By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Computers should be fun. Bowling is dull. Baseball can be tedious. College basketball gives you heart attacks. But computers give adults a chance to have ordinary, light-up-your-face-with-smiles fun.
Audio fans are especially lucky. Windows 95 and 98 are rich with features that programmers can use to turn a modern PC into a hi-fi control center as advanced as any stereo receiver you can buy for your living room. PCs often come with basic hi-fi control centers, but you can find fancier ones that you can download from a Internet site.
My favorite is the WillowMedia control center from Willow Pond, which costs $30. You can download a trial version for free from http://www.willowpond.com/.
The old-fashioned kind of audio control center—the one that sits on a shelf and has wires plugged into the back of it—provides bass, treble and volume controls, as well as knobs for adjusting a lot of other things that make the sound better. A good audio control center also integrates all the sources of sound, so you can adjust everything from one panel.
That's just what a PC-based media control center does, except that the "device" is on your screen, and, of course, it's based on a software program. The best control centers for PCs running Windows 95 and 98 look just like the old kind, with sliders and dials and readouts. WillowMedia takes this one step further, giving you a delightful display of a tape deck (with little spinning reels inside a cassette) and a miniature see-through hard drive with a platter that spins. And the soft green dials on the WillowMedia console look much better than the ones on my old-fashioned super-buck audio gear.
The fancier the sound system in your PC, the more features you get in the WillowMedia control center. The control center checks the original equipment in your PC and incorporates the functions your PC came with. (On one PC I tested WillowMedia on, for example, a slider slowed up labeled "SRS" for the surround-sound processor, and on another PC I noted a slider called "3D" for a similar function.)
The control center plays audio CDs, MIDI files, WAV files and any other audio formats that are supported by your PC's audio drivers. Because I have a number of programs that play MPEG Layer 3 (MP3) audio files, my main PC has drivers for high-quality MPEG audio, and the WillowMedia player did a fine job playing all the MP3 files I queued up in the play list.
In looks alone, the WillowMedia control center would be a steal. But Willow Pond has added a module that turns your PC into a voice-mail center if you have a modem that supports voice functions (most new ones do). A software-based answering machine in that module answers calls and takes messages. You have to have your PC on all the time to do this, of course.
Even if you try the WillowMedia control center and decide not to buy it, look around on the Willow Pond site for a free upgrade to the control center that came with your PC. Willow Pond designs media centers for many PC manufacturers, and has upgraded versions at no cost for all of the media centers it supplies to manufacturers.