Whether you call them media players, jukeboxes, mp3 apps, music managers, or whatever – we all need a proggy to listen to our digital music with. For the sake of this article I am only going to discuss players you can get for free and I am not going to go into p2p apps.
So with that, lets dive right in. For my money there are only 3 choices – Winamp, iTunes, or Windows Media Players – but I'll talk a little about RealPlayer 10 as well. All of these applications share baseline features – playing various media files, cataloging digital media, etc. We'll focus on things about them that are different.
Back in the day, we had Winamp, and it was good. Unfortunately the original Nullsoft team has all moved on and instead of the hacker cred that Winamp used to have back when Justin Frankel et all were on the job it is now just another corporate media player with a hazy future.
Winamp lost a lot of momentum that it had when it released a (very) bad Winamp3 – but with the release of Winamp5 they seem to be back on track – it is useable, responsive, and has a lot of plugins and skins created for it .
The major problem is that for all of it's features it is not much, if any, better then the two dominant media players that are tied to successful music stores iTunes and WMP. Additionally you have to pay $ 14.95 to get the pro version that add features that iTunes and WMP include for free. One of the bonuses of using Winamp is the ability to tune into all of the cool shoutcast radio stations.
iTunes is, of course, is the digital jukebox front end for the iPod and the iTunes music store from apple computer. The iTunes music store was the first to get pay for digital music downloads right and it still has the largest legal downloadable catalog on the net giving the iTunes jukebox a hefty advantage.
If you are using a Mac then it is a no brainer – you should be using iTunes as you media player, but even if you are using Windows iTunes provides an attractive alternative. The iTunes store is superior (imho) to the Windows Media based stores such as Napster and with the legendary Apple ease of use in full effect iTunes makes a great Windows based Jukebox. Noteworthy is the Apple Lossless codec that allows one to rip CD's to the ACC format that sound as good as the CD itself to our ears. On the negative side, the iTunes jukebox feels heavy on moderately powered PC's compared to Winamp or WMP. It runs a little slower, seems to use more resources, etc.
Last (of yea, except for RealPlayer …) Windows Media Player 10 is one of Microsoft's best pieces of software and is some much better then the last generation of MS media players. The jukebox itself is stuffed with features such as its ability to monitor changes to your digital media files and update itself, simple sync and burn, ratings, and the auto tag features are all very nice.
One of the changes in V.10 is the ability to rip files if the format and with (or without) the DRM of your choice. You also get the ability to listen to Internet radio streams with WMP, and although they tend to be more corporate then the hip shoutcast radio you can still find some good music. WMP also features a lossless ripping of CD's but I was less impressed with the results then I was with Apples Lossless.
And finally there is RealPlayer. The free RealPlayer 10 is better then previous version though that is not saying much imho. It still takes over your file formats by default, attempts to force you register, runs in the background (phoning home?) Unless you can find the settings to tell it not to – all of the problems that it has always have. I say stay as far away from Real as possible even if you can use "Harmony" to use your iPod with the Real store. While I may be over critical of Real's jukebox – I do think that there are other alternatives that are less intrusive and have better feature sets.
All in all I think that either iTunes or WMP is a solid choice and far and away the best media players available. Winamp is a okay too as long as you do not need to rip music or burn it back to a CD – but it is worth the download and install just to listen to Shoutcast stations from time to time. Personally I use WMP at work and iTunes are home, so take that for what it's worth. I think that I like WMP a little better, but not so much that I would take the time to switch my iTunes set up at home.