Windows Media Player keeps re-opening? Stuck key on keyboard?

Being at home this week means that I have had a stack of “jobs” to get through (and I haven’t completed most of them… although at least the decorating is done) but it also means I’m “on call” for family IT issues.

This morning, my wife exclaimed that Windows Media Player was “throbbing” in the taskbar on her Windows 7 computer. Sure enough, there it was, pulsing away to suggest an alert but there was no dialog asking for input. I closed Media Player and it came back; I killed the process via Task Manager and it came back; I did what every self-respecting PC support guy would do and asked when she last rebooted the computer and Mrs W replied that she had already tried that (as every self-respecting user will respond to such advice!)…

Fearing a virus I decided to search the net for advice and found a Tom’s Hardware forum post which suggested it might be a stuck media key. Sure enough, examining the external keyboard shown that was the problem! A quick nudge on the key and Windows Media Player started to behave itself again…

Embedding Windows Media in a SharePoint website

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in front of a green screen in a meeting room that had been “converted” into a temporary film studio, recording a video for internal communication on the technology standardisation initiatives I’ve been running for the last few months.  After all the edits and final approvals, the videos are now coming online and, as “Chief SharePoint Officer” for our team (I jest), it was up to me to hack our portal and get them online.

I figured that the guys in our internal studio must have done this before and, sure enough, the advice I received was to use JWPlayer for Flash content or to embed a media player for Windows Media files. We went with Windows Media (I can play the WMVs offline too), so I used a method described on Stack Overflow to embed an object inside a SharePoint Content Editor Web Part.

I’m sure that there are alternatives that provide better cross-browser support but as this is a SharePoint 2007 website, the only browser that will be used is some variant of Internet Exploder (and our corporate browser is Internet Explorer 8) so not too much to worry about.

I needed just one slight variation.  The videos I used were 480×270 pixels so, with the controls, I needed the player to be slightly taller. Playing around until I had no black bars around the video got me to the following code:

A full-quality download of this video is also available.

Recording Windows Media screencasts

Next month, I’ll be delivering a couple of presentations on behalf of the Windows Server Team UK at the Microsoft UK user groups community day. It won’t be the same without Scotty (who first invited me to take part) and I’ve never presented to a large group before so, frankly, I’m more than a little nervous (and if I’ve asked too many questions in one of your presentations – I’m thinking here of Eileen, Steve, John, James, Jason, et al. – now is the chance for you to get your own back).

Anyway, I’m working on some insurance policies to help make sure that the demo gods look favourably on me – one of which is pre-recording some of my demos. In truth, it’s not just to make sure that the demos run smoothly, but also to condense 10 minutes of activities down into 2 (watching progress bars during the installation of Windows components is hardly exciting). So, I’ve been recording some screencasts (aka. blogcasts, vodcasts, vidcasts, video podcasts, etc.) to fall back on. It turns out to be quite simple – based largely on a post that John Howard wrote a while back with recorder settings for Windows Media Encoder (WME).

First of all, download a copy of Windows Media Encoder (I used and it seems to run fine on my x64 installation of Windows Server 2008, although I’ve just noticed that there is an x64 version available that I will install and use next time.

Next, drop the screen resolution and colour depth. John recommended 800×600 pixels at 16-bit colour depth but I used a slightly different method, capturing just one window (a remote desktop connection to a another machine, with the RDP connection running at 800×600). I also found that the capture was a little taxing on my graphics hardware, so it was worth dropping back to the Windows Vista basic display settings for a while (I reverted to Aero once I had captured the video).

When WME loads, it starts a wizard to create a session – I chose to ignore that and configure session properties manually. The key items are:

  • Sources tab: Provide a name for your source, check video and select Screen Capture (click configure to select a window or region for capture), check audio and select an appropriate source (I chose to record without any sound and added a soundtrack later).
  • Output tab: Deselect pull from encoder, check encode to file and enter a filename.
  • Compression tab: Select a destination of web server (progressive download) with screen capture (CBR) video encoding and a voice quality audio (CBR) audio encoding, select a bit rate of 93kbps and edit the encoding to use Windows Media Audio Voice 9 and Windows Media Video 9 Screen, with a custom video format and no interlacing or non-square pixels, finally, edit the buffer size to 8 seconds and the video smoothness to 100.
  • Attributes tab: Add some metadata for the recording.

All other settings can be left at their defaults.

After recording (encoding) the required demonstrations, there should be some .WMV files in the output directory. I had planned to edit these on the Mac but decided to stick with Windows Media and downloaded Windows Movie Maker 2.6 instead. This is a little basic and a bit buggy at times (with some caching going on as I took several takes to correctly narrate the screencast, sometimes necessitating exiting and restarting the application before it would pick up the correct recording) but on the whole it was perfectly good enough for recording screencasts.

The resulting output was then saved as another Windows Media File, ready for import into my PowerPoint deck.

I’m not going to start screencasting on this blog just yet. Firstly, it will kill my bandwidth (although I could use YouTube or another online service). Secondly, writing is time-consuming enough – video will just be too labour-intensive. Thirdly, I don’t think I’ve found any content yet that really needs video. In the meantime, I’m hoping that this method will allow me to show some working demos at Microsoft’s offices in Reading on on 9 April.

Creating a Media Center Mac

It’s not often that I come away from a Microsoft event as excited as I was after the recent Vista after hours session.

You see, we have a problem at home… our DVD player has stopped recognising discs. That shouldn’t really be a problem (DVD players are cheap enough to replace) but it’s a CD/DVD player, tuner and surround-sound amplifier and I don’t really want to have to replace the entire system because of one broken DVD drive. So I took it apart (thinking that Sony might use the same drives in their consumer electronic devices as in a normal PCs), only to find that the externally slim slot-loading drive is actually a huge beast with cogs and is actually nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Faced with the prospect of a hefty repair bill, I began to think that this (combined with the fact that we never know what is on our video tapes) could be the excuse I need to install a media PC in the living room? Well, possibly, but there are some hurdles to overcome first.

I’ve been toying with a media PC for a while now but, however hard manufacturers try, pretty much none of them is likely to pass the wife approval factor (WAF) – not even the lovely machines produced by a French system builder called Invasion.

It’s not that my wife is demanding – far from it in fact – but she wasn’t too keen on my “black loud cr@p” (my semi-decent hi-fi separates) when we first moved in together and the shiny silver box (the one that’s now broken) was the replacement… I just can’t see anything that isn’t similarly small and shiny being tolerated anywhere other than my den.

I even saw an article in the July 2006 edition of Personal Computer World magazine, which showed how to build a living room PC using old hi-fi separates for the case; however you need a pretty large case for anything that’s going to make use of full-size PC components. Then there’s the issue of the system software… I tried Media Portal a while back but found it a bit buggy; Myth TV is supposed to be pretty good but I believe it can also be difficult to set up properly; the Apple TV sounded good at first – except that it doesn’t have PVR capabilities and relies on many hacks to get it working the way I would like it and (crucially) lists a TV with HDMI or component video inputs as one of its prerequisites – I was beginning to think that the best answer for me may be a Mac Mini with a TV adapter hooked up to my aging, but rather good, Sony Trinitron TV.

Then, at the Vista After Hours event, I saw the latest version of Windows Media Center – Mac OS X includes Front Row but Media Center has some killer features… and I have two spare copies of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition (thank you Microsoft)! Why not install Vista on a Mac Mini, then plug in a USB TV tuner (maybe more than one) and use this as a DVD player, PVR and all round home entertainment system?

I’ve written previously about installing Windows Vista on my Mac but I never activated that installation and I later removed Boot Camp altogether as I found that I never actually bothered to boot into Windows. The latest Boot Camp beta (v1.2) includes Windows Vista support (including drivers for the remote control) so I thought I’d give it a try on my existing Mac Mini before (potentially) splashing out on another one for the living room.

After downloading and installing Boot Camp and running the Boot Camp Assistant to create a Windows driver CD, I moved on to partitioning the disk, only to be presented with the following error:

The disk cannot be partitioned because some files cannot be moved.  Backup the disk and use Disk Utility to format as a single Mac OS Extended (Journaled) volume.  Restore your information to the disk and try using Boot Camp Assistant again.

Backing up and restoring my system… sounds a bit risky to me.

Then I found Garrett Murray’s post about how the problem is really caused by files over 4GB in size. That may have worked in Garrett’s case (FAT32 disks will not support files over 4GB) but despite using WhatSize to track down a DVD image that was taking a chunk of space on my disk, I couldn’t get past the message (even after various reboots, starting the system in single user mode to run AppleJack and even starting the system without any login items). In the end, I gave in and accepted that my system disk required defragmenting, setting about the lengthy process of backing up with Carbon Copy Cloner, booting from the backup disk, erasing the system disk and restoring my data. Thankfully this worked and left me with a defragmented system disk, which Boot Camp Assistant was able to divide into two partitions.

After catching some sleep, I set about the installation of Windows Vista. I had a few issues with Boot Camp Assistant failing to recognise my DVD (either the one I created with the RTM files from Microsoft Connect, or a genuine DVD from Microsoft) – this was the message:

The installer CD could not be found.  Insert your Windows CD and wait a few seconds for the disk to be recognized.

It turns out that Boot Camp Assistant wasn’t happy with me running as a standard user – once I switched to an Administrator account everything kicked into life and I soon had Vista installed after a very straightforward installation. Furthermore, Apple has done a lot of work on Windows driver support and items that didn’t work with my previous attempt (like the Apple Remote) are now supported by Boot Camp 1.2 and Windows Vista. Sadly, my external iSight camera does not seem to be supported (only the internal variants). It also seems that my Windows Experience Index base score has improved to 3.3 (it was 3.0 when I installed Vista as an upgrade from Windows XP with Boot Camp v1.1.2).

After this, it wasn’t long before I had Media Center up and running, connected to the TV in my office – although that’s where the disappointment started. The Apple Remote does work but it’s so simple that menu controls (Media Center and DVD menus) necessitate resorting to keyboard/mouse control – basically all that it can do is adjust the volume, skip forward/backwards, play and pause. What I needed was a Windows Media Remote (and so what if it has 44 buttons instead of six? The Apple remote is far more elegant but six buttons clearly isn’t enough!):

Apple remote control Windows Media Center remote control

(It’s a pity that I didn’t see the pictures of the prototype Windows Vista Media Center remotes first, or else I would have tried to get one of the alternative remotes from Philips).

Also, after switching back to my monitor, the display had reverted to basic (2D) graphics and I needed to re-enable the Windows Aero theme. Clearly that’s a little cumbersome and would soon become a pain if I had to do it frequently; however in practice it’s likely that I’ll leave the computer connected to either the TV or the monitor – not both.

I also needed a TV receiver – I was able to pick up an inexpensive Freeview (DVB-T) USB adapter (£29.99 including postage) and a Windows Media Remote (£21.99). Although the Digital terrestrial TV signal in my house is weak, I was pretty sure that I’d be able to boost it, and anyway, having a portable Freeview device will always be handy. Windows Vista didn’t recognise the device natively but I downloaded the latest drivers and despite being unsigned, they installed without issue. Unfortunately, Windows Media Center still didn’t recognise my tuner but the problem turned out to be that I had plugged the device into the Apple keyboard (which I think is USB 1.1) and once I plugged it into on of the Mac’s own USB 2.0 ports then I was able to set up the TV functionality within Windows Media Center – no need to bother with the TV guide and tuning software supplied with the device (although it did take a while to download the TV program guide and to scan for channels).

My local TV transmitter is at Sandy Heath and, although I tried other transmitters too, using the supplied aerial I could only pick up channels in multiplex D. Even the cheap £9.99 Labgear aerial that sits on top of my TV could pick up those channels! Ideally, I’d use an externally-mounted roof aerial but that wasn’t an option and for £19.99 I picked up the highly-rated Telecam TCE2001 at and was able to pick up 53 channels in mutiplexes 1, 2, B, C and D (and that was without using the signal booster). By boosting the signal the scan picked up 70 channels, although not all of them were strong enough to view.

As for the Windows Media Remote, I found that it didn’t work with the built-in IR receiver (it needed to use the supplied, but rather bulky Microsoft receiver); however this is not as bad as it sounds – the Microsoft receiver has a long USB cable, meaning that it can be placed next to the TV (the logical place to point the remote at), rather than wherever the computer is.

So, with working drivers and a functioning remote control, Windows Media Center was happy enough to let me watch and record TV using it’s built in electronic programme guide…

The final piece of the puzzle was pre-recorded media in a variety of formats such as QuickTime movies and DivX. After transferring the files from an OS X hard drive to something that Windows could read, I decided to see what Windows Media Center could play. I’m still working out exactly which codecs I need – I tried various combinations of XviD/DivX/3ivX plus the AC3 filter and ffdshow – these seemed to enable most of my content; however I’m still experiencing difficulties with some movies that were originally encoded as AVI and then converted for QuickTime/iTunes on the Mac (using Apple QuickTime Pro) and also some unprotected AAC audio with JPEG stills in the video track – e.g. some of the podcasts that I listen to. Through all this codec troubleshooting, one tool that I found incredibly useful was GSpot.

[the original version of this post referred to a codec pack which I have been advised may contain illegal software. As it is not my intention to publicly condone the use of such software, and as I’m not convinced that it is required in order to make this solution work, I have removed it from this post and edited the corresponding comments.]

After going to all of this effort to get Media Center running on my Mac, was it worth it? Yes! The Windows Media Center (2007) interface is excellent, without a hint of the standard Windows interface (as is right for a consumer electronics device) and is simply (and intuitively) controlled using the remote control. It’s not perfect (very few interfaces are) but it is better than Front Row. If I do carry on using this to record TV though, I will need to provide more disk space. One feature that I particularly liked though, was how, even when working in other Windows applications, a discrete taskbar notification appeared, showing me that Media Center was recording something:

Windows Media Center recording notification

So, having tested this Media Center Mac concept on the Mac Mini that I use for my daily computing, I need to decide whether to donate it for family use in the living room and buy myself something new (MacBook Pro or Mac Pro are just too pricey to justify… but should I get a MacBook or another Mac Mini?) or just to pick up a second-hand Mac Mini for the family. The trouble is that second-hand Mac Minis cost almost as much as new ones. Still, at least I’ve proved the concept… I’ll have to see if this technology bundle passes the WAF test first!

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.

Where are the WVP2 codecs for QuickTime on a Mac?

It’s generally accepted that Macs are great computers for graphic design and audio-visual work – so why is it so hard to play Windows Media content on a Mac? I know that QuickTime is the centre of Apple’s audio-visual experience – so why should Apple support competing formats – but perhaps I should really ask why the various software companies have seen fit to introduce such a myriad of audio and video codecs? I’m a techie and I can only just keep up – think about the poor consumer who just wants to share some family videos with the grandparents!

The trouble is that Microsoft, as the developer of the most widely installed operating system on the planet (with a correspondingly huge number of multimedia file formats as described in Microsoft knowledge base article 316922), has seen fit to dump development of Windows Media products for other platforms. Quoting part of the Wikipedia article on Windows Media Player:

Version 9 was the final version of Windows Media Player to be released for Mac OS X before development was cancelled by Microsoft. WMP for Mac OS X received widespread criticism from Mac users due to poor performance and features. Developed by the Windows Media team at Microsoft instead of the Macintosh Business Unit and released in 2003, on release the application lacked many basic features that were found in other media players such as Apple’s iTunes and QuickTime Player. It also lacked support for many media formats that version 9 of the Windows counterpart supported on release 10 months earlier.

The Mac version supported only Windows Media encoded media (up to version 9) enclosed in the ASF format, lacking support for all other formats such as MP4, MPEG, and Microsoft’s own AVI format. On the user interface front, it did not prevent screensavers from running during playback, it did not support file drag-and-drop, nor did it support playlists. While Windows Media Player 9 had added support for some files that use the WMV9 codec (also known as the WMV3 codec), in other aspects it was seen as having degraded in features from previous versions.

On January 12, 2006 Microsoft announced it had ceased development of Windows Media Player for Mac.[4] Microsoft now distributes a third-party plugin called WMV Player (produced and maintained by Flip4Mac) which allows some forms of Windows Media to be played within Apple’s QuickTime player and other QuickTime-aware applications.[5] Mac users can also use the free software media player VLC, which is also able to play WMV-3 / WMV-9 / VC-1 Windows Media files.

It seems that the Flip4Mac WMV Player, which should provide the missing Windows Media support for Mac users (as endorsed by Microsoft) does not support all Windows Media codecs, namely it refuses to play content encoded with the Windows Media Video 9 Image v2 (WVP2) codec.

I can understand Microsoft’s position – after all they want to preserve their market share – so why doesn’t Apple make it easier for switchers with legacy video content? As the iLife applications are such a selling point for Apple, why not make it easier to convert from the Windows equivalents?

My problem is that, for the last few years, I’ve been creating home video content using Windows Movie Maker and Photo Story. They may not be the best video applications in the world but they are fine for movies of holidays and the kids and are included with Windows XP (well, Movie Maker is – Photo Story is a free add on). Nowadays, I have a Mac but I still want to play my old content.  The resulting WMV content from Movie Maker hasn’t caused too many problems as it uses the Windows Media Audio 9.1 and Windows Media Video 9 (WMV3) codecs and simply needs appropriate QuickTime components to be installed. Unfortunately the Photo Story output refuses to play the (WVP2) video track in either QuickTime (WMV Player) or Windows Media Player for Mac OS X and as far as I can tell there are no suitable codecs available.

In desperation, I went back to PhotoStory and tried to export in another format but there is no such option (it supports various screen sizes and frame rates but they all seem to be using the same codec).

One macKB thread suggests using Dr Div X to convert the file but the latest version of Dr DivX failed (on both Windows and Mac); similarly the DivX Converter didn’t work for me.

Eventually, I found a utility that could convert the file for me (Advanced X Video Converter) – it’s done a good job although whilst the quality is acceptable for my home movies there are some visible compression artifacts (I used the H264 video and 24bit audio codecs to convert to a .MOV file). In fairness, the compression artifacts may also be visible in the original WMV file and anyway they are hardly surprisingly as the video was created from compressed JPEG and MP3 files, which have then been compressed to WMV and once more to MOV so the quality is certain to have suffered along the way. What’s possibly of greater concern is the resulting increase in file size – up from 19.5MB to 431.4MB.

I’m glad I got there in the end – for a while it seemed that I would have to keep a Windows virtual machine just to play old home movies – and there I was, naively believing that converting to digital capture and storage would save me from issues with legacy formats.

Multimedia file format conversions, ripping DVDs, playback and more

Recently, I’ve had cause to convert various multimedia items between formats and it’s not always been straightforward. I’m still learning as DRM, codecs and platform-related issues often complicate the process but this post summarises what I learned along the way with:

  • Grabbing audio content from another application.
  • Trimming audio files down to a particular section.
  • Converting Flash video (.FLV) files to video (as well as converting between a variety of other video formats).
  • Ripping DVD content for playback on the computer.
  • Playing Windows Media content on a Mac.
  • Playing QuickTime content in full-screen mode without buying QuickTime Pro.

I carry out most of my multimedia work on a Mac but some of these solutions will be equally applicable to Windows and possibly even to Linux users.

Grabbing audio content from another application

I’ve just three words to say that will describe how I did this – Audio Hijack Pro – a great application from Rogue Amoeba which takes the audio from any running application and allows it to be recorded.

Trimming audio files down to a particular section

In this scenario, I had about half an hour’s worth of audio, but only wanted to publish a section which was about 3 minutes in length. Apple QuickTime Pro will let me trim tracks, but didn’t seem to let me set the start and end points as accurately as I needed. There is another Rogue Amoeba application that I could use for this (Fission) but tasks like this are pretty rare for me and I didn’t want to pay $32 for what could potentially be a single use (the demo version inserts fades into the track to encourage purchase of the full software which seems fair enough as at least it lets me try before I buy). Instead, I used MP3 Trimmer from Deep Niner – the interface may not be as good as Fission’s, but it’s a fully-functional demo with no time limits and registration is just $10.95 should I find myself needing to trim MP3s more often.

Converting Flash video (.FLV) files to video (as well as converting between a variety of other video formats)

I spent all afternoon yesterday trying to work this one out – I had a bunch of Flash videos which I had downloaded from a website and although I could play them using Eltima Software’s SWF and FLV Player, I wanted to play them in iTunes. After searching the net for hours all roads seemed to lead to a Windows application that would convert the files to MPEG4 format for me (Moyea FLV to Video Converter). The demo version of this application inserts a watermark in the centre of the video (again, that’s fair enough – this is try before you buy) but as I really wanted something for my Mac I decided not to part with the $39.95.

Later that evening, my friend Alex recommended Perian to help me out with problems ripping a DVD (see below) and I found out that the Perian component for QuickTime had already been installed (probably when I had a quick look at the Democracy Player a few weeks back) so QuickTime could already play back my .FLV files! Because I have QuickTime Pro, it can also save the files as .MOVs although I’ve since found Vixy – an online service that will also carry out the conversion from Flash video to a variety of MPEG4 video formats including .AVI/.MOV/.MP4 and .3GP or to .MP3 (audio only).

After I’d done all this, Alex (who really should blog more often about the huge volumes of Mac and Internet-related stuff that he knows and I don’t) told me that he uses iSquint for converting Flash Video for iTunes playback. I had been under the impression that iSquint would reduce the picture size for iPod playback but it seems it can also retain TV size (whatever that is). iSquint also has a grown-up brother – Visual Hub – and, although I haven’t used it yet, it looks to be a pretty useful program which “bridges the gap between numerous complicated video formatting standards”.

Another toolset which may be useful is ffmpegX, which provides a Mac OS X interface to a number of open-source video and audio processing tools. There’s also the Apple QuickTime MPEG-2 Playback component, which enables QuickTime to play Video CD (MPEG1) and DVD (MPEG2) content and even convert them to MPEG4.

Ripping DVD content for playback on the computer

Ripping DVDs. Surely that’s illegal? Only if I then pass copies on to others, which of course I won’t, will I? Let’s be clear from the start that I’m only talking about backing up legally purchased content for personal use.

One application commonly used to make backup copies of DVDs is Mac the Ripper. There is a Windows application called DVDShrink (which allows the DVD content to be reauthored and if necessary “shrunk” to fit on a standard DVD) but to simply rip a copy for local playback the most commonly used application is HandBrake (also available for a while as MediaFork but the two development streams have now merged and future versions will be known as HandBrake). I was having problems using this last night but once I stopped trying to rip at a constant quality of 100% quality (and stuck with the default setting of an average bitrate of 1000kbps – perfectly acceptable for computer playback) everything was fine.

Others have written better guides on this than me… you can find some here:

Playing Windows Media content on a Mac

Although I have a copy of Windows Media Player 9 for Mac OS X (which I think came with Office 2004 for Mac), Microsoft discontinued development of this product a while back and now distributes the free Flip4Mac Player as the Windows Media Components for QuickTime. Unfortunately there is no support for content that is protected with Windows Media digital rights management (DRM) but I’m sure there are cracks and workarounds for those who are motivated to do so… if the BBC distributes content in Windows Media format (therefore cutting out Mac and Linux users) then I might even have a look myself… the Wikipedia article on DRM is a good place to start.

Playing QuickTime content in full-screen mode without buying QuickTime Pro

Apple QuickTime Pro it is a handy application for $29.99 (although, yet again Apple rips us off in the UK with a dodgy exchange rate so it’s £20 here) as it can be extended to play other media formats (as discussed above); however one of the Pro benefits is playing content in full-screen mode. It seems that Mac users can trick the standard QuickTime application into playing content in full-screen mode using a little AppleScript. For QuickTime users on Windows, I wrote about some methods for full-screen MPEG4 playback last year – including simply playing the content through iTunes!

I hope this pile of multimedia tips has been useful. Comments are welcome from those who have other free or low-cost solutions to contribute to the mix.

Visualizations for Windows Media Player

I’ve just installed a really cool visualization for Windows Media Player 10 – Energy Bliss. A chilled-out graphic equaliser display with inline album artwork and track information.

For anyone who is still using Windows Media 9 Series, check out the Rhythm and Waves visualization.

These visualizations (and more) are available from the Microsoft website.