You can love it or you can hate it, but you can’t avoid it: Microsoft’s Windows Media is among the most widely used formats for delivering video on the Web.
Microsoft offers a free Windows Media Player app for Mac OS X, but what if you’re a Mac producer who wants to provide your content in the latest Windows Media formats? Enter Telestream’s Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro 1.0.6. Flip4Mac Studio Pro is a set of extensions, or components , that work with Apple’s QuickTime technology and enable it to play back and encode video in Windows Media format.
It sounds promising, and indeed, Flip4Mac Studio Pro works well. But the version I tested also has some shortcomings that prevent it from being an ideal solution to the format translation problem.
Flip4Mac’s WMV Studio is available in two versions. The WMV Studio version costs $99 and supports Windows Media 9. I tested the $179 WMV Studio Pro version; it adds the ability to encode in Windows Media 9 Advanced format, which supports high-definition (HD) video resolutions (specifically, 720-line progressive scan). Flip4Mac Studio Pro also supports Windows Media Audio 9 Professional, which allows for sampling rates of up to 96KHz as well as 5.1 surround sound.
Even if you don’t need support for HD video and 5.1 audio, there’s a good reason to consider spending the extra $80 on Flip4Mac Studio Pro: it supports two-pass encoding, in which the encoder first analyzes the source video and then optimizes encoding for the best possible quality.
Fits right in—mostly
After installing either Flip4Mac WMV Studio package, you can encode video into Windows Media format using the same encoding tools you’d use to encode QuickTime and other formats. For example, to create a Windows Media file using QuickTime Player Pro, you’d simply choose Export from the File menu, and then choose Windows Media from the Format pop-up menu.
Both Flip4Mac Studio flavors also work with other QuickTime-savvy programs, including Apple’s iMovie ( ), Final Cut Pro ( ), and Compressor 2; Autodesk’s Cleaner 6, and Sorenson Media’s Squeeze 4.1. Flip4Mac Studio Pro includes presets for a variety of common compression scenarios—for example, 56 Kbps modem or 512 Kbps broadband. You can also customize compression settings as desired.
Oddly, though, Flip4Mac Studio Pro’s compression presets aren’t available when you use Apple’s Compressor—you must create your own from scratch. That isn’t a significant drawback, but it is an annoyance that requires more work for Compressor users.
In my tests, Flip4Mac Studio Pro’s output quality was excellent—as good as anything I’ve compressed using Windows-based compression tools. And best of all, I didn’t have to use a Windows PC.
But I did discover another unfortunate drawback: Flip4Mac Studio Pro is unable to create multiple bit rate (MBR)* Windows Media files. Telestream says it plans to add MBR support to a future version.
* MBR Encoding: With MBR encoding, the final file contains separate versions of the content, each optimized for a given bandwidth—for example, one version for 56 Kbps modems and another for broadband connections. At playback time, the Windows Media player chooses the version best suited to the connection speed.
Flip4Mac Studio Pro also includes Flip4Mac Player, which enables you to play back Windows Media content without having to install the Windows Media Player. (Flip4Mac Player is also available as a standalone product for $10.)
It sounds promising, but in my tests, Windows Media clips from many mainstream Web sites didn’t play back properly. The video image flickered like a strobe light and sometimes appeared in a random location on my desktop, or the video would play but the audio wouldn’t. Telestream says this is a result of some technical incompatibilities between the Flip4Mac Web plug-in and the Safari QuickTime plug-in, which have been fixed for the current version of Safari, and will be fixed for older versions in an upcoming release.
Playback problems were most common with sites that create their own media-playback windows—which indicates that the problem isn’t so much with the Player but with the complex scripting that underlies multimedia Web sites. Still, if you’re hoping the Player will be your key to Windows Media content that you’ve been unable to play on your Mac, download the free trial version and test it with the sites you want to visit before you buy.
Macworld’s buying advice
Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro 1.0.6 does an excellent job of encoding content into Windows Media formats, and not having to transfer huge video files to a Windows PC for encoding is a great convenience. However, there’s room for improvement: I’d like to see support for MBR video files as well as compression presets for Apple’s Compressor. But in the end, if you have to deliver content in Windows Media format, Flip4Mac Studio Pro is a solid choice.
[Macworld Contributing Editor Jim Heid writes about digital media and produces instructional videos, including the one that’s included with his book, The Macintosh iLife ‘05 (Peachpit Press/Avondale Media; 2005). ]Flip4Mac WMV Studio Pro gives QuickTime-savvy programs the ability to encode in Windows Media format. You can choose from one of the program’s presets.You can customize your encoding settings manually.