As a newish Mac user, you may wonder what allows your computer to display pictures and play music and movies. Wonder no longer. This bit of media magic is performed by something called QuickTime. Originally developed in 1991 as a multimedia technology that accompanied the System 6 operating system, QuickTime has been built in to every version of the Mac’s operating system since.
Before we take another step, let’s a peer a little more carefully into what QuickTime is and isn’t. As I’ve outlined up to this point, QuickTime is a technology rather than an application. If you think of the Mac OS as a series of blocks, each of which is part of the sturdy wall that is the Macintosh computing experience, QuickTime would be one layer of those blocks. When the operating system needs to play media, it looks to this QuickTime layer to do the job.
However, when you hear people talking about QuickTime on their Mac, they’re invariably speaking of the QuickTime Player application. Before iTunes came along, QuickTime Player is how most people watched movies on their Macs. And that player what we’ll talk about in this lesson.
The anatomy of QuickTime Player
Launch QuickTime Player (which is found in the Applications folder at the root level of your startup drive) and…well, nothing much happens. You’ll see the QuickTime Player name appear next to the Apple logo in the Mac’s menu bar, along with QuickTime Player’s menus, but that’s about it. For the application to actually do something, you need to open a media file that QuickTime can play. You have many to choose from.
QuickTime supports audio, image, and movie file formats too numerous to list. So instead, I’ll mention a couple of popular media formats used largely in the Windows and Linux worlds that QuickTime doesn’t support. Unsupported audio files include Windows Media (they bear a .wma extension), Ogg Vorbis, and FLAC. The Windows Media movie format (.wmv) isn’t supported either. If you’d like QuickTime to play Windows media files, you can download and install the free Windows Media Components for QuickTime from Microsoft’s website.
Once you’ve opened a compatible file (which you can do by dragging the media file on top of the QuickTime Player icon in the Dock or by choosing QuickTime Player’s File > Open File command), you’ll see a black window. In the case of audio files, that window will be fairly small and will have just a few controls. You’ll find rewind, play/pause, and fast-forward buttons that work just as they do on a DVD player or a car’s CD player. (These buttons are referred to as transport controls.) To start or pause playback, press the Mac’s spacebar. When you click the rewind or fast-forward buttons, the media will skip back or forward (respectively) at 2X speed. Click again to move to 4X speed. Then again for 8X. To play at normal speed, just click the play button.
Below these controls is a volume control. Drag the gray ball that appears in this line to the left to decrease the volume and drag to the right to make the volume louder. Below the volume control is the timeline. The diamond-shaped icon in the timeline (called the playhead) indicates how far along you are in the track. To the left of the timeline is the current-time display. To its right is the remaining-time display.
Movie windows have a bit more going on. Here, too, you find rewind, play/pause, and fast-forward buttons; and, as with audio files, rewind and fast-forward offer 2X, 4X, and 8X speed options as well. However, you can scrub movies. This means that as you drag the playhead, the movie’s images move forward or back as you drag, allowing you to see where you are in the movie. Stop scrubbing, and the movie will continue to play from the current location of the playhead. If you click and hold on the playhead, the timeline will display a series of lines. This indicates that you can now scrub in small increments, which helps you zoom in on just the frame you want to view.
Unlike with audio files, you can make movie files fill the entire screen. Just click the full-screen icon in the movie’s top-right corner, choose View > Enter Full Screen, or press Command-Control-F. If a movie has chapters, you’ll see a Chapters menu, which allows you to pick and move to a different chapter.
Sharing and exporting media
From within QuickTime Player, you can share your media with the outside world. You do this via the File > Share command. (To the right of the transport controls in a movie window, you’ll also see a Share menu.) Click it, and you find a list of export destinations including Email, Message, AirDrop, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and Flickr.
When you choose Email, Apple’s Mail will open, create a new message, and add the movie as an attachment. Select Message, and the movie is attached to a multimedia message. Selecting AirDrop attaches the movie to an AirDrop window. (The names of other people on your local network who have their AirDrop windows open will appear in this window. Select a recipient and click Send.)
When you choose Facebook (and you’ve configured a Facebook account on your Mac), a sheet appears where you name and describe your movie. Click Upload, and that’s exactly what happens. Choosing YouTube does something similar. Enter your YouTube name and password and—again, if you have a YouTube account—you’ll be prompted to assign a category to your movie, and enter a title, description, and tags. The Vimeo option will upload the movie to that service if you have an account. And when you choose Flickr (and yes, have an account), you can upload the movie to Flickr provided that it’s no longer than 90 seconds (as Flickr maintains this minute-and-a-half limit for videos).
Although it sounds like a duplication of efforts, you can additionally export media from QuickTime Player. The advantage of doing this versus sharing media is that you can choose to convert the media as you export. Choose File > Export when an audio file is active, and you see just two options in the Format pop-up menu—Movie and Audio Only. Choosing Movie does nothing more than export the audio file as a .mov QuickTime file, which will play in iTunes and on media players that support these files. If you choose Audio Only, the audio file will be converted to the AAC format encoded at 256 kilobits per second. This is an audio format supported by Apple’s iTunes, mobile devices, and computers as well as modern Windows computers and Android devices. Older MP3 players, however, can’t play these files.
When working with a movie file, you have a few more options. You can choose to export it in one of two resolutions: 480p (with dimensions of 640 pixels by 480 pixels) and 720p (1280 pixels by 720 pixels). You can also choose to export the movie so that it will be playable on an iPod touch and iPhone 3GS; an iPad, iPhone 4, and Apple TV; or as audio only (which exports just the movie’s audio track).
But your export options don’t stop there. Explore that File menu, and you’ll also find the Export To command. This command is largely for people who don’t want to worry about dimensions and resolution. Instead, they just want their media to work where it will be played. Choose this command, and you see three options—Web, iTunes, and iMovie.
Choose Web, and you can opt to export up to three versions of the movie—one for transmission over a cellular network (meaning the movie will be smallish), Wi-Fi transfer (bigger), and broadband (bigger still). Select iTunes, and a sheet appears that presents you with three options: iPod & iPhone; iPad, iPhone 4 & Apple TV; and Mac & PC. Select the one you want, and click Share to begin the export. Finally, if you choose iMovie, that app opens and the movie is added to that iMovie’s assets. (We’ll discuss iMovie and the other iLife applications in other lessons.)
If you ask old-time Mac users who once edited movies in the earlier QuickTime Player Pro, they’ll tell you that QuickTime Player X’s editing features are pretty weak. (And as one of those old-timers, I agree with them.) But editing isn’t entirely missing from the current version of QuickTime Player.
To begin with, you can trim your movie. This means that you can remove material from the beginning and end of a selected movie (or clip within that movie). This is helpful if you want to remove the two minutes of you begging little Jo-Jo to stop mugging for the camera in the family’s What I Did On Summer Vacation video.
To trim a movie, choose Edit > Trim. A gray bar will appear at the bottom of the movie window. Within that bar, a yellow border surrounds thumbnail images taken from the movie. To trim the thing, just drag a trim handle at one end or the other toward the middle of the bar. As you do, you can see a preview of the movie at the location where you’ve dragged the front or back handle. Click the yellow Trim button when you’re happy with your selections.
You can also split a movie into sections. To do this in a useful way, choose View > Show Clips. Another gray bar appears at the bottom of the window. Drag the red line, which represents the playhead, to the place where you want to split your movie. Choose Edit > Split Clip. The bar will now show two highlighted sections (or clips).
Great. So now what? Click on one of the clips to highlight it. You can now trim just that clip by choosing Edit > Trim or you can drag the selected clip to a new location. This is a very quick way to make quick (and rough) edits to your movies. For far more control, you’re better off exporting your movie to iMovie and using it to edit your work.
Recording with QuickTime Player
While editing may not be QuickTime Player’s strong suit, it’s hard to gripe too mightily about its simple recording capabilities. With this application, you can record movies captured with the Mac’s camera or an attached (and compatible) video camera; you can capture audio through the Mac’s microphone (or from an attached microphone); and you can capture a video of the actions on the Mac’s screen. You’ll find each option under the File menu. They work this way.
Movie recording: Choose File > New Movie Recording; if your Mac has one, its camera will switch on and display what it sees. A gray control bar will appear that contains a red Record button as well as a downward-pointing triangle. Click the triangle, and you’ll find options for recording from a different camera (a USB camcorder, for example, if one is attached to your Mac), recording from a different microphone (if one is attached), and setting the video quality. The higher the video quality you choose, the larger the resulting video window (and, ultimately, recorded movie).
To begin the movie capture, just click the Record button. To stop recording, click that same button, which has now turned into a square Stop button. When you stop the recording you’ll see an Untitled window. Just click the window’s red Close button (or choose File > Close), and you’ll be prompted for a name and format (the same format options you found when exporting a movie). Click Save, and you’re done.
Audio recording: Creating an audio recording is just as easy. Choose File > New Audio Recording, and a small black window appears. It too has a downward-pointing triangle, from which you choose a microphone and select a recording quality. (Both High and Maximum sound good—the only difference between them is that Maximum is recorded at a higher bit rate, which makes for a larger file that may sound better if you have a great microphone and discerning ears.) To record, click the red Record button. To stop, click the Stop button. Again, close the window and you’re prompted for a name for your recording. Click Save to save.
Screen recording: Termed a motion screen capture, a screen recording is a great way to show someone how to do something with their computer rather than simply tell them. And they’re easy to create.
Choose File > New Screen Recording. Yep, once again, the black window appears. Click its triangle, and you can choose to capture audio along with your video, select a video quality setting, and choose whether to capture mouse clicks as you record. Click the Record button, and a message appears, telling you that you can record the entire screen just by clicking it. To record just a portion of the screen, drag over the portion you wish to capture. Either way, the recording begins. Perform the necessary actions and then click Stop. A window appears that contains the movie of your movements. Press the spacebar to play it. Any time you clicked the mouse during the recording, a black circle appears around the cursor; at the point where you stopped clicking, the circle vanishes.
You know the drill. Close the window, and the sheet appears prompting you to enter the movie’s name and choose its format. Click Save.
Beyond QuickTime Player X
As I said, QuickTime Player X is a perfectly fine media player, but if you’ve had a taste of QuickTime 7 Pro, which had scads of features, the current version is wan and feeble in comparison. Fortunately, QuickTime 7 Pro lives on and is compatible with Mountain Lion. If you’re interested, take a gander at Apple’s page devoted to it. For $30 it can all be yours.
Next week: Our first look at iLife.
OS X Mountain Lion
Chris has covered technology and media since the latter days of the Reagan Administration. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, he's a professional musician in the San Francisco Bay Area.