Audio Playback -, Mac OS X vs. Windows XP

OS X ships with iTunes for playing music, while XP supplies Windows Media Player (WMP). Both are set as the default applications for playing audio on a user's computer.

iTunes 7
iTunes 7 (Mac OS X)

Windows Media Player 10
Windows Media Player 10 (Windows XP)

In addition to playing a variety of audio formats, both iTunes and WMP support:

  • Custom audio encoding (see audio playing/encoding table below)
  • Integrated CD burning of playlists (iTunes 7 offers the ability to burn DVDs of playlists; in addition, it can also automatically span large playlists over multiple CD/DVDs when burning)
  • Graphic equalizer for adjusting audio playback
  • Visualizers (WMP comes with many while iTunes comes with just one; third-party visualizers can be added to both)
  • Album art viewing
  • Internet streaming radio
  • Dynamically generated playlists based on listening trends ("25 most played songs") or a song's ID3 tags ("90's Music"). iTunes refers to them as "smart playlists;" WMP refers to them as "auto playlists"
  • Protection of your ears from loud spikes in music: iTunes calls it "Sound Check" while WMP calls it "Quiet Mode"
  • Quick searching of music library. iTunes' is search-as-you-type; WMP's requires clicking the Search button
  • Purchasing music and video content from an online store

Both iTunes and Windows Media Player are available for their non-native platforms (iTunes for Windows and WMP for OS X). iTunes for Windows is an exact clone of its OS X sibling, and Apple maintains both versions simultaneously. You can even share protected music bought from the iTunes Store between Mac and Windows versions. WMP for OS X, however, offers just a bare-bones set of features for playing back audio and video. It lacks nearly all the features of the Windows version (playlist management, album art, online music stores, burning of CDs, etc.). In addition, because WMP for OS X is a full version behind its Windows counterpart, it doesn't support the latest protected WMA files. As a result, it can't play protected music from many online music stores, such as Napster.

Mac OS X


iTunes provides three ways to view the music in your library:

  • List view, which displays all of your songs in a flat list:

  • Album view, which groups songs by album and displays their covers:
  • "Cover Flow," where you can flip through your albums in 3D:

To aid in the browsing of your library (especially in album and Cover Flow views), iTunes can automatically retrieve album artwork from the iTunes Store. Unfortunately, this feature is only available if you have an iTunes Store account. Users without an iTunes Store account will need to add album artwork to their songs manually.

If your track names need contain incorrect/missing information, you can fix them by going to Advanced > Get CD Track Names. This connects to the online CDDB database to correct the tags of the selected songs. This feature is rather limited, however; it only works for the songs you directly imported off of a CD into iTunes. It does not work for any songs added manually via File > Add to Library, nor does it work on tracks bought from the iTunes Store (though these tracks will contain correct information, unless you change them otherwise).


iTunes offers a variety of playback settings:

  • Equalizer presets for each song (using the built-in ones or custom ones you have created and saved)
  • Start/stop time of a song
  • Volume adjustment
  • Crossfade playback between songs
  • Gapless playback (play mutiple songs back to back without a pause; useful for live recordings)
  • Sound Enhancer to boost playback quality
  • Smart shuffle (how likely you are to hear multiple songs in a row from the same artist/album)

iTunes also has a "party shuffle" feature that intelligently builds a continual playlist for your party as it happens. You can drag new songs into the mix, rearrange their order, and remove ones you don't want to be played as you see fit.

iTunes Party Shuffle
Party Shuffle

Clicking the green "zoom"  button on the window sends iTunes into "mini player" mode. You can configure this "mini player" in iTunes to always hover above all open windows at all times; useful if you like to frequently change songs, adjust volume, etc. without having to constantly switch back and forth between iTunes and other applications.

iTunes "mini player" mode

iTunes can be operated even when its windows are hidden or minimized via its dock menu. You can change the rating of your song, pause/play, skip to the next song, etc.

iTunes' dock menu

iTunes comes with Bonjour for sharing your music library with other computers. Sharing works only on a LAN - not over the Internet - and songs can be streamed but not copied. You can share your entire music library, or just specific playlists. You can even require a user to enter a password before being able to connect to your music library.

Music sharing preferences

Music sharing is easy to set up; simply tick the appropriate checkboxes. There are no external network settings to configure (unless your computer or the ones you are sharing with have a firewall, in which case you will need to open the necessary ports). Unfortunately, sharing is restricted to 5 unique connections within a 24-hour period.

Attempting to make over five unique connections in one day yields this error message

Purchase Apple's AirPort Express and you will be able to wirelessly play music from iTunes through your home stereo:

Playing to remote speakers

iTunes also feature strong podcast support. You can subscribe to podcasts via the podcast directory on the iTunes Store. Alternatively, if the iTunes Store doesn't offer the podcast you want, you can enter its URL directly:

Manually subscribing to a podcast

Conveniently, iTunes has a separate item in its source list for podcasts, so you can view them independently from your music. An "info" button at the end of a podcast's description column pops up a window with information about the podcast and specific episode (if included in the feed).

Viewing and managing podcasts

Other Features

iTunes includes a full-featured online store called the iTunes Store, where you can buy individual songs or albums, and even music videos, TV shows, and movies. Clicking "iTunes Store" in the source list brings you to the main storefront (which is really just a specially-designed webpage that displays inline in iTunes).

Purchased music displays in its own "Purchased" playlist, and can easily be organized, burned, shared, etc. alongside all the other music in your library.

Next to a selected song, artist, and album in your library is a small grey arrow, which acts as a link to a corresponding page on the iTunes Store. This is useful if you would like to look up more information about an artist, see album notes, etc. You can turn this feature off under iTunes > Preferences... > General.

Along similar lines, iTunes also has a "ministore" pane that displays music store content related to the currently playing song.

iTunes' ministore displays albums related to the currently playing artist

The ministore is rather obtrusive — the pane takes up about a third of the main window, and it is visible in both your Library and all playlists. In addition, because iTunes must send data to the Music Store about the music you're listening to in order to display related items, some users have voiced privacy concerns. While there is no evidence that Apple actually tracks your listening habits in this way, the possibility is certainly open. Fortunately, the first time you launch iTunes, you must agree to turn the ministore on; even if you do, simply closing the pane will turn it off.


A basic set of Parental Controls allows the user to disable various features in iTunes. For example, you can restrict children from previewing or purchasing music with explicit content from the iTunes Store.

Parental Controls

iTunes includes a print function that lets you produce CD jewel case inserts for your music. Choose a playlist, then select File > Print. iTunes will design a CD insert complete with track names and album art. If the playlist you are creating an insert for contains multiple albums, a "mosaic" theme will tile the artwork from each. In addition, you can print song or album listings if you simply want a printout of your music library or a specific playlist.

Printing a CD jewel case insert

iTunes offers a "Lyrics" tab in a song's Get Info dialog where you can add the lyrics for your music (which can be synchronized and viewed on supported iPod models). Unfortunately, it is up to the user to find lyrics and tag their songs accordingly; even songs bought from the Music Store do not contain lyrics information. Even more disappointing, these lyrics are not searchable.

Adding/viewing song lyrics

iTunes also has its gaffe moments:

  • If you put a blank CD in the drive and click the Burn button, the drive will confoundingly open up and tell you to put in a blank CD. When this scenario happens, users will end up having to hit the burn button a total of 3 times in order to initiate the burn (a second time to reinsert the blank CD, and a third time to confirm the burn and start the process). This can be avoided by either hitting the burn button first, or by waiting for OS X's dialog to pop up, asking what to do with the CD (from there, you would tell it "Open iTunes"). Also, there is no "confirmation" once you click the Burn button; you have only a brief period when the CD is being prepared to cancel the burn

  • iTunes' browse feature only lets you browse by genre, artist, and album, even though your music may contain many additional tags

  • Album view contains a column for track number that cannot be turned off, separate from the regular track number column, which is also available. List view and album view share the same display settings, so if you have the track number column turned on in list view, there will be two columns for track number in album view

  • iTunes treats songs that do not have album information as their own "generic" albums. Thus, if you have multiple songs without album information by the same artist, each song will display as its own album. This makes browsing in album and Cover Flow views somewhat tedious:

Windows XP


WMP's Library tab contains a source list of all your media content. Conveniently, a popup menu of albums, artists, genres, and playlists is available by pressing the little down arrow next to the Now Playing tab, letting you access your music library even when you're in another view and the main source list isn't visible. A "Now Playing" list on the right side of the player lets you continue switching songs while you have a visualizer going.

If you have songs with incorrect tags, you can correct them easily. Right-click the song and choose "Find Album Info." This will search for correct information. After approving the information, click the Finish button - the song's tags will automatically by corrected, and the file will be renamed and moved to its rightful folder in your file system.

WMP supports many unique tags for your music outside of the standard artist, album, genre, etc. You can additionally assign these tags to your music:


  • Subtitle
  • Mood
  • Key
  • Original album
  • Set
  • Music category description
  • Language
  • Conductor
  • Original artist
  • Lyricist
  • Original lyricist
  • Composer


Even better, all of this information can be incorporated into an auto playlist. For example, you could create a playlist of all "happy" songs in the key of B flat. Unfortunately, you cannot search by this information.


WMP takes support for lyrics one step further with its synchronized lyrics feature. Using the built-in synchronized lyrics editor, you can specify not only what the lyrics in a particular song are, but where in the song they occur. Then, after enabling subtitles in WMP's visualizer by going to Play > Captions and Subtitles > On if available, WMP will display the lyrics in your song in time with the music.

Synchronized lyrics display in WMP's visualizer

Enable mini mode, and WMP will attach itself to the taskbar when minimized, allowing you to play/pause, change songs, adjust volume, etc. without restoring the full window.

Control Windows Media Player from XP's taskabar

Other Features

WMP includes a framework for third parties to build online stores off of; as a result, it features many online stores where you can purchase music or video content.

Microsoft's MSN Music Store is set as the default store (shown above), though you can jump between stores easily using a menu in the upper-right corner of the window. However, each store uses its own DRM protection rules, so what you are able to do with your purchased content may vary depending on the store it was bought from. The music stores are integrated into WMP such that clicking the "More Info" button on a selected song will bring you to the corresponding page for that song on the currently chosen store.

WMP has a convenient feature called "folder monitoring" that aids you in adding new music to your library. Folder monitoring tells WMP to constantly watch user-specified folders in your filesystem; when new media files are added to those folders, WMP will automatically import them into your library. This saves you the trouble of manually navigating the filesystem and importing the files. To bolster an already useful feature, WMP will skip files smaller than a user-defined size when importing media from the specified folders, to ensure that files that aren't music (such as sound effects) are filtered out.

Folder monitoring settings

WMP has many options for customizing its interface. In addition to adjusting the color of its window (as seen in the above screenshots), users can also alter WMP's interface through "skins," or visual themes. Any knowledgable user can create a skin, and other users can then download said skins to completely change the appearance of their player. Skinning support in WMP is also freeform, meaning that skins can even change the shape of the player window in addition to its colors and other elements:

WMP using the "Alien Invader" skin by The Skins Factory, one of many third-party skins

Microsoft's own website provides a lengthy listing of free downloadable skins for WMP.

WMP too has its gaffe moments:


  • Your CD drive is accessed via a small downward-facing arrow next to the Now Playing menu (though computers with auto-play enabled will display CDs automatically when inserted). Another small arrow near the upper right corner of the interface accesses the File, Edit, View, etc. menus. You can expand the player to include a standard menu bar, but this wouldn't be necessary if these functions were more discoverable to begin with

  • The Now Playing list sorts itself according to however you have your library sorted (i.e., by song title, artist name, etc.), but it only displays song title, artist name, and track length due to the limited amount of space. If you have your library sorted by any other criteria, you will not be able to see it in the Now Playing list. Furthermore, the criteria that is visible disappears if you resize the list to be smaller. This makes the usefulness of the Now Playing list somewhat limited

OS X and Windows XP both support a considerable number of audio formats out-of-the-box:

Format OS X (full list) Windows XP
3GPP, 3GPP2 Yes No
AC3 Yes Yes
Apple Lossless Yes No
AU, SND Yes Yes
Audiobooks (from Yes Yes
AIFF Yes Yes
MP2 (MPEG-1, Layer 2) No Yes
MIDI Yes Yes
MPEG-2 AAC Sold separately Yes
MP3 (MPEG-1, Layer 3) Yes Yes
M3U (MP3 playlists) Yes Yes
MPEG 4 (ISO standard) Yes No
MPEG 4 (Microsoft's version) No Yes
RMI No Yes
WAV Yes Yes
WMA Converts non-copy protected WMAs to the encoding format specified in iTunes' preferences Yes
WMA Pro No Yes
WMA Lossless No Yes


In addition, both can rip CDs into multiple audio formats. iTunes can rip into the following formats:

  • AAC *
  • AIFF
  • Apple Lossless
  • MP3 *
  • WAV

While Windows Media Player can rip into the following formats:

  • MP3
  • WMA *
  • WMA Lossless

Indicates support for Variable Bit Rate (VBR) encoding



Mac OS X's iTunes 7

  • As-you-type searching
  • Flexible MP3 encoding (16 bitrate options, plus variable bitrate encoding)
  • Party shuffle
  • CD insert printing
  • Bonjour music sharing
  • Solid support for podcasts
  • Numerous playback settings (per-song EQ presets, etc.)
  • Parental controls
  • Only one included visualizer
  • Fewer tagging options (no composer, lyricist, etc.)
  • Limited tag correction capabilities
  • Automatic fetching of album art requires an iTunes Store account

Windows XP's Windows Media Player 10

  • Support for player skins
  • Numerous included visualizers
  • Download album art/fix tags of any song
  • Advanced tagging options
  • SRS WOW effects
  • Play speed settings (adjust tempo without changing pitch, etc.)
  • Folder monitoring
  • Synchronized lyrics
  • Free MP3 encoding is limited (only four bitrate choices, and no variable bitrate encoding)
  • Important functions (accessing CDs, changing options, etc.) are not easily discoverable

Mac OS X: 9
Windows XP: 9

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Bradford Streich
Bradford Streich
For a long time, Bradford Streich has been creating computers and writing about creating computers. He enjoys playing video games and using technology. He hosts giveaways, builds PCs, and evaluates laptops, parts, and accessories on YouTube.