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Universal Video Tool:
    Apple QuickTime 4 (12/1999)

    by Douglas Dixon

Through all of the years of corporate turmoil at Apple Computer, one of the things that it has continually done well is to develop and enhance its QuickTime video format. Since Apple has been aggressive about supporting QuickTime on both the Macintosh and PC platforms, QuickTime has become a very popular format for cross-platform video. QuickTime can be used to create media files that play on both platforms, and both stand-alone and in Web browsers, and is used in applications ranging from CD-ROM games and reference works to Web video for streaming and downloading. With the release of QuickTime version 4 this past summer, Apple has provided a powerful and convenient collection of software for playing and manipulating video on the PC and Mac.

   QuickTime 4 Player

So, what is QuickTime? Well, it's a file format (Movie format, or .MOV on the PC), and system software for your PC that can process and play those files. It's a collection of tools for viewing and editing video and image files, and browser plug-ins to view files over the Web. It's a multimedia jack-of-all-trades, supporting video and audio, motion video and still images, playback and editing, local files and Internet streaming. QuickTime also supports a wide range of popular and new video and audio formats for different uses, from Motion JPEG and DV digital video, to MP3 and MIDI audio, to Macromedia Flash graphics.

The QuickTime 4 software package is available from Apple as a free download, and includes a redesigned QuickTime Player application that provides a simple interface for not only playing video and audio files, but also for accessing and playing streaming digital media over the Internet. The QuickTime Pro upgrade, available for $29.99, adds file export options to the QuickTime viewers to turn them into media editing and conversion tools. In particular, the QuickTime Player becomes a simple but powerful media creation and editing tool that can be used to import media files in a wide variety of formats, perform simple cut and paste editing and then convert and export them in the desired format.

The QuickTime Player

The basic MoviePlayer application included with earlier versions of QuickTime has been upgraded in QuickTime 4 to a snazzy new interface and renamed QuickTime Player. The basic QuickTime Player window provides basic controls for playing both files and streaming video, plus additional slide-out drawers with movie information, advanced playback controls, and a favorites list.

When you run the Player application under Windows it brings up a standard Windows menu bar as a master control panel. You can then open and play one or more video files in separate Player windows. Each QuickTime Player window includes basic controls to play and pause the video and adjust the volume, plus a timecode display and progress bar to show the current position in the file. The progress bar acts as a slider to permit you to jump around in the movie. Of course, you can also resize the window.

 QuickTime Player application

Main control menu window strip on top
File Information dialog 
    with Copyright notice

Player window showing Movie file playing from disk
    with Playback Controls for navigating though the movie
    and setting audio balance, bass and treble

The Player window also includes two buttons to access additional information and controls: an Information button to display a panel of copyright and author information if included in the file), and a Controls button to display the Playback controls, which slide down from the bottom of the window. These include additional audio and video controls for navigating through the file and adjusting the audio balance, bass, and treble. Finally, the Player window also includes a slide-down Favorites Drawer that allows you to save bookmarks to files on your hard disk and on Internet sites.

QuickTime works hard to keep the audio playing smoothly, and the video playing in synch with the audio. However, on a lower-end machine, or if you play multiple files at once, performance may suffer when reading, decompressing, and displaying too much data than your machine can handle. In this case, QuickTime will need to skip frames in order to keep the video in synch with the audio. When streaming video over the Internet, however, it's better to just send the right amount of data for your particular machine and network connection. This is one of the new features in QuickTime 4.

QuickTime Streaming Media

One of the major enhancements in QuickTime 4 is the addition of standard-based support for streaming media, playing video over the Internet either from a file stored on a server or from a live broadcast. The advantage of streaming video versus downloading a video file is that you can watch the file right away, instead of waiting for an entire huge video file to be downloaded before you can look at it.

QuickTime supports two forms of streaming, fast-start streaming and real-time streaming. Fast-start streaming was supported in previous versions of QuickTime, and uses standard Web protocols (HTTP or FTP) to play video files from any Web server. The trick it uses to attempt to play motion video over the choppy bandwidth of the Internet is to pre-load a portion of the file before starting the playback, and then continue downloading the rest of the file while the video is playing. If the download speed can be maintained at the same average rate, then the playback moves along consuming the data while the download continues to race along ahead of it. If your Internet connection gets busy and the download slows or stalls, then the playback catches up, and the video will become choppy and stall as well.

Real-time streaming requires an enhanced server that supports QuickTime streaming, and uses real-time transfer protocol (RTP) to transfer the data. Real-time streaming supports both playing stored files and viewing live events. In television terms, live events are like tuning into a broadcast in progress, and stored files are like video on demand or a VCR tape, where you can start viewing whenever you want to, and control the video by pausing or backing up. The best feature of real-time streaming, however, is its ability to adjust to the speed of your Internet connection. When you set up the QuickTime Player you can configure it with your Internet connection speed, so that the QuickTime server can adjust the data rate (and quality) of the video so that it should play at rate on your system.

The QuickTime software also includes Web browser plug-ins for both Macintosh and Windows, and supports AOL 3 or later, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.x or later, and Netscape Navigator 3.x or later. These plug-ins allow your browser to play QuickTime video and audio embedded in Web pages. Apple claims that by supporting over 30 different media types, you can view over 80 percent of all Internet media with the single QuickTime plug-in.

Figure: QuickTime plug-in showing video in Internet Explorer

Web page with trailer from Star Wars Episode 1: "The Phantom Menace"

Streaming QuickTime Favorites

So, what kind of material can you view streaming over the Internet? Apple's QuickTime web page provides links to a wide variety of popular sources for news, information, sports, and entertainment. Some of these are also pre-installed in the slide-down Favorites drawer in the QuickTime Player, where you can also add your own favorite sites. You do not need to use your Web browser to view this material; the QuickTime Player can play the streaming video and audio directly.

Some of the sites listed by Apple include Fox News and Sports, National Public Radio, The Weather Channel, HBO, Bloomberg Financial, and BBC World Feed. These run the gamut from pre-stored video on demand to live TV feeds to live audio broadcasts. You can tune in to the live feed VH-1, or pick up ABC news, or check ESPN. And all are delivered fee, directly to you, over the Internet.

Figure: QuickTime Player application, with Favorites drawer open underneath.

Streaming video available from Fox Sports

Video, Audio, and Image Formats

But QuickTime is more than just a video player; it also supports audio and still images. Apple has designed QuickTime as a universal file player for over 50 formats of common video, audio, and image digital media formats. The QuickTime Player (for video and audio) and PictureViewer (for stills) can import and play these files, and the QuickTime system software includes built-in support for the associated video and audio compression algorithms. The QuickTime Pro upgrade then adds the ability to edit and convert between file and compression formats.

QuickTime's native video format is Apple's Movie format (.MOV on the PC), but it also supports Microsoft AVI video format, DV format for digital video camcorders, and MPEG-1 (on MacOS, or with the optional Heuris MPEG on the PC). Within these file formats, QuickTime has built-in support for the standard Movie and AVI video compressors (Cinepak, Microsoft Video, Intel Indeo), plus DV, Motion JPEG for hardware capture boards, H.261 and H.263 for low-bitrate videoconferencing, and the new Sorenson Video 2 for high-quality streaming video.

For audio, QuickTime supports the standard Mac and Windows file formats (System 7, WAV), plus Web formats (AIFF, uLaw, and MP3), and DV. It also supports importing tracks directly from audio CD (on MacOS), and MIDI format for music and karaoke (music plus text). Within these file formats, QuickTime has built-in support for standard audio compression formats (IMA, ADPCM, uLaw), plus raw samples (integer and floating point up to 64-bit), QDesign Music 2 for high-quality streaming music, and QUALCOMM PureVoice for streaming voice content.

The PictureViewer image viewing application supports common image file formats for the Mac (PICT), Windows (BMP), Web (GIF, JPEG, PNG), graphic artists (Photoshop, TIFF), and more. It also supports several animation formats including Animated GIF and FLC.

For Web presentations, QuickTime also supports the Macromedia Flashpix format for high-resolution still images, and Macromedia Flash format for vector graphics and animation. It also includes QuickTime VR for viewing and exploring panoramic scenes and objects.

Editing with QuickTime Pro

Beyond all this capability in the base free QuickTime 4 package, Apple also offers a $29.99 upgrade to QuickTime Pro that provides the capability to create, edit, and convert video, audio, and images on the Mac and PC. The upgrade buys a key code that enables the advanced features in the QuickTime applications.

With QuickTime Pro, the PictureViewer application adds an Export option to become a simple image editing and conversion tool. It can open and view still images, perform simple rotations and resizing, and then convert and save them in more than a dozen popular image formats. The QuickTime plug-ins also provide the ability to save media files from the Web for later offline use.

But the big upgrade with QuickTime Pro is to the QuickTime Player application, which becomes a quite handy video and audio editing and conversion tool. It adds an Import option to import a wide variety of formats, lets you edit together clips and audio tracks, and then use the Export option to convert to common file and compression formats. While the QuickTime Player only supports one video and one audio track, you can trim and copy frames, select tracks, and open multiple windows from different files to assemble and edit a movie by cut, copy, and paste between video files and audio tracks.

When you are finished editing, use the Export option to save the movie or the audio clip to the desired file format (Movie, AVI, DV, WAVE, etc.). When you export a file, you can select output options including compression formats, filters, and resizing. The compression options include video color depth, audio sample sizes, frame rate, and a long list of compression algorithms. You can also import a sequence of images as a video clip, and export a clip as an image sequence, with the optional filters and resizing.

The video filters can be optionally applied to each frame of the exported file, and include brightness and contrast, blur and sharpen, color balance and adjustments, lens flare and film noise simulation, image processing such as edge detection, and emboss, and even general convolutions. When exporting a streaming Web file, the QuickTime Player also provides options to control streaming rates by using default presets or custom settings for specifying the target data rate and type of material (high or low motion video, music or voice audio).

Getting QuickTime

QuickTime is of course pre-installed on Apple's Macintosh computers, and often pre-installed on new Windows PC's. The QuickTime installer is also included with many PC applications and games that use QuickTime. Check your system to see if it is already installed, and if you have version 4. Otherwise, you can download it over the Internet.

QuickTime 4 is available from Apple as a free download from The initial download is relatively small (around 500K), and performs a basic root installation. QuickTime then can update itself over the Internet with additional optional components that you select, including the PictureViewer still image tool, MIDI and music support, media capture, and the Pro editing capabilities. You can then periodically use the QuickTime Updater application to check for new enhancements and perform additional upgrades over the Internet. This makes the initial download much less painful than waiting for a multi-megabyte full download, but also means you need to perform the additional Internet update at each machine where you install it.

The QuickTime 4 upgrade can be purchased by credit card over the Web for $29.99, and provides you with a serial number to unlock the additional editing and creation features. If you only installed the minimal set of QuickTime components, you may need to download additional components for access to the Pro features.

While Apple specifies that QuickTime will run on low-end machines like 68020 Mac with 8 MB or RAM or a 66 MHz 486 with 16 MB or RAM, you really would not want to run it that way. QuickTime is an extensive system which is doing lots of work to load, decompress, synchronize, and display multiple streams of video and audio data. Even on relatively new machines, it can take a few seconds to load up a new file, or to bring up a steaming file in the QuickTime Player from a click in a Web browser. At times, the QuickTime application can seem frozen or have the window only partially redrawn while a new video source is starting up. Of course, accessing streaming media over the Internet can introduce other stalls and glitches, depending on the source server and the reliability of your connection.

The Bottom Line on QuickTime

Apple should be commended for doing a great job of developing and enhancing the QuickTime architecture and tools, and sticking with it during their hard times. Their efforts have also helped push Microsoft to work harder on the Windows media architecture, which has resulted in better support for video playback, video capture, and video-based applications for all of us.

Apple has been quite successful in making QuickTime a popular and effective format for cross-platform multimedia. More than a format or a collection of tools, QuickTime is a flexible framework for integrating and controlling multiple media types into a synchronized presentation. This architecture consists of open and extensible components using standards-based protocols, which promises that it will continue to be popular in the future. One sign of this is the selection of the QuickTime File Format as the starting point for the development of a unified digital media storage format for the international MPEG-4 standard. Apple has also built in additional powerful features we have not been able to cover here, including QuickTime VR for exploring virtual environments, authoring of synchronized multi-media applications, and integration with Java applications.

Apple also has continued to work carefully to provide equal support in QuickTime for both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. As a result, there is only one set of documentation for QuickTime, that covers both platforms, with only a few exceptions in Windows. However, the product documentation is only available over the Web (there's no standard Windows Help file installed on your machine), and the documentation is in Apple's conversational style instead of providing explicit and complete descriptions of each option. It's not obvious exactly which capabilities are only available in the Pro version, or only on the Macintosh platform, and you're never sure if there are some more advanced capabilities or features that you have not stumbled into yet.

The PictureViewer and QuickTime Player applications are both very handy tools for viewing a wide variety of popular media formats, and the QuickTime plug-in provides the same service for viewing different media types on the Web. Even though these tools have a bias towards QuickTime's native Movie format, Apple has done a great job of supporting both common formats and new formats like DV and MP3.

Finally, the QuickTime Pro upgrade provides an inexpensive path to a nice simple editor and almost-universal video and audio conversion tool. It avoids lots of baggage from more complex tools, and provides the 90% level of functionality that you typically need for trimming and composing clips, and exporting them in useful formats for hard disk, CD-ROM, and streaming Web media.


Apple QuickTime home page: