On the cusp of its tenth birthday, Apple’s multimedia platform has turned 5: QuickTime 5 is now available for Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, and Windows. The new version improves audio and video authoring and playback for everyone from broadcast professionals and Web publishers to Internet and iMovie users. As a streaming platform for the Internet, QuickTime still has some disadvantages that Microsoft’s Windows Media and RealNetworks’ RealSystem don’t, but this version narrows the gap.
As with previous versions, Apple is distributing two flavours of QuickTime 5: a free version that simply plays media, and the £21 QuickTime Pro, which allows authoring, and lets you save downloaded QuickTime movies to your hard drive. I tested the Pro version, but unless otherwise noted, everything in this review applies to both versions.
QuickTime 5’s improvements include an enhanced DV codec, which dramatically improves image quality and speeds rendering, and virtual-reality technology that now allows cubic panoramas, letting users look up and down, as well as left and right.
Alas, neither Apple’s QuickTime VR Authoring Studio nor VR Toolbox’s VR Worx can yet create cubic panoramas.
QuickTime Pro now lets developers wrap movies in custom frames called media skins. A media skin can be a simple graphic that replaces the standard QuickTime Player window, or it can contain clickable buttons created in Totally Hip Software’s LiveStage Pro or Macromedia’s Flash. (Skinned movies won’t play in QuickTime 4 or earlier versions.)
Speaking of Flash, QuickTime movies can now include Flash 4 content. Though Flash is at version 5, Flash 4 support lets developers give QuickTime movies interactive features.
Version 5’s QuickTime Player is dramatically improved, with a cleaner, more straightforward interface. The Pro version adds controls for video brightness, contrast, and tint.
To improve the playback quality of streaming (versus downloaded) content, QuickTime 5 offers skip-protection features – it preloads and caches incoming data to reduce drop-outs caused by Internet congestion and transmission vagaries. But these features require that content providers use the new QuickTime Streaming Server 3 – and most don’t.
Compared with the latest streaming codecs from Microsoft and RealNetworks, those in QuickTime deliver inferior audio and video quality. There’s hope, though: some third-party companies are working on new streaming codecs for QuickTime, and QuickTime 5’s new updating mechanism enables it to receive and install codecs as they become available.
Although QuickTime still falls short of competing streaming-media technologies, it remains the platform of choice for delivering downloadable movies. This is the best QuickTime release to date, and the Pro version – with its video-quality controls, AppleScript support, and enhanced authoring features – is the best reason yet to upgrade from the free package.