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Windows Media Player and Computer Resources

written by: stormstrike•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 9/9/2009

Windows Media Player has had its share of improvements over the years, but a common complaint among users is the program's propensity to hog system resources during playback. We look at several ways to remedy or get around that problem.

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    Take back your CPU!

    Is Windows Media Player gobbling up your CPU's resources?

    Here are a couple easy solutions to help you free up processor power for more essential tasks while still being able to enjoy your favorite tunes, even if you're using an old clunker of a computer:

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    Upgrade to the newest version of Windows Media Player

    If your Windows Media Player isn't set up to search for automatic updates, or if you're one of those users who treats update warnings as nag screens, you could be one version -- or several versions -- behind the most current incarnation of Windows Media Player, and that doesn't bode well for your CPU usage.

    In particular, Windows Media Player builds released between 2004 and 2007 have had a history of bogging down the computers of Windows XP users, and tech support forums abound with posts from frustrated users who have seen the program's usage spike to 100% during playback.

    You can remedy those problems with a simple trip to Microsoft's Windows Media Player website, downloading the newest version, and installing it. As of this writing, the most current version is Windows Media Player 11. As with anything, you should make sure your computer has the latest service pack from Microsoft installed -- holdout users who haven't patched their computers with the latest service packs not only expose themselves to security vulnerabilities, there are known issues with Windows Media Player playback in older service packs.

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    Strip your Windows Media Player down to the bare essentials

    Sure, those visualizations look sweet while you're nodding along to your favorite song, but how often do you really use them? And do you really need that skin that replicates the faceplate of your car stereo down to the tiniest detail?

    You should ask yourself these questions because, when it comes down to it, the reason you use a media player is to listen to music or watch movies. If you're watching the latest flick, you're not going to need a fancy skin or visualization suite anyway -- chances are, you'll be watching the movie in full screen mode. And in this age of multitasking, most users run their music in the background while surfing Youtube or checking their e-mail.

    Clearing out your plug-ins could improve the performance of Windows Media Player by a considerable amount, and CPU usage should drop accordingly. With Task Manager open, run your Windows Media Player with all the bells and whistles, then disable them and run the program again: You should see a marked difference in CPU usage, freeing up valuable resources for everything else you do while you're online.

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    Consider other options

    Foobar is the king of the light-footprint media players, and for good reason -- it's free, it's almost infinitely configurable, and it only requires a tiny slice of your system resources for playback. In many cases, Foobar will use just a fraction of the resources of other media players, and it's less susceptible to CPU spikes.

    On the downside, Foobar is audio-only, so if you're accustomed to mixing your audio and video files in one playlist, or you like the functionality of a media player that can do it all, this program might not be for you. If you don't mind using two separate programs to handle your audio and video playback needs, you can mirror Foobar's light footprint by installing VLC media player by Videolan and have the added assurance that you're getting all the video codecs you need without having to worry about surreptitious bundleware bogging your machine down.