|« I Fought HD, and HD Won||The Perfect DVD Player »|
Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/skunkwo/public_html/goa/blogs/inc/settings/model/_abstractsettings.class.php on line 334
Windows Goes to the Movies
Strict Standards: Declaration of smilies_plugin::GetDefaultSettings() should be compatible with Plugin::GetDefaultSettings(&$params) in /home/skunkwo/public_html/goa/blogs/plugins/_smilies.plugin.php on line 398
Strict Standards: Declaration of smilies_plugin::GetDefaultUserSettings() should be compatible with Plugin::GetDefaultUserSettings(&$params) in /home/skunkwo/public_html/goa/blogs/plugins/_smilies.plugin.php on line 398
Strict Standards: Declaration of auto_p_plugin::GetDefaultSettings() should be compatible with Plugin::GetDefaultSettings(&$params) in /home/skunkwo/public_html/goa/blogs/plugins/_auto_p.plugin.php on line 633
This is a guide on how to play movie files in Windows. There are plenty of such guides already out there, and I'm sure more are being written, but still I decided to write one myself. This one focuses on that most important goal, with as little meandering off on other tangents as possible. The goal, of course, is to get those files to play!
Of course, a little meandering is essential for truly appreciating the work that goes into creating movie files. Also, I'm partial to using software that doesn't enable big corporations to look over my shoulder and decide what I can and can't play. So, this guide also covers the basics of what makes a movie file (don't worry, they're just the basics), and provides pointers to some nice alternative software that can play just about every video there is to download.
Two bits of information are necessary in figuring out how to play a movie file. The first is how the audio and video data are contained in the file. This is determined by the file format used, which also determines the three-letter or four-letter extension the file gets. MPEG (or MPG) and AVI are two of the oldest file formats that still see wide usage. Matroska, recognizeable by the MKV extension, is one of the newest. Other commonly used formats and their extensions are Quicktime (MOV, MP4), Flash Video (FLV), RealMedia (RM), Windows Media (WMV), and Ogg (OGM).
The second important bit of information is what "codecs" were used to create the audio and video data stored in the file. Digitally recorded audio and video can take up huge amounts of space. A codec (the word comes from "code-decode") allows data to be compressed so that it takes up less room. Most codecs go a step further, using what is called "lossy" compression, sacrificing some of the quality of the original audio or video, which allows the data to be compressed even more. Actually, when done right, movie clips using lossy codecs can look and sound almost indistinguishable compared to the original source, and still take up only a fraction of the space. But even beyond that, most people are happy to sacrifice some quality in exchange for even smaller files that can be downloaded quickly and stored in abundance. The audio codecs you are most likely to find in movie clips are MPEG-1 Layer III or MP3 (arguably the most well known codec), MPEG-1 Layer II or MP2 (also used in VideoCD's and some DVD releases), Ogg Vorbis, Windows Media Audio, RealAudio, AAC (sometimes called MP4, popularized by Apple's iTunes), AC3 (better known as Dolby Digital, used in DVD's), and Digital Theatrical Sound or DTS (also used in DVD's). The most popular video codecs are MPEG-1 (used in VideoCD's), MPEG-2 (used in DVD's), Windows Media Video, RealVideo, and several codecs derived from the MPEG-4 standard, including DivX, XviD and H-264. It is also worth noting that some file formats are limited in the codecs they can support. MPEG files, for example, can only contain MPEG-1 video and MP2 audio.
So, to play any given movie clip, you need a player that can pull the audio and video data out of the file, and the codecs to decode the data into something you can watch and listen to. All the big companies, hoping you will use their multimedia software, also make free players for their specific audio/video standards. Microsoft offers Windows Media Player, Real offers RealPlayer, Apple offers a Quicktime player, and so on. Most of these players have support for other formats and codecs, but seldom will they support any standard defined by another big company. The obvious problem with this approach is that you end up with a lot of players that basically all do the same thing. Plus, a lot of these big-name software packages come with nasty surprises like DRM (digital rights management) and other "features" that nibble away at your privacy. The good news is, there is an excellent player that does away with all the hassle: Media Player Classic. MPC not only dispenses with the big company tactics, it also reads a huge number of file formats. On top of that, the player is free and extremely easy to install; you simply download it, unzip it, move it to your favorite folder, double click, and then sit back and hit the play button. It's that simple.
Almost, anyway. Similar to other media players, MPC takes care of extracting the audio and video data, but passes off the actual decoding of the data to the operating system. So, the right codecs must also be downloaded and installed. The latest versions of Windows come with a handful of codecs already, including those necessary to play MPEG files, but the rest you have to find for yourself. This used to be something of a challenge, but lately some very nice software bundles have appeared, making codecs a snap. In fact, with just four packages you can pretty much get everything you need to play almost any movie clip you want, without resorting to using big-company software. Note: I use these packages myself on Windows 2000 and Windows XP. I cannot vouch for their usability on any other version of Windows.
- QuickTime Alternative - This package provides everything necessary to play MOV and MP4 files.
- Real Alternative - Similar to QuickTime Alternative, this bundle contains everything you need to play RealMedia files.
- ffdshow - This little package is the Swiss Army Knife of codec packages. It's not really a collection of codecs, so much as a new software layer that gives the appearance of a collection of codecs. The goal of ffdshow is to provide a complete replacement for separate, individual codecs, but a little extra work is needed before that becomes a reality. In the meantime, ffdshow is a perfect way to cover all the video codecs based on MPEG-4 (DivX, XviD, H.264) as well as many of the currently popular audio codecs, including Ogg Vorbis.
- Windows Media Lite - Actually, each version of Windows comes standard with the latest Windows Media codecs and player offered at the time of its release, and downloading the latest Microsoft offerings is pretty much the only way to cleanly upgrade Windows Media, to keep up with the latest features. However, it is possible to pull Windows Media Player off completely, but doing so removes the Windows Media codecs as well. That's where this package comes in. For those who like to keep their systems light, Windows Media Light offers Windows Media capability without any extra cruft.
I should note that, except for ffdshow, these packages were put together using bits offered by the original companies, reassembled in ways those companies don't necessarily approve of. So, these packages may not be what a corporate lawyer would call "legal." This is why I'm not providing any links to those packages. However, there is nothing in these packages that wasn't offered for free in the first place (if not exactly with the same presentation), so I see nothing wrong with using them. As for finding them, Google is your friend!
So that's it, really. Five things to download, and you're ready to go, without getting bogged down with stuff you don't need. Happy viewing!
PS: Here are some footnotes for those interested in exploring other options and features.
- Real Alternative, Quicktime Alternative, and Windows Media Lite also come with the necessary plug-ins for Firefox, Internet Explorer, and other browsers to watch Real, Quicktime, and Windows Media content on the web.
- Windows 2000 actually comes with two versions of Windows Media Player by default, version 6.4 and version 7. People who use tools like nLite to customize their Windows installation should note that removing WMP 6.4 also kills any ability to play Windows Media files through the operating system, even after installing tools like Media Player Classic and windows Media Lite. Removing WMP 7 is still safe.
- Some media players use their own internal codec engine, instead of relying on the operating system to handle decoding. The disadvantage of this method is that you must find codec packages for those specific players, instead of packages meant to be used by any player that supports the operating system's codec interface. However, some people prefer this method because it allows all the software necessary for movie playback to be kept in a single directory. Also, if any particular form of playback is broken within the operating system (see the above note for a good example), a player that does its own decoding won't be affected. One of the better players of this type is VLC, but there are others.
- DVD's have shown how optional subtitles and other overlaid graphics can enhance a movie's presentation. Several newer file formats, including Ogg and Matroska, offer the ability to store separate subtitle tracks, and there are also standards for playing separate subtitle files together with an AVI file. Media Player Classic is capable of displaying subtitles, while other players can take advantage of a package called VobSub for showing subtitles and other overlays. Not-so-coincidentally, VobSub is maintained by the same team as Media Player Classic.
- Sometimes Media Player Classic needs some tweaking to play optimally. Have a look at the View->Options menu to see what configuration MPC has to offer. In particular, the Playback->Output option set controls how MPC displays its video. Problems like jumpy video or no video at all can usually be fixed by playing with these settings.
Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /home/skunkwo/public_html/goa/blogs/skins/_item_feedback.inc.php on line 156