When Winamp 5.3 came out a year ago, it impressed many who had written it off, although that may have been simply because it hadn't died a quiet death of obsolescence. Long-needed steps to improve the old-school media player were implemented, with support for AAC encoding, CD burning, and a robust file-management system.
Thirteen months on, Winamp 5.5 ups the ante again with strong support for portable devices, including iPods, the ability to sync non-DRMed files to your PC from your device, an optional new interface layout, a built-in browser for media discovery, and other nifty tricks.
The most obvious is the new user interface skin, Bento. This takes the annoying modular components of Winamp and stitches them together, separated and hideable, a virtual bento box keeping your Winamp functionality from smooshing together into an unpalatable clutter. Not only that, but you can resize all of the spaces to design an interface that suits your needs. The old skins are still there, though, and you can change the color themes to any of two dozen combinations. Skins and themes are an old strength of Winamp's, made stronger in this version.
Clicking on an artist's name in the Media library tab will get you related headlines and Web sites in the bottom pane. Click on one of those headlines and the program jumps to the Browser tab and fires up the related Web site. It's not limited, though, so you can easily hit your favorite music or video discovery site from within Winamp. There were no problems loading YouTube, for example, which means that Flash comes pre-installed.
Other tabs include the familiar Visualizations for those of you who like using your monitor as a low-budget video art installation while playing your music, and the Video tab for watching your clips. A simple double-click blows up whatever you're viewing to full screen size.
There's also Podcast support, device synchronization that lets you tweak the sync list while in the middle of syncing, continued support for AOL's excellent Shoutcast Internet radio, and new support for streaming XM Radio, which is also owned by AOL. The device support now lets you copy files not only from your computer to your device, but vice versa, as well, allowing for file backup. Be warned: DRMed files will not play, so if you're addicted to the iTunes Store, this might be a good reason to look at some of the alternative music purchase portals out there.
If you want MP3-encoding and full-speed CD burning, you have to shell out $24.95 for the Pro version. Unfortunately, that is the least of the drawbacks. Album art support is spotty at best, and all attempts made to download new art through the program's context-menu art option failed. More importantly, there are some serious stability issues when playing videos, and occasional program crashes were far more common than they should be.
Overall, the program generally responded well, but sluggishness and slowdowns occurred when jumping between resource-draining tasks, such as from video playback to the media library. If AOL can get these things cleared up--and that's a big "if" given its other software-problems--we might be looking at a media player battle.
Don't hold your breath, though; iTunes for Windows is no prize, and I'd love to find a stable, viable alternative to it. But Winamp 5.5 is no iTunes killer--not yet. In the space of 13 months, though, it has become a strong alternative and should be of interest to those looking for something less fruity, like an Apple, and more meaty, like a llama.