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July 17, 2002—In this issue:
1. GETTING CONNECTED
- Picking a Media Player Isn't So Simple These Days
2. NEWS AND VIEWS
- Congress: For the Recording Industry, By the Recording Industry
- Memory So Small You Could Inhale It by Mistake
- Mac Users Are Smarter, More Affluent
- Microsoft to Enter Home Networking Market
- Microsoft to Port Halo to PC, Mac
- Enter the Windows & .NET Magazine/Transcender Sweepstakes!
- Real-World Tips and Solutions Here For You
4. QUICK POLL
- Results of Last Week's Poll: First Computer
- New Poll: Media Players
- Tip: You Can Never Have Too Much Memory
- Featured Thread: Satellite TV
6. NEW AND IMPROVED
- Prevent Water Damage
7. CONTACT US
- See this section for a list of ways to contact us.
1. GETTING CONNECTED
By Paul Thurrott, News Editor, [email protected]
Typically, I'm comfortable doling out advice about various digital media- and connected home-related topics, but if my recent attempt at writing a roundup of Windows XP-compatible media players has proven anything to me, it's that I still have a lot to learn. That experience taught me two important lessons. First, modern media players are complicated and offer a wealth of features, many of which won't interest the average user. Second, everyone seems to want something different from a media player. You can see why picking one product as the best all-around solution is often impossible.
The sheer range of media player choices for PCs has the contradictory effect of making the selection even more difficult. For Mac OS X, the choices are more simplistic and, frankly, less unsettling: Apple Computer provides an excellent streaming video player (QuickTime Player) and digital music management/playback tool (iTunes) with every Macintosh, and both work well enough that you have little reason to look elsewhere. What Mac OS X lacks is good Windows Media Audio (WMA) integration (iTunes isn't compatible with WMA, and Microsoft's Windows Media Player—WMP—for the Mac is designed solely for streaming playback and is quite limited) and compatibility with RealNetworks' popular streaming formats (RealOne for Mac OS X will likely be announced this week, however).
On Windows, the media player situation is a mess, especially if you have an old Windows version. However, XP ships with Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP, aka WMP 8), which is an excellent product, albeit one with some serious performance problems. I love MPXP's media-management capabilities and use it to organize my media library, create custom playlists, rip (i.e., record) and burn audio CDs, and copy music to portable devices. It excels in these areas. For most XP users, MPXP will fit the bill. Where MPXP falls short is in MP3 compatibility: If you want to rip digital music in MP3 format with MPXP, you need to purchase a $10 add-on. (Conversely, MPXP can play and manage MP3 files out of the box.)
Older WMP versions don't fare so well. WMP 7.x, which is available for Windows Me, Windows 2000, Windows NT 4.0, and Windows 98, offers poorer performance than MPXP, slower CD ripping and writing speeds, and a dire UI. I recommend that non-XP users look elsewhere (I'll examine the best complete solutions a little later).
After you consider a media player's simple playback and media-organization features, you need to think about the ways in which you'll use a media player. If your needs don't go beyond what we've already discussed, then you can stick with what comes with Windows. After all, Microsoft's products are good, and they're free in the sense that they don't impose any additional cost over what you paid for the OS.
But if you need more than just the simple features, one of your main considerations will be file format compatibility. The two most popular non-Microsoft streaming formats are RealAudio/RealVideo and QuickTime Player, and neither of them will work with WMP or, for that matter, any other Windows-based media player. So, you'll need to download at least the free versions of RealNetworks' RealOne and QuickTime Player (see the URLs below) if you want to take advantage of all the digital media content that's available online. RealOne is visually attractive and, if you shell out $20 for RealOne Plus, an excellent competitor to MPXP as well, with media-management, CD ripping and burning, and other MPXP-like capabilities. However, RealNetworks' products are awash with advertising, even in RealOne Plus, and I don't like that. The products are basically just ads for RealNetworks' monthly subscription services ($10 per month and up), which I also don't appreciate. Because of the in-your-face advertising, I'm not a big fan of RealNetworks' products and don't recommend that you pay for RealOne Plus.
The Windows version of Apple's QuickTime Player is another nonstarter. The freebie version will play back QuickTime clips (but not full screen), and the $30 QuickTime Pro version offers full-screen playback and a host of other features. However, the product performs poorly on Windows, and unless you need full-screen playback, I recommend sticking with the free version (this recommendation doesn't hold for the Mac, where QuickTime Pro looks and performs much better than its Windows counterpart).
Beyond compatibility, you need to consider media player features. MPXP, RealOne, and the excellent MUSICMATCH Jukebox all let you rip audio CDs, burn custom-mix CDs, manage your music library, listen to Internet radio stations, and play MP3 and WMA music. Each product offers a few unique features that might tip the scales when it comes time to make your decision. If you choose RealOne or MUSICMATCH Jukebox, however, I recommend purchasing the paid version (RealOne Plus or MUSICMATCH Jukebox Plus; both cost $20) because they offer faster CD speeds and other features not found in the free versions.
In the unique-features department, MPXP includes support for DVD movie playback if you have compatible decoder software, a feature the other two products lack; Microsoft offers decoder downloads for $15 if the feature doesn't work on your system out of the box. MPXP also includes automatic album art downloading, which is wonderful; MUSICMATCH Jukebox 7.2 Plus added a similar feature. MUSICMATCH Jukebox also includes software to print custom CD labels and playlists, a handy feature when you're reaching into a box of CDs in your car and don't want to waste time popping in unlabeled CDs until you find the right one. RealOne and MUSICMATCH Jukebox offer analog (line-in) recording, a boon to anyone trying to digitally record legacy audio from cassette tape or other audio formats (I'll look at this feature in a future column). RealOne also offers a unique toolbar mode, which significantly reduces the onscreen real estate the product occupies.
Later this week on the SuperSite for Windows (see URL below), I'll provide more in-depth information about the differences between XP-compatible media players. But in the meantime, if digital music is important to you, you'll benefit from spending time reading each manufacturer's Web page and downloading and testing each product before you choose. The media player that's right for me might not be the one that's right for you. But if you look hard enough, you'll find the right product. It's out there.
Windows Media Player
Apple Computer's QuickTime 6
RealNetworks' RealOne Plus (link provided because the product is difficult to find on RealNetworks' Web site)
SuperSite for Windows
2. NEWS AND VIEWS
(An irreverent look at some of the week's news stories, contributed by Paul Thurrott and Keith Furman)
The US Copyright Office has recommended that Congress amend the Copyright Act, which specifies many of the country's fair-use laws, to limit the ways in which consumers can copy, or back up, media. For example, under the proposed law, taping a TV show and lending the tape to a friend would be illegal. Of course, such show-swapping isn't really the target; lawmakers are actually trying to curtail piracy. But as the infamous Sony VCR case from the 1980s resolved, any technology whose primary use is legal can't be forced off the market simply because some illegal uses also exist. Let's hope Congress recognizes legal precedent, eh?
In the unlikely event that you found Sony's current generation Memory Stick flash memory—which is smaller than a stick of gum—to be too large, fear not: Sony is unleashing a new-generation Memory Stick that's only one-third the size of the original. Curiously dubbed Memory Stick Duo, the new memory is aimed at devices such as cell phones and small digital audio players. Something tells us that part of Sony's strategy involves customers constantly losing the tiny plastic slivers and buying new ones to replace them.
Unfortunately, Macintosh users now are also more arrogant. A bizarre new study from Nielson//NetRatings says that Mac users tend to be more Web savvy, better educated, and more affluent than their PC-using compatriots, bringing involuntary Cheshire cat grins to Mac users worldwide. Of course, with only 2.5 percent of the worldwide market, Mac users are also an obvious minority, which means the study's conclusion is about as relevant as saying that Lincoln Navigator owners are more Web savvy, better educated, and more affluent than Ford Taurus drivers. Duh.
Microsoft will enter the home networking hardware market this fall with a suite of 802.11b-based products aimed at making home networking easier and more secure. However, the company is being uncharacteristically vague about its specific product plans, which leads some observers to wonder what the big secret is. Honestly, we're pretty sure Microsoft has no secret per se, but rather a desire to ensure that its competitors don't get a leg up on the company's plans. Expect Microsoft's networking hardware to appear in time for the holiday gift-buying season.
Microsoft will port its Xbox-only game title, Halo, to the PC and Macintosh next year, just in time for everyone who cares about the game to move on to the next big thing. Halo is a first-person shooter with stunningly realistic graphics and excellent game play, but you could make the same claim about many games that were released last year, all of which will be equally out of date when mid-2003 rolls around. The current state of system-exclusive games has left many gamers cold because gamers frequently can't get all the games they want on one system. But in some ways, the game companies' practice of releasing such games a few years later on competing systems is even worse than system exclusivity because the state of the art progresses so quickly in this market. Come on, guys, you should have released Halo on the PC earlier this year.
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4. QUICK POLL
The voting has closed in Connected Home Online's nonscientific Quick Poll for the question, "When did you get your first computer?" Here are the results (+/-2 percent) from the 450 votes:
- 59% Before 1985
- 26% 1985 to 1990
- 9% 1991 to 1995
- 5% 1996 to 2000
- 1% 2001 or later
The next Quick Poll question is, "What is your main purpose for using a media player?" Go to the Connected Home Online home page and submit your vote for a) Playback only, b) Creating custom audio CDs, c) Recording MP3 files, d) Listening to Internet radio, or e) I don't use a media player.
(contributed by Paul Thurrott, [email protected])
Whether it's your home PC, digital camera, or portable digital audio device, you can never have too much memory (i.e., RAM). Today's PC-based digital media tasks—editing video, ripping CD audio, or processing digital photos—take up large amounts of RAM. A faster processor will help with such tasks, but those tasks will be better served by a RAM upgrade, which is simpler than changing processors and offers an even better performance boost. For modern PC and Macintosh systems, I recommend at least 256MB of RAM, and more if you'll be doing video work. Portable devices such as digital cameras will benefit from a RAM upgrade as well: When I recently swapped out the 32MB CompactFlash (CF) card in my 2.2 megapixel camera for a 256MB version, my potential picture-taking capacity rose dramatically from 44 pictures to almost 400 images. And upgradeable digital music players can experience similar results from a simple increase in RAM capacity. Most memory is inexpensive today, too, although you need to shop around for the best deals, especially online.
Got a question or tip? Email [email protected] Please include your full name and email address so that we can contact you.
Phil is considering getting satellite TV service instead of cable TV at his home. He wonders how the signal qualities differ and which option might be best when High-Definition Television (HDTV) becomes widely available. To see responses or to respond, visit the following URL:
Do you have a question about connecting the technology in your home? Do you have a tip for others? The Connected Home Online Forum is the right place to ask for help or share what you know.
6. NEW AND IMPROVED
(contributed by Jason Bovberg, [email protected])
ATEC introduced WaterCop, a wireless emergency water-detection and shutoff system. The WaterCop system helps to protect homes or businesses against water damage that common plumbing leaks and overflows can cause. The system can easily integrate into your existing security systems or other automation systems. Automatic notification options include phone, pager, Internet, PDA, and email functionality. For pricing information, contact ATEC at 801-282-1388 or 866-468-2832.
7. CONTACT US
Here's how to reach us with your comments and questions:
(please mention the newsletter name in the subject line)
- TECHNICAL QUESTIONS — [email protected]
- PRODUCT NEWS — [email protected]
- QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR CONNECTED HOME EXPRESS SUBSCRIPTION?
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