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Two steps forward, one step back?that about sums up version 4 of QuickTime, the system software that enables Macs and Windows computers to work with dynamic media such as audio, video, and virtual-reality panoramas. The new version brings significant improvements in almost every area: it's easier to download, adds support for MP3 audio files and Macromedia Flash animations, offers smoother panning and sharper display of panoramas, and supports streaming?the ability to play QuickTime content as it downloads. Unfortunately, QuickTime 4's appeal is diminished by the gaudy, cumbersome interface of QuickTime Player, the bundled program most people will use to play back QuickTime content.
As it did with version 3, Apple distributes two flavors of QuickTime 4. We tested the $30 QuickTime 4 Pro, which adds authoring features that let you convert from one format to another, perform basic editing, and save downloaded QuickTime movies to your hard disk. A free version that handles playback only is also available.
QuickTime was putting on more weight with each new version, and version 3's installation program weighed in at more than 7MB. To ease QuickTime 4's download burden, Apple added a new installation program that lets you download just the QuickTime components you need.
At a relatively svelte 400K, the installer downloads quickly. The minimal installation is roughly 2MB and handles most QuickTime media (but, alas, not QuickTime VR). If you need additional features, the QuickTime Updater utility will grab the new components. Select everything, and you're back to a 7MB download. Thankfully, QuickTime 4 should be available on CD-ROM by the time you read this; pricing hadn't been announced at press time.
With version 4, QuickTime joins RealNetworks' RealSystem G2 and Microsoft's Windows Media Technologies in providing true streaming?the ability to broadcast live events or radio and TV feeds over the Internet or intranets, along with the ability to stream on-demand movies more reliably than with previous versions. But QuickTime streaming is new, and there isn't all that much to listen to or watch just yet.
From a media producer's standpoint, QuickTime has some advantages over the aforementioned competitors when it comes to streaming. But it also falls short, particularly compared to RealSystem G2. For example, although QuickTime 4 streaming lets you support multiple connection speeds, doing so is far more difficult than with RealSystem G2. (For details on producing QuickTime streaming content, see " Master Streaming with QuickTime 4," Create, in this issue.)
In promoting QuickTime streaming, Apple's Web site says that "unlike competing products, QuickTime streaming requires no per-stream charge." That claim is aimed directly at RealNetworks, which prices its server software based on how many simultaneous streams you want to deliver. For example, a 40-stream RealSystem G2 server costs $695. From there, prices quickly skyrocket into the four-figure range. Apple's QuickTime Streaming Server, by comparison, is included with Mac OS X Server and can dish out up to 2,000 simultaneous streams.
Still, Apple's claim is only partially true: RealNetworks does offer a free version of its RealSystem G2 server that supports 20 simultaneous streams?fine for a low-budget operation. RealNetworks' servers also have much lighter hardware requirements than Mac OS X Server's.
Most users will play streaming QuickTime content with the new QuickTime Player, which replaces the venerable MoviePlayer program that accompanied previous QuickTime versions. QuickTime Player adds some welcome improvements, including bass and treble controls for tweaking the sound quality to your taste. It can also play MP3 audio files, although it doesn't support playlists and can't play back files compressed with variable-bit-rate encoding.
MoviePlayer was an austere affair, but QuickTime Player wouldn't look out of place in Austin Powers's pad. A brushed-aluminum look evokes a sixties hi-fi set, but the bright finish makes small movies appear too dark. Worse, the new Favorites "drawer," which lets you bookmark movies and streams, is poorly designed.
QuickTime Player is an interface-design disaster, but the QuickTime 4 foundation upon which it rests is rock-solid. If you use QuickTime extensively, by all means upgrade to QuickTime 4 Pro. (If you do video production, though, verify compatibility with your software and hardware first.) If you only occasionally visit Web sites containing QuickTime content, you might find that the free QuickTime 4 is all you need.
RATING: PROS: Extremely versatile; supports true streaming. CONS: Poorly designed player; can't play variable-bit-rate MP3s. COMPANY: Apple Computer (800/795-1000, http://www.apple.com ). LIST PRICE: $30.
October 1999 page: 34