that “x” is dimmed – this immediately tells me that I have no albums with titles beginning with “X” in my library. Now, it is true that in this App, in this view, the keyboard is also not active. So I can’t type a character on my keyboard and jump to that part of my library. However, and crucially, I can use either my mouse or Touch to choose one of the characters on this screen to jump into my library. Let’s click (or Touch) “l”:

W8 Music 09

Instantly, I’m there. If I want to return to the high-level view, I can either click the “-“ icon that appears with the horizontal scrollbar when I mouse down:

W8 Music 11

…or, if I’m using Touch, I simply use the “pinch” gesture on the screen to return to the alphabetic list of the high-level view:

W8 Music 08

Navigation within my library is easy with this App, and I happily use it to control my Windows Media Center.

The developers of Microsoft’s Music App should take note. What they have produced thus far is abysmal.

Update 26th March 2013

Today, the Music App has received an update. I’m very pleased to see that Microsoft has at last incorporated a “zoom” function to make navigation in a large library more practical. It’s implemented slightly differently from the “Windows Phone” approach taken by the Media Center Remote App described above.

In the new version of Music App, the contents of the various views (Albums, Artists, Songs, Playlists etc.) are separated alphabet headings, when listed in alphabetical order. Here you can see the start of the list of my albums:

Music App 02

Note the icons that I’ve circled in red. When clicked (or touched), the view zooms out to the alphabetic sections only:

Music App 03

One rather nice touch is that the length of the bars represents the number of albums in that section as a proportion of the highest section total. If there are no albums in a particular section, then – unlike the Windows Phone convention, where the section is dimmed – here it is dropped altogether. For example, there is no entry for “X”, since I have no albums that begin with “X”:

Music App 04

Clicking, or touching, anywhere along the dark/light grey bar of a section will zoom back into the library to the point represented by the section heading. In the screenshot above, I have moved my mouse over the “T” section, which is why it has become highlighted (the touch interface does not use this highlighting prompt). Left-clicking (or touching) jumps me back into the list of individual albums, starting with those beginning with “T”:

Music App 05

You’ll notice that the “T” section contains the highest total number of albums. That’s because the Music App – unlike Windows Media Center – has not the intelligence to ignore words like “The” or “A” in an album title. It’s a small point, but it’s evidence that teams in Microsoft often don’t appear to build on what went before, but start with a blank sheet of paper. One step forward, two steps back…

In summary, while it’s nice to see that this new version of the Music App has addressed the navigation issue, it still has a long way to go. Of the six issues that I give at the top of this post, only issue 3 seems to have been resolved, the other five issues have yet to be addressed – if indeed they ever will be.

Update 30 March 2013

I’ve been using the Music App to play music stored in my Library, and I’ve got good news and bad news.

See here for more information.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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16 Responses to Windows 8 Media Apps and Media Services

  1. aarondr says:

    Geoff – As far as point 6 goes. I haven’t tried this feature, but this article: http://www.donaldmarang.org/DLNA_Windows.html seems to think that pressing Windows + k will result in the ability to redirect the output of any of the media apps to a DLNA rendered. I like to see MS embrace standards like DLNA over their own history of failed protocols. Pardon me if I’m speaking of ignorance (because I was about to rant about the lack of DLNA support in Windows when it’s just finally catching on before I double checked my opinion).

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Aaron, pressing Windows+k just brings up the Devices screen appropriate to the running App. The trouble is that it will only list Microsoft-certified devices. My Denon AVR-3808 is a certified DLNA DMR – but it ain’t (and never will be) a Microsoft-certified device.

      The result is that I can “Play to” the Denon if I use the legacy Windows Media Player, but I can’t “Play to” the Denon if I use the Music App.

      This is a pain if I’m using my Tablet, because it’s (somewhat) easier to navigate using Touch in the Music App, rather than fiddling about with tiny buttons in Windows Media Player.

      • aarondr says:

        That’ll show you for buying a non-Microsoft certified DLNA device.

        But seriously – that’s stupid. I get /why/ they are doing it – really. DLNA has always been a flaky experience for me, maybe part of that experience is bad implementations of DLNA servers/targets/receivers. Having a ‘certified’ devices gives more ‘assurances’ of what formats play, how certain material gets interpreted, etc. We’re in the ‘new world’ of user experience first, at the cost of compatibility/flexibility. Of course the other side of the sword here is that if you’re removing the experience for the user (e.g. this won’t work with my stuff – resulting in ‘no experience’) then you aren’t really improving anything.

        • Geoff Coupe says:

          You know, what is really irritating is that when I bought my Denon, it had a Microsoft “Plays for Sure” sticker on it. Fast forward a few years, and the “Plays for sure” initiative of Microsoft has been consigned to the dustbin of history, by Microsoft.

          I give the Microsoft-certified imprimatur about the same lifetime.

  2. Mark says:

    Quite the interesting read…and it is really sad, Microsoft could have used the metro interface and delivered a set of killer must-have apps that would have won over detractors and fence-sitters, instead all they do is provide fodder for the “what good is win8″ crowd.

    It is a 1.0 release, but the MS developers have had more than a year (probably more) to program the supposedly “simple to develop in” Metro environment, so either its not as easy as they say, or MS programmers are not as competent as they say or more likely they have no interest in creating that type of app – its lowest-common-denominator mentality in a blind drive to the app-store and its ad revenue

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  4. Mark says:

    So are you using it as your dayindayout music app yet? I’m still using itunes but am unhappy with 11, specifically around the video portion and playlists.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Mark, now that the navigation has been fixed, it’s probably at the point where it starts to be usable for me. I’m also playing around with the Media Monkey for Windows 8 App – but this is still very much at beta status. Both are still limited in what they can do. I’m still using the Desktop Media Monkey for all my metadata work, for example.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Further to my last note, I think I’m beginning to be won round to the Music App. Yesterday I tried buying a Cecilia Bartoli album. I was pleased to see that the Music App downloaded it and added it to my default Music Library – which happens to be on my Windows Home Server. So I’ve now got the album (in DRM-free MP3 tracks @ 320kbps) stored in a folder on my WHS, where it can be accessed, and played, by all our other systems.

  5. Mark says:

    I don’t know, so far it seems too “click and play only” for me. Is there a way to see number of plays, last played date or even a 5 star-rating? Want to know what the actual file location is? want to change the genre? want “smart” playlists (i.e. all 80’s music?) want more/less files on one page or larger album art? sorry, no luck.

    Even basic things seem difficult. Want to see all songs of a genre? instead of selecting a genre view on the left, you have to change the view to show by genre, then click the little minus to zoom out then select the genre and then you only get alphabetical by song name – no other options. Want to skip a minute into a song? start the song playing, the single-click to select it, then right-click to bring up the bottom bar, then click on the album cover art to be taken to xbox music and there you can click on the song-progress bar to skip forward

    and whats up with not being able to double-click to play a song, That has been a staple of Windows for what? 30+ years, Now I have to single-click and then click the play icon that appears. Am I that much of a luddite that click, move to play button and click again is more efficient/intuitive than double-clicking?

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Mark, I agree that the interface leaves much to be desired, no exposure (for setting, searching or viewing) of Ratings or Composer. Or editing of any tags, for that matter.

      And I can understand that moving the Genre from being a Category (as in WMP12) to a Sorting attribute, has altered the way in which we are used to navigating.

      Still, there’s an easier way to skip into a playing song. Once you’ve made your music selection (and populated your playlist), just go back to the main screen and click on the “Now Playing” section. Then you have the main Play/Playlist screen where you can skip around both the currently playing track or the playlist…

      And I agree that the Microsoft team have forgotten to implement double-clicking in the interface – they’ve just concentrated on Touch. That’s bad.

      The App clearly needs much further improvement, but for me, it is starting to be usable. I never use all the bells and whistles in Media Monkey, anyway…

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