WMV Studio Pro, by Flip4Mac
Posted: 7-Jan-2006

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Flip4Mac Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Tom Leahey Class: MULTIMEDIA

Overview
WMV Studio Pro is a product I've been in search of for a long time. Basically, it's a plug-in component (and application) for Apple's QuickTime to provide support for Windows Media formats. It enables any Quicktime multimedia supporting products (think Quicktime Player, Final Cut, iMovie, etc.) to play, edit, use and create Windows Media formatted/encoded files as easily as any other QuickTime-supported format. Goodbye Microsoft Windows Media Player or needing to use a PC to create or convert standard or high-definition WMV-formatted video!

WMV Studio Pro is the top-of-the-line product in the Flip4Mac family, which starts with WMV Player, a $10 product that just provides play capability, extends to WMV Player Pro, which costs $49 and provides play, edit and WMV import conversion capabilities. Next in the series is the $99 WMV Studio which adds the ability to save in standard WMV video format, and then the $179 WMV Studio Pro which extends WMV Studio by adding output support for high-definition WMV formats and pro audio. The WMV Player products are aimed at end users while the WMV Studio products are aimed at content creators who don't want to leave their Macs to generate WMV formatted video products.

This review is for WMV Studio Pro. It provide import of WMV 7, 8 or 9 and output of WMV 9 video formats, including format variants that can't be played in Windows Media Player 9 for Macintosh.

WMV Player Features

  • Supports Windows Media Video 7, 8, 9, ISO MPEG-4, and Microsoft MPEG-4 V2 and V3
  • Supports Windows Media Audio 7 through 10 Professional and Lossless
  • SD, HD playback

WMV plug-in for Safari

  • MMS protocol, ASX play lists
  • WMV Player Pro Additional Features
  • Import Windows Media into QuickTime applications
  • Convert Windows Media to other QuickTime formats
  • Edit Windows Media files


Requirements

  • Mac OS 10.3 or 10.4
  • QuickTime version 6.5.1 or 7.0


Test Machines

  • Dual G5 PowerMac running 10.4.2
  • TiBook running 10.4.2

Setup
The product downloads as a .dmg file, which expands to a standard Mac OS X package file that installs with Apple's standard Installer utility.

After installation, you get a new WMV Player Preference Pane added to your System Preferences (installed into /Library/PreferencePanes), where you can tweak basic settings and also purchase a license or register your purchased license code. Basic settings include plug-in behaviors, movie options, audio options, and license options.
The license tab is where you enter your WMV license to unlock the Player or Player Pro features.


WMV Player Systems Preferences pane

Installation also installs WMV import/export QT components into your system (/Library/QuickTime), as well as a WMV Browser plugin (/Library/Internet Plug-ins) that enables WMVs to be played directly in the browser using its QT support. (It moves Microsoft's Windows Media browser plugin to a disabled plugins folder if it was previously installed.)

I made sure to run Repair Permission after installation (which I do after most software installs), and this seems to have been a good practice as other users reported export problems in the Flip4Mac discussion forums for which that was the 'fix'.

A user can run the application in Trial Mode (it's available for free downlaod/trial from the vendors' website) which restricts the duration of WMV files it plays or can create. In Trial mode it will only play 1/2 of the WMV file, and output is restricted to 1/2 the movie's duration or 30 secs, whichever is smaller. These limitations are fair and adequate to get a feel for the product before purchasing.

Note: if you haven't upgraded your QuickTime to "Pro", you won't be able to export WMVs from QuickTime Player, as Export in any format is a Quicktime Pro-only feature. You can still use other Quicktime applications to export WMVs (such as iMovie, Final Cut, etc.).

In Use
There is no interface application for WMV. It works by extending QuickTime's format support.


WMV adds the Windows Media export option to your QuickTime applications

You'll have to enter your license again when you export a WMV for the first time using the the "Windows Media" export panel. WMV Studio provides both import and export plug-ins (vs. WMV Player which only comes with import). You have to register the license for both plugins. The Import/Play plug-in is registered in the WMV Player systems preferences, and the Export plug-in is registered via the Windows Media Export Settings dialog which appears when you choose to export to WMV format from your Quicktime authoring application.

In my testing, I limited my use to QuickTime Player Pro and iMovie, as they are the primary products I use. As mentioned earlier, any Quicktime-enabled application can be used as well (such as Final Cut Express, Motion or dozens of other 3rd party apps).

I was able to easily open and play Windows Media movies in QuickTime Player. I was able to edit them and export them as both MOV and WMV files. I was able to compose a movie in iMovie made up of original clips from both MOV and WMV formats.
I was able to successfully play WMV videos from CNN and BBC websites, although they open/play in QT Player rather than opening in the browser window as I'd expected.


WMV Player System Preferences - Movie options

There still seems to be a few types of WMVs that won't playback. For instance, I couldn't get WMV's from MSN to play. There's many different WMV formats - from the different revisions of Windows Media Video 7, 8, 9 and Windows Media Audio 7 -10. WMV is like Quicktime, it's a wrapper that can contain various codecs for audio and video content within. MSN is using a codec that is Windows-only (WMP10) and therefore not supported in the current version of WMV Player/Studio (as documented in the Flip4Mac support forums). For the codec/technically savvy - there are issues with streamed WMV video in "Pipeline" format or which uses Intelligent Stream or MultiBitRate. WMV, which use the VF3 codec, also has issues with .asx files and with MMS-type streaming servers. There are also some issues with how specific websites call the WMV video they're providing which can cause issues for the Flip4Mac WMV browser plug-ins.  Flip4Mac has a very active user forum, and is very responsive to identifying and and building support into updated versions of WMV Player/Studio to provide support for additional formats which don't currently work.

I was able to successfully save MPEGs and MOV as WMV format, and vice versa. I ran into some difficulties at first with a couple of movies, but after consulting the Discussion Forums on Flip4Mac's website, I was able to resolve them.
One of my issues was with trying to work with older and newer non-supported codec formats. Another was the divisible-by-4 output resolution issue. Another was my lack of understanding of what some of the particular export settings did. Any issues you run into seem to be quickly addressable via the excellent Flip4Mac discussion forums.

One fix I read about was to change the Quality setting from the default 100 to 0 to get the export to work (changing the setting didn't seem to adversely effect the quality). Another trick I learned was to not export movies with frame sizes with a odd number of pixels in either horizontal or vertical. According to the forums, WMV doesn't like that, and in fact dimensions which are divisible by 4 are best (has to do with how the WMV 9 video compression codec works and generating 'square' pixels).

Occasionally I'd also run into a known bug where several extra white-screen frames would be appended to the end of an exported WMV movie, but this was also correctable
. The correction is to simply open the resulting movie and delete the last few extra white-screen frames, or trim the movie in your compositing application (like iMovie) to not use them. This bug is being addressed by Flip4Mac in the next update.

As with even regular QuickTime movie authoring, understanding and getting the best settings for WMV movie creation involves some complexity and learning curve
as well as trial and error experimentation. Audio/Video codec setting selection is complex if you want to tweak/apply all of the multitude of settings options available - this is true whether you are using Quicktime or WMV formats. If you aren't interested in getting very deep into the underpinnings, then sticking to 'default presets' is best and will provide 'good' but not optimized results. Whole books are written about codec selection and settings choices for different applications, and the online Help is quite good. The WMV Export dialog alone has over 400 permutations/combinations to play with.


WMV Export Settings - Video options

Luckily, Flip4Mac provides an excellent User Guide (PDF format) that provides a comprehensive and in-depth set of info on all aspects of the products functionality and options. (It even includes links to Microsoft's website for detailed info on WMV encoding.) They've also provided Preset Settings for many common applications to let users get good output right away. For the more adventurous or skilled video author, there's a huge set of settings/selections available to fine-tune your output. You are provided Windows Media Export Setting dialog tabs for Video, Audio, Content (and License). The Video tab provides selections/settings for Format (WMV 9 Standard or Advanced), and for Coding Method that includes: one or two pass, constant or variable bit rate, quality, bit rate and key frames. There are also Input Frame and Output Frame settings for Type (progressive or interlace), size and rate to set.


WMV Export Settings - Audio options

The Audio tab provides selections/settings for Format (WMA 9 Standard, Professional and Lossless), and for Coding Method that includes one or two pass, constant or variable bit rate, and profiles for bit rate, sampling frequency and mono/stereo combinations. The Content tab provides the ability to provide meta-data for your movie such as Title, Author, Description, Copyright and Rating.

I thought the Export conversion speed was quite good. On my Dual 2Ghz PowerMac G5 (3GB RAM), on one example - I converted a 15.26 MB originally MOV-formatted, 2 minute-long movie trailer that was encoded in Sorenson Video 3 with MPEG 3 stereo audio to one of the Presets called "Cable/DSL 384KB" in under 7 minutes. This conversion resampled/resized both the video and audio. Higher quality conversions/exports obviously take longer, but seem to be comparable performance-wise with native QuickTime movie exports.

In general I found the software easy to use, and soon got quite comfortable working with mixed MOV, MPEG and WMV files ignorant of formats/codecs. The software just worked, giving very nice results on format conversions. I ultimately found the ability to play, generate and convert WMVs directly on my Mac using my normal QuickTime tools to be quite liberating, enhancing my flexibility and arsenal of capabilities/options in video production.

Summary
WMV Studio Pro is an excellent product for importing and exporting Windows Media files on the Mac using your existing QuickTime applications. Aimed at both amateur and professional video creators, it truly provides seamless, equal-citizen support for WMV formats. You only see the product by the introduction of additional menu and codec selection choices during importing and exporting within your QuickTime applications. There are some issues and quirks with the software, but there is usually an easy work around. The Flip4Mac forum discussions is a great resource for learning how to use the product, and WMV Studio Pro also comes with a very thorough Users Guide. If you don't have a need to export in the WMV format, but still want to ditch Windows Media Player, I recommend just going with the Flip4Mac WMV Player for just $9.99. On the other hand, if you have a need to both import and export video in WMV formats, then WMV Studio Pro is the way to go. As the top-of-the-line product in Flip4Mac's WMV 'family', WMV Studio Pro provides the most complete set of features, making it a great addition to your arsenal of multimedia tools.

Pros

  • Plays WMV formatted files in any QuickTime app without Windows Media Player
  • Can edit and create WMV files without using a PC
  • Transparent product - seamless adds it's WMV codec capabilities to your existing QT apps
  • Nice choice of Presets to instant, no-fuss WMV movie creation/conversion
  • Responsive vendor, updates/enhancements regularly added. Provides an online forum for user discussion and support.
  • Thorough and useful User Guide.
  • License allows two activations (2 computer installations)
  • 20% educational discount available in the Player Pro and Studio products

Cons

  • Still a few oddities/quirks required with export settings, but I expect these to be resolved in updates
  • Separate license entries required for Player and Export enabling
  • Steep learning curve to using custom codec parameters/settings (but this is true even with non-WMV video codecs)
  • Initial confusion with inability to find/run a "WMV Studio" application upon installation (there is no app)
  • Seems somewhat pricey ($179) given these features on a PC are far less


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice