On the cusp of its tenth birthday, Apple's multimedia platform has turned 5: QuickTime 5.0 is now available for Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, and Windows. The new version improves audio and video authoring and playback for everyone from broadcast professionals and Web publishers to Internet and iMovie users. As a streaming platform for the Internet, QuickTime still has some disadvantages that Microsoft's Windows Media and RealNetworks' RealSystem don't, but this version narrows the gap.
As with previous versions, Apple is distributing two flavors of QuickTime 5: a free version that simply plays media, and the $30 QuickTime Pro, which allows authoring and lets you save downloaded QuickTime movies to your hard drive. I tested the Pro version, but unless otherwise noted, everything in this review applies to both versions.
Better in Every Way
QuickTime 5's improvements include an enhanced DV codec, which dramatically improves image quality and speeds rendering, and virtual-reality technology that now allows cubic panoramas, which let users look up and down as well as left and right--like Internet Pictures' iPix but without the inferior image quality and expensive licensing requirements. Alas, neither Apple's QuickTime VR Authoring Studio nor VR Toolbox's VR Worx can create cubic panoramas yet.
QuickTime Pro now lets developers wrap movies in custom frames called media skins. A media skin can be a simple graphic that replaces the standard QuickTime Player window, or it can contain clickable buttons created in Totally Hip Software's LiveStage Pro or Macromedia's Flash. (Skinned movies won't play in QuickTime 4 or earlier versions.)
Speaking of Flash, QuickTime movies can now include Flash 4 content. Though Flash is at version 5, Flash 4 support lets developers give QuickTime movies interactive features.
QuickTime 5 also offers greatly enhanced AppleScript support. The QuickTime Web site offers more than 100 scripts that do everything from writing HTML that embeds QuickTime movies to creating a QuickTime slide show from a folder of still images. Most scripts require QuickTime Pro, however, and aren't compatible with the Mac OS X version.
A Better Internet Player
Version 5's QuickTime Player is dramatically improved, with a cleaner, more straightforward interface. The Pro version adds controls for video brightness, contrast, and tint.
To improve the playback quality of streaming (versus downloaded) content, QuickTime 5 offers skip-protection features--it preloads and caches incoming data to reduce dropouts caused by Internet congestion and transmission vagaries. But these features require that content providers use the new QuickTime Streaming Server 3, and most don't.
Compared with the latest streaming codecs from Microsoft and RealNetworks, QuickTime's deliver infe-rior audio and video quality. There's hope, though: some third-party companies are working on new streaming codecs for QuickTime, and QuickTime 5's new updating mechanism enables it to receive and install codecs as they become available.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Although QuickTime still falls short of competing streaming-media technologies, it remains the platform of choice for delivering downloadable movies. This is the best QuickTime release to date, and the Pro version--with its video-quality controls, AppleScript support, and enhanced author-ing features--is the best reason yet to upgrade from the free package.More Than One Way to Skin a Movie: The two movies at left are wearing a QuickTime 5 media skin; the movie at right is playing in the QuickTime Player window.