J. River Media Jukebox 8.0

Media Jukebox 8.0 is versatile and simple, but it's sidelined by instability and an outdated feature set.

With Media Jukebox 8.0, J. River continues its tradition of offering a customisable, play-it-all jukebox for Windows users who seek an alternative to Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, and Musicmatch Jukebox. The free basic version comes with most typical jukebox features, such as media playback, organisation, encoding and burning. The highlight, however, is its ability to play back more than 80 file types, including the most popular audio and video formats. But some users may steer clear because it lacks some key features, while others may be turned off by its less than beautiful interface. Compared to the current crop of multimedia players (including Windows Media Player 10.0), Media Jukebox is beginning to look and feel dated.

Setup and interface
After downloading and installing J. River Media Jukebox 8.0 (8.5MB), you will have an opportunity to search and import media files. The Import Media feature choked and stalled our primary Windows XP test bed; we had previously heard a couple of reports of this bug. On a secondary system with similar specifications, we experienced zero hiccups while importing our media (from MP3 and Audible to WMV and RealMedia formats). We were unable to pinpoint the problem with the first system, although we presume a corrupted media file was responsible. The opening screen includes links to relevant Help pages such as Import Files, Play Media, Rip A CD and Play Internet Radio.

The default interface is open, uncluttered, and decidedly old school with its Windows Explorer undertones. We like the app's resizable windows and icon-based buttons for ripping, burning and minimising the player into its so-called Mini-Me mode. The left-hand window is generally static and houses expandable folders named Playing Now, Media Library, Playlists, CD and Handhelds, and Web Media. The larger, right-hand window is where your media and associated information show up. The visual and functional simplicity of this Explorer-like tree is one of Media Jukebox's strengths. Down below on the left side, you'll find the player and volume controls, the media-title and artist info, playback options such as Shuffle and Continuous, and the playback filter, which allows you to apply EQ, effects and crossfading. Unfortunately, built-in EQ and DSP plug-in effects are available only as a Plus feature. (US$19.98 (~AU$25.40) gets you the full-featured Plus version).

When you click Media Library, your entire media library appears in the right-hand window. Here you'll see all sorts of information, which you can sort by column in the typical jukebox fashion. Above it is a search bar that returns results with blazing speed. You can fine-tune your browsing by listing your files by album, artist, CD media, genre or file location. The interface and the process for adding songs to a current playlist are efficient and intuitive, but unlike Windows Media Player and others, Media Jukebox doesn't provide a separate link to videos, photos and other types of media. In fact, we were surprised that it doesn't support photo files.

The Media Library logically and efficiently breaks down media files into categories. The search feature is fast and customisable.

Once your media has begun playing, another resizable window appears for video or visualisations. Media Jukebox also includes links to artists' biographies as well as e-commerce sites such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy, where you can purchase CDs from within the program's browser. The visualisations, while numerous, are mostly uninspiring. The included skins are decent but appear to have been designed in the '80s. You can download hundreds more from jriver.com; however, the built-in link in the program's skin manager is dead. (We should give proper credit to amped2 and iPod, two user-designed, downloadable Mini-Me skins.) Likewise, you can download an additional main-interface skin (a.k.a. Mega-Me) to add to the three colour-schemed choices within Media Jukebox.

The Playing Now screen includes resizable windows for the current playlist and visualisations or video.

Media Jukebox 8.0 has a Mini-Me mode with a variety of skins.

J. River Media Jukebox 8.0 is designed as a one-stop shop for organising, playing back, ripping and burning music. Perhaps its best quality is that it can play back more than 80 file types, including QuickTime, Windows Media, RealMedia, MP3, Audible and OGG. The compatibility list includes a mix of heavyweights and lesser-known formats (Liquid Audio, Monkey's Audio, MusicEx), but it doesn't include AAC, DivX, or photo files.

While the application works well for video playback, it has an audiocentric interface and feature set. Ripping CDs is painless and efficient, and you get a choice of OGG, WMA and other codecs, plus the option to normalise tracks before encoding. You can also download additional plug-ins, such as lossless APE encoding for free from J. River's Web site. Unfortunately, you won't get MP3 encoding unless you pay for the Plus version. J. River limits CD burning for data and audio to 4X in the basic version. Upgrading to the Plus version will get you maximum burning speeds.

The straightforward setup window for encoding includes a normalising option. While you get encoding for OGG and WMA among other formats, you don't get MP3 encoding in the free version.

Media Jukebox includes many useful playback options, including gapless playback, volume leveling, user-definable crossfading, data-CD support and a Send To feature that allows you to add tracks or playlists to specific points in the Now Playing queue. You can even password-protect the interface using the Party mode. Media Jukebox comes with a number of rules-based playlists called Smartlists, including Top Hits and Recently Played. You can also create your own Smartlists. But similar smart playlists in other jukebox applications either include more options or are easier to configure.

The application also works as an easy-to-use recorder with options for line-in, CD, mixer-based and microphone recording. The recording level can be tweaked to your liking within the application itself. Converting from one format to another is a user-friendly process.

Record settings include options for line-in recording and automatic track splitting.

If plug-ins float your boat, J. River offers a range of them, from typical DSP and visualisation plug-ins to more advanced ones that give you remote access to Media Jukebox. Developers can even submit their own plug-ins.

Media Jukebox can handle all types of streaming media, ranging from Shoutcast to RealVideo content. You can either manually enter a URL or click the Web Media link, which opens a window with a search bar (you can search 1,000 included stations and add your own) and features stations such as BBC News 24, Bloomberg Finance, and various music streams. Unlike Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, and others in its class, Media Jukebox provides no integrated source for purchasing music, video and other media content.

If you're satisfied with Media Jukebox, you can get the full-featured Plus version for around AUD$25. Doing so adds a plethora of features, including a rudimentary but effective media editor, which you can use to trim various file types and re-encode them into the format of your choice. You also get MP3 encoding, Media Scheduler (for scheduling playback and recording of files), Media Server (for connecting to your media library remotely or within a network), CD Labeler and a tagging utility.

One area where J. River Media Jukebox 8.0 excels is its fast search function. Type in a letter or two, and results pop up instantly, even amid gigabytes of data. The program itself opens quickly and outside of a couple of glitches, doesn't skip a beat.

But back to those glitches. Besides the aforementioned spotty Import Media function (depending on the system), we also experienced an application crash when we tried to play a protected, subscription-based WMA file. When we attempted to acquire a license to play back the file, a browser window opened to F-Secure's site for Internet security products. While this won't happen to the typical user, those using an on-the-go subscription service need to stay far, far away from this application (of course, you'll probably be using Windows Media Player for subscription downloads). In some instances, a nonencrypted WMA file crashed the program.

With that said, general playback of audio and video files worked well, as did streaming. We only wish we could access video files in a separate interface from the one for the audio files. CD burning, ripping and format conversion all worked well, despite the crippling 4X burning speed in the basic version. Overall, while the program is worth a look for those with lots of different types of media files, program glitches prevent us from recommending it wholeheartedly.

Service and support
Given that J. River Media Jukebox 8.0 crashed one of our systems more than once (in a variety of situations), a reliable source for support would have been a huge plus. Unfortunately, J. River offers no free direct e-mail or telephone support; instead, users must rely on the online forum, which requires registration for posting. The database of threads can be helpful, but since the list is moderated by J. River, you'll likely not find answers to difficult questions. Within the program itself, the Help pages are straightforward and useful for general problems.

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