Play anything

Your favorite band releases a live recording on its Web site, but iTunes can’t play it. Your friend sends you a link to an irreverent political spoof, but QuickTime Player can’t open it. With so many Windows-centric files floating around the Internet, it’s easy for Mac users to feel left out. But with the right software—most of which is just a free download away—you can play almost any file your Windows-using friends throw at you.

Audio Conundrums

iTunes 4.7 supports MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV files. To play other file formats, you’ll need to either convert the files into something iTunes recognizes or find an alternative player. Here’s what to do with some of the troublemakers you’re most likely to encounter.

Windows Media Audio
Microsoft is the king of proprietary formats, and Windows Media Audio (WMA) is one of the company’s most popular. You can play almost all WMA files with the help of Microsoft’s free Windows Media Player 9 for Mac OS X.

The player won’t be able to help you with DRM-protected files, such as those purchased from Windows-oriented online music stores—a problem if you’re moving to the Mac from a Windows machine. In this case, your best bet is to burn your purchased songs onto a CD from your Windows machine and then rerip them on the Mac. Windows Media Player also can’t play WMA 10 files, which are less common and require the newer, Windows-only version of the player.

Although Windows Media Player will let you listen to compatible WMA files, it won’t let you export the files to an iTunes-friendly format. If you want to add the songs to your iTunes library, you’ll need to try Patrice Bensoussan’s free EasyWMA. Its simple drag-and-drop interface lets you quickly convert many WMA files to MP3 or WAV files.

For the files EasyWMA can’t handle, there is a more circuitous route. Programs such as Rogue Amoeba’s $16 Audio Hijack and Ambrosia Software’s $19 WireTap Pro can record any sound played on your Mac—including songs played by Windows Media Player. Simply save the recording as an AIFF, MP3, or AAC file, and then import it into iTunes. ( Click here for more on using streaming-audio recorders.)

RealAudio
Another audio format you’re likely to come across on the Web is RealAudio. Like WMA files, RealAudio files require a special player—in this case, the free RealPlayer 10 for Mac OS X. But like Windows Media Player, RealPlayer can’t convert RealAudio files into other formats. You’ll need to use one of the audio recorders mentioned in the previous section to import the songs into iTunes.

Lossless Audio
With iTunes 4.5, Apple added Apple Lossless, an audio codec that compresses audio without throwing away any data. But there are plenty of other lossless formats that iTunes doesn’t support—most notably, SHN (Shorten) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). You’ll likely run into these incompatible formats if you download live performances from places such as the Internet Archive and etree.org’s Community Bittorrent Tracker.

To have iTunes recognize and play these lossless files, you’ll first need to convert them to AIFF or WAV files using Scott Brown’s free xACT. Since the AIFF and WAV formats don’t compress audio, you won’t lose any sound quality in the conversion process. You can then burn the converted files to a CD, or import them into iTunes and convert them to iPod-friendly MP3, AAC, or Apple Lossless files.

If all you want to do is listen to these unsupported audio files, check out Subband Software’s free MacAmp Lite X. MacAmp Lite X can decode and play SHN and FLAC files, as well as numerous others, including Monkey’s Audio (also known as APE) and OGG. (For more on alternative music formats, see “Digital Music Superguide”.)

Ogg Vorbis
If you just need to play Ogg Vorbis files—a lossy format that some find superior to MP3 and AAC—check out the free Ogg Vorbis QuickTime Component. This little application adds support for OGG files to any QuickTime-compatible program—including iTunes.

Video Foibles

If you try to open a movie in QuickTime only to be told that “the required compressor could not be found,” don’t give up. You may just need to download the missing codec. And if the needed codec doesn’t exist for QuickTime Player, you can almost always find third-party software that will play the movie.

AVI
One of the most common sources of video frustration on the Mac involves trying to watch movies with .avi file extensions. Part of the problem is that there’s no one right solution for all AVI files. The .avi extension is actually just a wrapper for several different video compressors—including DivX, XviD, 3ivx, and Indeo.

To find out which video format a particular movie uses, open it in QuickTime (you can do this even if QuickTime can’t actually display the video) and press Command-I. In the Movie Info window, note what is listed by the Format heading. This information will help you determine the type of codec you’ll need.

The vast majority of AVI movies use DivX, a compressor that offers high video quality and small file sizes—two reasons it’s so popular. To play these AVI files in QuickTime, download and install the free DivX codec from DivXNetworks.

If it’s not a DivX file—and if you’re adventurous enough to step outside the comfy confines of QuickTime—I recommend trying either MPlayer OS X or VLC Media Player. These excellent and free multimedia players can tackle many of the video formats unknown to QuickTime. My favorite is MPlayer OS X. I’ve thrown nearly every type of AVI file I could find at it, with great results. It also lets you use the arrow keys to skip backward or forward during playback—a feature QuickTime doesn’t offer.

MPEG-2
Although OS X’s DVD Player can play DVDs without trouble, it can’t play the MPEG-2 files that go into making those DVDs. This is a problem, for example, if you use Apple’s Compressor software to turn your video into MPEG-2 files for burning to DVD and then need to preview those files.

To view MPEG-2 files via QuickTime, purchase the $20 QuickTime 6 MPEG-2 Playback Component, from Apple (find .macworld.com/0293). If you don’t want to spend the extra money, you can also play back most MPEG-2 files with MPlayer OS X or VLC Media Player.

Windows Media Video and RealVideo
Microsoft and Real Networks also have their own video formats. To play Windows Media Video or RealVideo, use Windows Media Player or RealPlayer, respectively. MPlayer OS X and VLC Media Player can also play some of these files, but their playback is sometimes limited to the audio track.

If you need to convert these videos to something you can edit or play in QuickTime, check out Ambrosia Software’s $69 SnapzPro X 2 (   ), which can capture movies and still images. Simply open the movie in any application that will play it, and then launch SnapzPro. Click on the Movie button, choose your desired settings, and then draw a box around the movie you want to record.

Know Your Options

These days, there are very few file formats your Mac isn’t able to play. And thanks to the hard work of dedicated software developers, that list is getting shorter all the time.

[ Senior News Editor Jonathan Seff has never met an audio or video file he hasn’t tried to play. ]

If you want to turn WMA files into something iTunes or the iPod can play, EasyWMA is the app for you.With the free DivX codec, you can play many AVI files from within QuickTime, such as this DivX file (the Movie Info window contains information about the file).

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