While our Windows Vista Community Technology Preview program is a mere two months old, we have already seen the benefit of letting the masses weigh in with feedback. Some of it very complimentary, some of it not so much. Good and bad, all of this feedback is very valuable to us in delivering the best Media Center experience possible.

Paul Thurrott is out with his latest review of Windows Vista based on pre-Beta 2 bits and bytes and really takes us to task for the new user experience and interface.

First of all, let me say while Windows Vista build 5231 does give you a sneak peek into Media Center it's not what we consider to be the 'best foot forward' build. Take anything you see, hear or experience yourself with regards to Media Center with a grain of salt until it is actually launched. That's when the all of the features will be in place and you will get a true sense for the user experience look and feel.  In the meantime, keep the feedback coming on pre-release builds.

Also, expect changes to take place between this build and RTM -- so all the usual caveats apply (what I'm about to tell you may or may not be in the final release of the product...blah...blah...blah.  You've heard this, yes? Yes. Good, let's move on.).

That said...

The first seven paragraphs of Paul’s review are mostly all negative comments without specifics. We can't really action on those, unfortunately. Feedback is always welcome  -- honest to goodness, we really do want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly.  Feedback with actionable specifics is even better.

Taken at face value, I suspect his comments are mostly a fear of change -- Media Center is now on its fourth version and Paul probably feels as though it's in a good place; Don't fix what isn't broke, so to speak. I can sympathize. My wife gives me plenty of unvarnished opinions when I bring home builds with new or different features for us to try. Heck, sometimes even I get sick of the level and pace of change (just ask my co-workers).

In one of these seven paragraphs, Paul suggests the overall usability of Media Center in Windows Vista is seriously in doubt.  I don't think so, but I'm willing to take a closer look.

For the record, I'm not a usability engineer or a designer.  I have spent lots of time with those two teams here in eHome, and some amount of their knowledge has rubbed off on me while working with them in conjunction with partners in Online Spotlight. My goal with this post is to provide more information for the features Paul references so the community can evaluate with more context.

Let's get some apple to apple screenshot comparisons to use as the basis for our review and evaluations. All of these come from the exact same build Paul uses in his review (5231). Click on them to get a larger version.

Start Menu


Music Library


A basic indicator of usability is the number of steps necessary to accomplish a given task. Generally speaking, it is better for the user to take as few steps as possible to accomplish a task.  I'm going to focus on two tasks Paul specifically calls out in his review: Search and Playlists.

For these tests we will start at the same place in the Start Menu...

  • 'My Music' in the current released version of Media Center ('Emerald').
  • 'Music Library' in the Windows Vista version of Media Center.

I believe the static screenshots above will allow you to count these for yourself...

How many steps does it take to view Playlists?

Current = Select My Music --> Down Button --> Down Button --> Select Playlists (4 Steps)
Media Center for Windows Vista = Right --> Select Playlists (2 Steps)

How many steps does it take to be able to search music?

There are actually two paths...

Current = Select My Music --> Up --> Select Search (3 Steps)
Media Center for Windows Vista = Left --> Select Search (2 Steps)


Current = Select My Music --> Down --> Down --> Down --> Down --> Down --> Select Search (7 Steps)
Media Center for Windows Vista = Right --> Right --> Right --> Select Search (4 Steps)

As you can see, the end user can get to these features with fewer steps in Media Center for Windows Vista, and that's a good thing for usability. These same efficiency gains are present in many other features as well.  In fact, the Start Menu itself represents a fairly dramatic step in efficiency since it puts more features at the top level of Media Center.  Does that mean the new paradigm is definitely usable? No. The data suggests it's more usable, but this single test is not enough for a definitive statement. Luckily, our usability team has been working interactively with a mix of experienced and non-experienced Media Center users to evaluate these approaches.

With regards to the Music Library feature, Paul states...

'Instead of the simplicity and beauty, we get ... ah... a jumbled mess of album art, arranged horizontally, not vertically (Figure).'

The screenshot Paul references in his review with '(Figure)' might make it appear that way -- but it's missing key metadata which I know should be present.  I theorize this is due to...

  1. The fact this is pre-beta software.
  2. The machine might not have been setup properly and / or is experiencing issues.

The screenshots I've posted above and below are an accurate reflection of features as presented in build 5231. Based on those, what do you think?  Love it or hate it?  Why?  Leave comments for us to read.

Another way of looking at usability is the ability of the user to easily find and identify items in their library. I will admit this test is more subjective than our first, but I think you will see the goodness we have introduced for the end user. Again, let's take a look at the screenshots above.

I can see more albums at a time...

Current = 12
Windows Vista = 27

I can get more detail (metadata) about those albums...

Current = Album Art, Album Title, Album Artist (3 Items)
Windows Vista = Album Art, Album Title, Album Artist, Number of Tracks, Total Time of Tracks, Album Year (6 Items)

And I have more sorting options at my fingertips (especially nice for those, like Thomas Hawk, with large libraries)...

Current = Album, Artists, Songs, Genres (4 Choices)
Windows Vista = Artist, Artists, Year, Provider, Date Added, Genres, Title, Year, Rating, Composers (10 Choices)

So, the net is I can see 225% more of my library at one time, get 200% more information about each album in my library and sort that library in 250% more ways. And the beautiful thing: None of text or images had to shrink in size to accomplish these improvements -- they are nearly (if not exactly) the same size.

Moving on, Paul calls out 'weird tilting and fading of the album art.' This actually isn't new.  We have tilting in the current version of Media Center.  For example, with the context sensitive More Information button illustrated here.


It *is* more pronounced or noticeable in this build of Media Center for Windows Vista. The team has been and is taking a close look at the right balance for this visual styling. What you don't see in these static screenshots is the animation from non-tilt to tilt, which provides a ton of context -- it makes much more sense once you experience the animation first hand. For those of you testing build 5231 now, feel free to leave feedback in the comments on the tilting feature -- we will be sure to read.

You don't actually have to select a sorting option with the OK button to accomplish basic sorting.  As you navigate the choices left and right Media Center 'auto previews' what the choice looks like in the background. Once you move down from the choice we animate the preview to front and center.  You can accomplish richer sorting by selecting the options with the OK button. Again, the animations provide wonderful context for the sorting -- without it, static screenshots only tell half the story.

Here are two examples of those options (sans animations, unfortunately, but hopefully they give you a better picture of the feature).

Example 1: Navigating the default sorting options.

Music Library Default View

I move up to navigate the sorting options to the left and right.  The sorting option grows larger and brighter while the library 'tilts' to help me keep track of where focus is moving and prepares to preview the sort.

I navigate right to the artist sorting option. The 'tilted' preview automatically changes.

Here I have navigated down from the sorting option.  The tilted preview automatically snaps to front and center, and the artist name grows larger and brighter.

Example 2: Navigating richer sorting options.

Music Library Default View

Here I have navigated up to the sorting options...

...and selected one of them with the remote OK button to get additional sorting options.  In this case, I'm going to sort by year.

Here is the view of my music library view after selecting to sort by year.

After reading Paul’s review and my thoughts here, what do you think...?

Are we on the right track, or have things gone horribly awry?

Leave comments for the team to read -- we value your feedback.

Categories: Media Center | Comments [52] | # | Posted on Thursday, October 20, 2005 12:07:43 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)   
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