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Telestream Flip4Mac WMV 2.0

Windows Media playback, import and export components for QuickTime By Kevin Schmitt

Summary: Since no new tangible features have been added from version 1, Flip4Mac WMV 2.0 isn't so much an upgrade as it is a coming-out party. However, the free player, free upgrades for previous purchasers, new (and thoughtful) product tiers, and an alliance with Microsoft keep the best Mac-based WMV tools going strong.
Manufacturer: Telestream (http://www.flip4mac.com/)
Platform: Mac OS X 10.3.9 and up (PPC-only, Universal support has been pledged but no official availability announcement has been made as of this writing)
Price: WMV Player: Free; WMV Import: $29; WMV Studio, $49; WMV Studio Pro: $99; WMV Studio Pro HD: $179
Users: Video producers, Web designers and developers
Recommendation: Overall: Strong Buy

I'm sure there were others, but to my recollection, only iTunes 5 stayed at a full version number for less time than Telestream's Flip4Mac WMV 1. But here we are, less than a year later, and already Flip4Mac WMV 2 has been released. And even though the the product itself hasn't appreciably changed from version 1, there is still much to discuss.

A new dawn

Telestream had BIG NEWS regarding Flip4Mac WMV recently, announcing that Microsoft (of the Redmond Microsofts) would be distributing the Flip4Mac WMV components directly. What's more, Microsoft then announced that it would be feeding the Mac version of its Windows Media Player to the proverbial fishes, effectively making the Flip4Mac WMV player the "official" method for playing back WMV and WMA files on your Mac or in Mac browsers. That's a relatively gigantic shift, assuming, of course, that Windows Media playback is of any importance to you. For many Mac users, Windows Media isn't absolutely vital to the computing experience, but with so many media providers (unfortunately) standardizing on Windows Media, it's always a bonus if us Mac users can at least have the capability of reliably accessing such content. And for media producers who need to actually generate Windows Media-based content, the ability to create high-quality Windows Media (a phrase that may be something of an oxymoron to many Mac faithful) on a Mac at all is quite an accomplishment.

That's what made Flip4Mac's WMV products so initially appealing. It wasn't just the playback and encoding of Windows Media files, it was how the product fully integrated Windows Media into Quicktime, creating a truly seamless experience for Mac users. It didn't introduce some new player or strange encoding process?it was as simple as viewing or making QuickTime (fig. 1). That falls into what we call the "good" category. With version 2, nothing has really changed with the product itself; however, Flip4Mac WMV's newfound "big cheese" status as well as the revision in the product tiers warrants some explanation.


Figure 1: Looks like a QuickTime file to me.

More good news

This is going to be something of a different assessment than usual, as the review David Nagel posted on Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro (version 1) remains as relevant today as it did back in May of last year, so I suggest you read that piece as a companion to this one. What we're going to do today is look over the new product delineations and follow-up on the speed issue Dave reported on to see if there has been any improvement there. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, two more tidbits are worth mentioning right off the bat.

One, the WMV Player component is now free, a revelation that probably does not come as any consolation to those who may have just recently purchased the formerly $10 player-only product from the original Flip4Mac WMV suite (I did so back in June, and enough time has passed that I don't feel too horribly about it). So there's literally zero reason not to download it and give it a try, because it will cost you nothing. If you don't like it, you can always make use of the handy-dandy uninstaller program, which is new to version 2. I recommend downloading the suite directly from the Flip4Mac site itself (rather than Microsoft's site), as Microsoft was already distributing an older, buggier version of the Flip4Mac WMV components while the Flip4Mac site itself had an updated (2.0.1) version. For now, it's best to go to the source, and I hope there will be better version parity between the two parties in the future to avoid further confusion.

The second item of note is that upgrades from version 1 are also free. This is excellent news, of course, but there may be some brow-furrowing as to which product from version 1 translates to which version 2 product, since version 1 had 4 tiers and version 2 now has five. So, here's a list of how the upgrades shake themselves out:

Old: Flip4Mac WMV Player
New: Flip4Mac WMV Player

Old: Flip4Mac WMV Player Pro
New: Flip4Mac WMV Import

Old: Flip4Mac WMV Studio
New: Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro

Old: Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro
New: Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro HD

There's also a new, middle-ground product called Flip4Mac WMV Studio, which we'll discuss further in our breakdown of all the new product names. Speaking of which, there's no time like the present to get that going. Keep in mind that each step up you take includes everything in the products lower down on the depth chart, so the more expensive the products get, the more functionality is layered on top of what's already there.

Flip4Mac WMV Player

Price: Free
Rating: Must Buy (or "Must Try," since we're talking about a free product)

I suspect that this is the component of interest to most, since just about all Mac users need at least occasional Windows Media playback. First, allow me to mention three large limitations, none of which have been addressed since the last version: one, only up to Windows Media 9 is supported (Windows Media is currently at version 10). Two, WMV Player still will not play protected files, meaning no Windows Media content that has been "enhanced" by DRM is supported. Three, there is still no playback of content encoded to WMV Advanced (the Microsoft player doesn't do that either, though). None of these should represent a big loss to most, but limitations are limitations. A Telestream rep I talked to couldn't/wouldn't give me a definitive answer as to the status of implementing those features, stressing only "continued feature enhancement and development," so the best I can say to do is stay tuned.

However, the content that the WMV Player does play plays very, very well. WMV Player supports a pretty broad range of Windows Media-related codecs, including WMV 7, 8 and 9 on the video side (HD too), as well as WMA 7, 8 and 9 (even those encoded to WMA Professional and Lossless) for audio. I pulled up a bunch of WMV files I had scattered about from various projects, and WMV Player handled each of the fifty or so I tried flawlessly. It's excellent to have frame-by-frame playback and scrubbing of WMV files through the QuickTime player (fig. 2), so I haven't missed my already-trashed Microsoft Windows Media Player for Mac one bit. You can even use QuickTime's Open URL command to initiate MMS streams, causing the WMV components to handle Windows Media audio streams through the QuickTime Player as well. Very nice.


Figure 2: That's a WMV preview streaming directly into the QuickTime Player.

Browser playback, however, is hit and miss. First of all, WMV Player performance really only works well in Safari?Firefox/Camino and Opera users will get playback, but sometimes displayed oddly (fig. 3).


Figure 3: Ugh.

However, when it works, Safari playback is really nice. Some issues with sites lay firmly at the feet of the provider, locking Mac users out through browser sniffing or whatever, but the larger issue is overall site compatibility. For example, CNN video works very well (fig. 4, left), but you're out of luck if you want to watch clips of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report over on Comedy Central's site (fig. 4, right).


Figure 4: Yes, that's an oh-so-helpful "-19162" error on the right there..

The Flip4Mac forums are abuzz with site incompatibility problems (which Telestream posters claim they are working on), so it's safe to say that individual site support is spotty at best. I recommend installing the WMV Player and testing it out for yourself, and if you need to revert to the Microsoft player plug-in, you can easily defer to that for browsing through the Flip4Mac preference pane located in your System Preferences (fig. 5).


Figure 5

Despite the obvious problems, the WMV Player still gets a "Must Try," since it's free, it works for a lot of Windows Media content (especially when dealing with QuickTime Player integration), it's a really elegant system, and it's where Windows Media playback on the Mac is headed.


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Related Keywords:flip4mac, telestream, windows media, quicktime, components

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