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11/04/2002: Winamp [>> Go]

    It's highly doubtful that you haven't heard of Winamp yet, but I'm going to review it anyway because the next couple of Cool Free Software reviews relate directly to it. Winamp is a free program to play MP3 files on your computer. If you've never heard of MP3 you can probably skip this whole review, but in a nutshell it's a compressed audio file format. If you were to digitally copy a CD directly to your computer (in its native WAV format), it would take up about 600 megabytes of hard drive space (depending on how long the CD was); take that same CD and digitize it into MP3, and the entire CD takes up about 60 MB, with very little loss of audio quality. The primary reason for using the MP3 file format for digitized music, compared to the native CD format, is that they're obviously more portable because of their smaller size. This is a big reason why they became so popular through the online file trading systems like Napster - instead of spending an hour downloading 30 megabyte songs, you could spend 5 minutes downloading a 3 megabyte song. Once you've got a collection of MP3 files, you use a program like Winamp to play them on your computer (or you can use an MP3 player when you're not chained to your desk; I personally use a RioVolt SP250).

    If you aren't already an MP3 fan, you might be asking yourself "Why bother with MP3 files? Why not just use CDs?" Because of the size and portability that I mentioned earlier. Say you're going on a cross-country flight, and want to relax with some music on the way. With a portable CD player, you've got to pack the player and 8 to 12 CDs (probably in a CD wallet in order to minimize space); you can only listen to one CD at a time, and when the CD is done, you have to take it out of the player and put in a new one. With, for example, the Rio 250, you can put approximately 150 MP3 songs (7-8 hours's worth of music, or about 10 CDs) on one CD-R disc, and play that one disc all the way from Boston to Los Angeles without hearing the same song twice. I don't do a lot of flying, so where I use MP3 files more is when I'm working at my computer; on my work PC, I've got more than 10 gigabytes (over 4000 songs) of legal MP3 files that I load into Winamp and play in random order. While I'm programming, the music is playing quietly in the background to help break up the monotony of what I'm doing. Back before the MP3 craze, I used to use CDs for this, but like I said before, I'd have to listen to one CD in its entirety, then take it out of the CD player and put in another one. With Winamp running on my computer, I can go from Metallica to Tori Amos to Enya to Beethoven as the songlist randomly cycles through all the songs I've put on my computer.

    So lets talk more about Winamp in particular, now that I'm sure I've sold you on the value of MP3 files :) There are a lot of free and not-so-free MP3 playing software applications out there. Some of the better known ones (besides Winamp, of course) are RealPlayer, Sonique, Freeamp, and MusicMatch Jukebox, to name a few. (Microsoft has their own that comes with Windows.) I like Winamp, but based on your personal needs or preferences, another program might be better for you. The basic operation of Winamp is to add songs (files on your computer) to your "playlist" and then play them. In the picture, the current playlist is the window at the bottom with 9 songs in it. You add songs to your current playlist by dragging them onto the Winamp window, or by clicking the "Add" button on the playlist window and locating them on your computer. Once you have a set of songs loaded into the playlist, you can save that playlist in a file so that later, you can just double-click on a particular playlist file to automatically load all those songs into Winamp. For example, you could create playlists based on different moods - one playlist can have just heavy metal songs, one can have just classical music songs, and one can have just country songs. Playlists make it easier to keep your songs organized by something other than artist name - on your computer, you can still have each album in its own folder, but make a playlist that mixes songs or albums by different artists without having to physically move any of the files. Winamp can loop through all the songs in your current playlist, or play songs from the list in random order. Using the song slider bar, you can go to a particular spot in a song immediately, or use the buttons on the Winamp screen to skip to the next song, previous song, pause playing, or stop altogether. Winamp also has a built-in equalizer (not shown) that you can play with to adjust how your music sounds. Like most "media players" (as this type of software is called), Winamp comes with a number of "visualizations", that display funky graphic images somewhat tied to the music currently playing. (I find then useless, but they're usually interesting to look at.)

    Winamp is not limited to playing MP3 files, and is continually updated to add new types of audio files that hit the mainstream. Most importantly for you, Winamp can play MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV, MIDI, AU, SND, and AIF files (all various types of audio files you might find online), plus about 20 other file types I've never heard of, as well as playing individual CDs that you pop in your CD-ROM drive. It can't play everything, though; most notably missing are the RM format used by RealPlayer, and Liquid Audio, which is a format used for some of's free music downloads (more on these later). Winamp can also play streaming MP3s, which is what some online "radio stations" use to send music to your computer over the Internet. Winamp3, the most recent version of Winamp, can also play video files (MPEG, AVI, WMV, etc.), which makes it more versatile, but I find it tends to be a bit slower and take more system memory than Winamp 2.

    Winamp is a "skinnable" application, which means that you can download a "skin" that makes Winamp look markedly different than the picture I have here (which is the default look). Skins do more than just change the colors of the buttons; Winamp skins can change the entire shape of the Winamp window so that it's a circle, or a set of octagons, or whatever. The skins available at the Winamp site are very creative and let you personalize your Winamp player to suit your tastes. I keep Winamp minimized most of the time, so how it looks isn't important to me.

    So now you are probably asking yourself "Ok, I've downloaded Winamp; now where can I get MP3 files?" My next review will talk about how to convert your CD collection to MP3 (or OGG) files so you can take them on the road, but there are plenty of places where you can get free, or very cheap, MP3 files online. There are undoubtedly others, but these are places I use:'s free music downloads also has music by current artists, but only about half of it is in the MP3 format; the rest is in Liquid Audio, which Winamp can't play. (I think the only thing that can is the Liquid Player, downloadable from Amazon.) Amazon also lets independent artists provide MP3 files for free download, so you can mostly find music by people you've never heard of; fortunately, the downloads are free, so you can give a bunch of new artists a try without paying for an entire CD.

   Music.Download.Com is what used to be; a place for independent artists to upload samples of their music for people to download for free. You usually don't get a lot of music from individual artists (i.e. you can't download whole albums), but if you're interested in finding new artists, it's a good way to download a large variety of music in the genres you're interested in to try out. is mostly made up of people who have composed music using one or more of Sonic Foundry's music-composing and editing applications (Acid and Sound Forge). You get a wide range of styles of music by a variety of different (mostly) non-professional artists, but you're not going to find any songs you've ever heard before so only go here if you like hearing things that are different (but not in a bad way, more like eclectic). You can listen to a stream of the top songs, or download individual songs (I suggest listening to the radio part, finding songs you like, then downloading them).

    So what don't I like about Winamp? To be honest, I can't think of anything. As I mentioned before, I prefer Winamp 2 to Winamp 3 because version 3 tries to do too much; I like 2 because it does what it does very simply and well. Winamp is stable (i.e. doesn't randomly crash, at least not for me) and it doesn't suck a lot of my processor time, so I can leave it running all the time (in fact, I've got it in my Startup folder so that it starts every time I reboot). If you haven't yet joined the MP3 revolution, Winamp is a great way to start.

    Update 12/28/2003: Winamp recently released Winamp 5 (Winamp 2 + Winamp 3 = Winamp 5, get it?) which aims to be the best of both 2 (which was small and fast) and 3 (which could play video files and organize media better). I've used it only a little bit so far, but one of the nicest new features I've found are global hotkeys that let you control Winamp (like pausing, skipping forward/backward, etc.) while you're in other applications (without needing to switch to the Winamp screen). In Winamp 2 and 3, you had to use other software, like Global Audio Control, to do this.

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