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Windows Media Player: a stream runs through it

by Gordon Black

Woman wearing headphones. Say hello to high quality sound and vision, and goodbye to long waits for audio and video to download, using the Windows MediaTM Player in Windows 98.

With it, you can tune in to the World Series, view movie clips, groove to music, and digest multimedia presentations that incorporate text, graphics, and audio.

The best part is that you don't have to concern yourself with the technicalities of the files: the Media Player can handle most anything you want to hear or see. It uses a technology called streaming that allows you to listen to and view material almost instantly.

The Media Player handles the most common media formats, from Windows Media Format to MP3. It also plays audio and video formats from RealNetworks® up to version 4. 

There are even controls built in allowing you to adjust the volume and locate particular points on an audio or video track. Media creators who incorporate markers allow you to zip to a predetermined location by clicking the marker buttons on the control window. It's handy for whizzing to the important parts of the boss' presentation on the company intranet. And for added effect, you can take a video clip from a company intranet and resize it to full screen. (On normal phone-line connections, the enlarging causes a loss of clarity.)

In control
The control window also shows the URL (Web address) of the site where the multimedia material originated, allowing you to easily jump to the Web page in one click. You can also add any clip (audio or video) to your Favorites folder, just as you would a preferred Web site.

Ready to go sample? A great place to find multimedia to play on the Windows Media Player is, which features film clips, news footage, chat shows, and lots of radio stations from around the world. A convenient link to this site can also be found in the Windows Media Player.

Stream to you
The key to receiving audio and video files is a technology called streaming. Streaming is the process of compressing an audio or video file using special transport protocols (called "codecs") to deliver data to your computer. This data is then decompressed by the Windows Media Player, and a media clip begins playing almost immediately, regardless of whether the clip is a few seconds or a few hours long. You actually view content as you are receiving it.

But the quality of the video you'll see and the sound you'll hear is dependent on the capacity of the wires that carry the digitized info to your computer. It's like having a two-inch water pipe versus a half-inch pipe. You can still water the garden with the smaller pipe, but the larger pipe allows you to do a much more efficient job. With computer connections, the capacity is measured in kilobits of data per second. The higher the number, the greater the quality.

Most home connections are at either 28.8 kilobits per second (Kbps) or 56.6 Kbps, though new technology such as cable modems, have greatly increased the capacity of home connections.

Let it detect
In the recent past, producers of streaming content asked you to select your connection type (28.8, 56.6 Kbps, etc). Now with the newest version of the Windows Media Player, content producers can choose to let the media player automatically detect the optimal capacity of your connection. When they opt to do so, it will simplify your process of downloading audio and video from Web sites. (Some producers may choose not to use this feature; in those cases you'll still have to pick your connection type.)

As you may know, the volume of other traffic on the Internet can affect the quality of streamed audio and video. This sometimes causes the audio to break up and even completely interrupt the flow of material, making for a disappointing experience.

Go with the flow
The new Windows Media Player alleviates these kinds of disruptions by adjusting the flow of streamed content to the capacity available. For example, if you're connected at 100 Kbps and heavy Internet traffic will affect a flow of this volume, the Windows Media Player will step down the stream to the next level to maintain an even flow of content. This helps avoid the staccato-like problems of trying to keep up a heavier stream when there is not the capacity to do so. If space frees up on the connection, Windows Media Player returns the stream to the highest flow possible.

The consistency and quality of video is also improved with filtering that cleans up shadows and block-like images that affect the quality of the video pictures you're viewing.

Perhaps the best part of the enhanced features of the Windows Media Player is that it comes at a low cost to your computing power. It won't hog your computer's memory by taking forever to download files. The Player itself is free to users.

Gordon Black

Come July, Gordon Black's computer will be processing daily video clips from the Tour de France.

Grab a free player
You can download the latest version of the media player free from the Windows Media Player download site.

Download Windows Media Player

Using your Windows Media Player:
To start the Windows Media Player, simply:

  • Click on a music file, or
  • Click Start, point to Programs, point to Accessories, point to Entertainment, and then click Windows Media Player.