Thursday, September 25, 2008

Monsters of Media (Playing)

Revised 11-November-2012. The Links page is now listed at the end of the article.

Microsoft Windows Media Player
(WiMP) is the default media player for Windows—but besides being bloated and somewhat of a privacy hazard (xp-antispy can help with that), its capabilities are mostly limited to the playback of proprietary Microsoft formats and such common media formats as MPG video and MP3 audio files. If users want to play Real media or Apple Quicktime formats, additional software and/or codecs must be installed. Also, as of Windows 8, DVD and Blu-ray playback are not supported within WiMP by default. The fact is that the free Quicktime package from Apple is crippleware; in order to get the fully-functional Quicktime Pro, you must pay extra. Similarly, the free RealPlayer package contains bloatware and is, potentially, adware. What's a user to do?
No one add-on media player package does it all (though VLC comes close), but the following three media player utilities in combination cover the gamut of available file formats pretty well; all three are free to download. They complement each other; if a file does not play well in one player, one of the others can usually handle it.
By the way, both the K-Lite codecs and VLC can both directly play back the FLV Flash video format used by Google Video, YouTube, and others. These videos can usually be saved locally via the Video Downloader plug-in for Firefox, which can be installed via the Tools —>Add-ons menu.

VLC Media Player
It's the very first alternative media player I install under Windows—if I only install one, VLC is it. Recently updated to the
v2.0 series, it handles a variety of formats and is useful for files that may not play properly in the other two players mentioned here—it's also possible that VLC itself may be more to a particular user's taste than Winamp. It also differs from Winamp in that it is true GPL open source. VLC plays DVDs just fine, though Blu-ray playback is still considered experimental. VLC is also cross-platform software; versions are available that run under Linux and Mac OS X as well. For VLC, I do a Full install, selected from the drop-down menu during installation. When a user installs Winamp in this context, it will be set up to “steal back” most audio formats (except MP4).

is freeware, though not open source (a paid Pro version is available). It's very good for playing a wide range of audio media formats (though not the best player for video formats). It's especially useful for playing Internet music streams like those listed on SHOUTcast and Icecast—and the available StreamRipper plug-in is useful (more on this later), but because we are installing it alongside others, there is a caveat that should be pointed out.

It concerns the installation process: one of the initial check-boxes is for a function called Winamp Agent; you may want to un-check this box, or else Winamp will hijack all the formats it sees as its default (this may actually be useful if you edit the default-formats list). You can, if you wish, choose to uncheck the boxes for Winamp Remote, the eMusic free downloads, browser toolbar, etc. As part of the installation process, the user is able to select the formats that Winamp will play by default; I highly recommend un-checking the Video check box entirely, then opening the Audio menu and un-checking the MP4 check-box. Once Winamp is installed, go ahead and install StreamRipper, if you wish. It works well as a plug-in to Winamp and can also be used from the command line.

Winamp was one of the first programs to be skinnable—that is, able to have its window decorations be user-changeable—so go ahead and download a few skins that you might like. The included visualizations are also pretty cool.

K-Lite Mega Codec Pack
I have found the freeware
K-Lite Mega Codec Pack to be a useful complement to VLC. It has a number of codecs and some are better-suited to certain formats than Winamp (the iPod-compatible MP4/M4V format for example) and for the occasional file that is incompatible with VLC (it's rare). An excellent streamlined basic player is included along with the codecs called Media Player Classic (MPC) which strongly resembles WiMP V6. The newly-installed codecs can also be used with the current version of WiMP. It can replace the functionality of RealPlayer and most functions of the QuickTime Pro player, too.

Once all three programs are installed you can fine-tune the file associations by right-clicking the mouse on a particular media file, then selecting Open With, then selecting which media player to use from the displayed list. If you want to make the file-to-player association permanent, the check-box at the bottom of the window allows this.

This free utility allows you to download an entire station of music. Many of these MP3 radio stations only play certain genres, so you can now download an entire collection of goa/trance music, an entire collection of jazz, punk rock, whatever you want. Also works with OGG streams. If the tracks contain individual ID information, they will be saved as individual files by default. As mentioned earlier, the Windows version includes a Winamp plug-in, which is very convenient; the program can also be invoked from a command line. There are versions available that run under Linux and Mac OS X as well.

Links page to software mentioned and definitions of terms used in this article:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

More on 7-Zip

Microsoft Windows XP and later versions include built-in ZIP-file handling. Despite this, many users have WinZip installed on their systems. This is a call to remove WinZip from your system if you have it, even if you have paid for it (many people don't). Technically, it's a timed-trial evaluation version unless you pay for it. Also, earlier versions are a security risk and should be removed for that reason alone.

The free 7-Zip utility handles nearly all common Windows and Linux/Unix/BSD compressed-file formats (though some are extract-only). It includes a bare-bones-but-useful file manager -- one of the reasons it's the very first thing I install on every Windows-based PC that I touch. I usually then install another dual-pane file manager for more general use (more on these later), but I find myself using 7-Zip on a regular basis.

The built-in 7-Zip file manager bypasses Windows Explorer. While this means that some of the functions normally provided by Explorer are not available within 7-Zip, this can often be very useful to power users, since Explorer sometimes hides or obscures details about the file system (a good example: try to view the contents of your Temporary Internet Files folder with Explorer or an Explorer-based file manager sometime). This also means that 7-Zip even works in Safe Mode command-line mode, very handy if Explorer won't start for some reason. Also note that 7-Zip's file-copy mode is sometimes faster than Windows' own, as well. The function key [F9] toggles the single-pane/dual-pane file-view modes. I usually use the dual-pane view, as shown in the image at the top of this post.

After installation, go to the Tools-->Options menu, click on the Select All button, then deselect (uncheck) the box next to .ISO -- click the OK button and you are good-to-go (it can look inside .iso files, which is a useful feature. For a number of reasons, you don't want it to be the default tool for them).

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Windows Vista is an Internet dropout

While this post is a bit outside my "normal" range for this blog, I have posted it because someone might find it in a search and it might save them the hours of searching that finally turned up this information: Microsoft Windows Vista is an Internet dropout.

A friend called me with a problem. Her new Sony VAIO laptop with Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium would randomly disconnect from the Internet for no obvious reason. The cause turned out to be a simple (and stupid) problem.

Microsoft added networking support to Windows in version 3.11 -- a cobbled-up networking stack lifted (quite legally) from BSD code; the BSD license allows the free use of code if attribution is given. Essentially the same code was carried forward right up to WinXP, but the code was so old and crufty that the BSD distributions no longer used it; hence one of the major changes in WinVista vis-a-vis WinXP is in the networking stack. While some of these changes were much-needed, some just seem arbitrary and counter-productive. One of these changes was the source of her problem.

As far as I can figure, WinVista sends one of its new-fangled packets or messages to an older router or modem, the device says, "Huh?" and WinVista chokes. After hours of research — and booting from a live-booting Knoppix DVD so I could access the Internet to do it — I had WOW (the cable provider) remotely update the firmware in the cable modem and all was well. The same issue may crop up in older routers as well. I realize that many users don't even know what firmware is or are unable to figure out what firmware version a particular device has, let alone be able to update it -- but this knowledge has just been made more important than ever.

I found this tool from Microsoft, but I don't know if it is useful in this context:
Internet Connectivity Evaluation Tool
[This utility] checks your Internet router to see if it supports certain technologies. You can use this tool on a PC running either the Windows Vista or Windows XP operating system. If you're planning to run Windows Vista, this tool can verify whether your existing Internet router supports advanced features, such as improved download speeds and face-to-face collaboration using Windows Meeting Space.

Another related link of interest: Microsoft DHCP bugs make Windows lose networking.
Numerous perplexed Windows users have discovered that attempting to connect their PCs (especially Vista) to their existing networks or Wi-Fi hotspots results in flaky or nonexistent connections.

The solution was not obvious; it took a lot of searching and between-the-lines reading to find this information, but it was worth it -- and I'm glad to share.

A short time later, I ran into a similar problem on a Dell laptop running WinXP. A friend stated that she started having DSL connection problems about 2 weeks earlier; this was confirmed when I couldn't even ping the modem within about 5 minutes after a reboot. I updated her from Service Pack 2 to Service Pack 3 and updated the Ethernet card drivers to the latest version -- no joy. There were no problems with a Linux-DVD boot. Remembering my earlier WinVista firmware issues, I then found, downloaded, and installed a firmware update to her SpeedStream 5100 DSL modem from Siemens; fortunately, the update process was OS-agnostic since it ran from the modem itself, simply looking for the firmware image file on the system. After a reboot her connection was restored under Windows.