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Old 08-23-2007, 04:00 PM
Jason Dunn
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Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 29,160
Default Embedded Album Art: Microsoft Doesn't Seem to Get It

I'm a very visual person, especially when it comes to music (how's that for a strange statement?). When I'm deciding what music to listen to, I tend to use Windows Explorer and browse through thumbnails images of my album folder rather than use the text list inside Windows Media Player. There are probably a lot of people like me, because Windows Media Player 11 has an album art view that accomplishes the same purpose (ditto for iTunes).

The Windows Media Player 11 approach to album art is very limited though - it creates a folder, and drops a few JPEGs into that folder. The album art is associated with that folder, not the files inside it. This presents several problems, namely that once you remove the songs from the folders, you have no more album art. Album art inside folders makes for some spectacularly messy instances as well - when I enabled pictures in WMP10, and let it scan away, it picked up an extra 15,000 or so images, all album art. My list of photos should be of photos, but because Windows Media Player doesn't have any threshold for image file size (it does for audio and video), it picks up every single image. My Xbox 360 had the same problem - when I browse photos over Windows Media Connect, it picks up all my music album art, making for a confusing mess. Here's an example of how the current system makes for a sloppy state of affairs.

Imagine if metadata about a song or album was stored in an external XML file. You'd have to keep the song within the same folder as the XML file to have any information about it beyond the file name, and if you moved that song to another folder, you would lose your ratings, lyrics, and everything else inside the metadata file. Sounds ridiculous, right? It is, yet that's exactly the same scenario Microsoft considers acceptable when it comes to album art and music files.

Because Windows Media Player 11 on the desktop will scale down album art to fit in the player window (lame!), having high-res album art is a waste. After a lot of trial and error, I've decided that 600 x 600 pixels is a reasonable middle ground. It's big enough to have a great experience in Media Center when looking at the album art view, it's big enough to look good in WMP on the desktop, but not so big that it causes problems. The resulting JPEGs are in the 50KB to 150KB range depending on the complexity of the image.

Other Random Facts About Album Art

Windows Media Player 10 Mobile (found on Pocket PCs and Smartphones) does not display embedded album art whatsoever, whether it be WMA or MP3. Boo! MSN Music and several other music providers embeds album art in the audio file, so this isn't some crazy thing that only I'm doing.

The smaller JPEGs that I'm now using seem to be OK with WMP10 Mobile. I embedded an 89 KB JPEG and the player didn't choke on it. No idea where the safe threshold lies and if I'll have problems with the JPEGs that are 150 KB.

The Portable Media Center media player doesn't display album art either. It must be based off the same codebase as the Pocket PC/Smartphone player? It sure makes for a boring-as-heck experience on the PMC without the album art.

Embedded album art is supported in the Vista shell. This means you get a great experience seeing the album cover for each and every song, whether you're browsing inside WMP 11 or using Explorer.

The Media Center software client will first look in the folder for the album art, so even if you have nice high-res album art embedded in the file it will ignore it - unless there's no album art in the folder, in which case it will read the embedded album art (mine looks fantastic!)...but there's a bug in Vista that will cause the first file played from that folder to display no album art, but the second track will. If you skip to the second track, then back to the first, the album art will be read.

Now, as to why embedded album art is a superior solution to the "art in a folder" concept that is currently championed by Microsoft (this text taken from something I wrote elsewhere):

"I found the Microsoft method of placing the album art in the music folder to be very short-sighted because it only works properly in a specific set of circumstances. When I moved songs to another computer, the songs themselves had no album art. And because FolderShare (a Windows Live service) makes all hidden files un-hidden when it syncs folders, I ended up with thousands of JPEG images scattered through my music folders. Since I often access my music via Windows Explorer rather than the still-kinda-slow library of Windows Media Player 11, when I'd drag and drop the folder of music the now un-hidden JPEGs would come along for the ride and show up in my playlist and stop the music as they'd display. It was a complete mess. The same kind of stupidity would occur if I dragged over a folder of music to my Zen Vision:M - I'd end up with low-res album art on the device."

Embedding the JPG album art inside the audio file itself is a much more elegant solution. For me it really boils down to logic: would EXIF data for photos work well as a separate XML file sitting in the same folder as the image? Would WMP star ratings work well if they were in a text file in the same folder as the song files? No way...embedded is the way to go.

Come on Microsoft, wake up and smell the album art!

Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys mobile devices, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, and his sometimes obedient dog. He's a big fan of album art - can you tell?
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