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Thinking about a big hard disk to store MP3 files? First read Jerry Kindall's roundup of Macintosh MP3 encoders to get the best bitrate for your buck. Also in this issue: was TidBITS marked as spam in your copy of Outlook Express 5.0? Find out why, and what Microsoft is doing about it. In the news, we cover Microsoft being found to be a monopoly, the results of our Mac interface poll, and updates to Eudora 4.2.2 and the Power Mac G4 (PCI Graphics) ROM.
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Judge Finds Microsoft a Monopoly -- Last Friday U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson released his "finding of fact" in the ongoing federal antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft Corporation, finding that Microsoft holds a monopoly in Intel-compatible PC operating systems. (For a history of Microsoft antitrust actions covered in TidBITS, including a detailed look at the current case in the two-part "Who Do You Antitrust?" article, see the article series linked below). He wrote in part, "Viewed together, three main facts indicate that Microsoft enjoys monopoly power. First, Microsoft's share of the market for Intel-compatible PC operating systems is extremely large and stable. Second, Microsoft's dominant market share is protected by a high barrier to entry. Third, and largely as a result of that barrier, Microsoft's customers lack a commercially viable alternative to Windows." For its part, Microsoft posted a letter from Bill Gates on its Web site saying, "We respectfully disagree with a number of the Court's findings, and believe the American legal system ultimately will affirm that Microsoft's actions and innovations were fair and legal, and have brought tremendous benefits to consumers, our industry and to the United States economy." The finding of fact is not a final ruling but would seem to indicate that Judge Jackson favors the arguments put forth by the Justice Department's prosecutors in the landmark antitrust case. A final ruling in the case is not expected until sometime next year, and appeals and settlement negotiations could cause the suit to drag out for some time yet. [ACE]
Eudora Pro 4.2.2 Update Released -- Qualcomm has released a free 4.1 MB updater that updates any release version (but not public beta) of Eudora Pro 4.x to version 4.2.2. The new version offers numerous small bug fixes that make this an important update for all 4.2.x users, along with one notable architectural change that's useful for people using Mac OS 9's Multiple Users feature. Starting with 4.2.2, new installations of Eudora store the Eudora Folder (which contains your mail, nicknames, filters, and settings) in the top-level Documents folder for the owner of a Mac; other users' Eudora Folders live in the Documents folders inside their individual folders within the Users folder. If you're upgrading an existing installation, Eudora is happy to continue using its current approach of storing the Eudora Folder in the System Folder. Along with supporting Multiple Users, this new approach means the Eudora Folder is more likely to be backed up, won't potentially be wiped out by clean installs, and will be indexed by Sherlock by default. [ACE]
Power Mac G4 (PCI Graphics) ROM Update -- Apple has published a Mac OS ROM file update for users of Power Macintosh G4s (PCI Graphics) who are still running Mac OS 8.6. (An easy way to tell if your G4 uses PCI graphics instead of AGP graphics is that the PCI Graphics models have their microphone and speaker jacks oriented horizontally.) The Power Mac G4 ROM 1.8.1 Update, which may be downloaded as a 2.5 MB self-mounting disk image, resolves data corruption problems Apple discovered on Power Mac G4 (PCI Graphics) models when virtual memory is turned on and eliminates a crash with Adobe Photoshop when Extensis PhotoTools installed. The problems have already been addressed in Power Mac G4 (AGP Graphics) models and in Mac OS 9, so the update is unnecessary in those cases and will refuse to install. [MHA]
Poll Results: QuickTime & Sherlock Interfaces -- It's always off-putting when a politician wins a small majority of the vote and crows about a mandate from the people. However, the results of our most recent poll, where we asked if you thought Apple and other developers should make future user interfaces more like the "stylish" QuickTime Player and Sherlock 2, had us thinking about mandates from the people. To put it bluntly, people hate the design trend, with a full 95 percent of respondents answering that they don't want to see such interfaces used in the future.
Of course, these polls are not scientific, and this one merely records the opinions of about 950 TidBITS readers who had the time and interest to visit our home page and vote on this topic. But 95 percent? We can't tell Apple what to do (well, we can, but they won't listen), but it seems that a significant percentage of savvy Macintosh users feel strongly that this design trend should not point to the interfaces of the future. The message is perhaps better directed at the Macintosh developer community then, who can take home the message that interface innovation must be done with care and that you won't go wrong with following Apple's traditional human interface conventions. [ACE]
Quiz Preview: PRAM Got Ya Down? Let's take a brief break from polls this week and instead go for a quiz question that could help solve strange Mac problems. Every Mac stores a variety of important settings in something called "Parameter RAM" - PRAM for short. The contents of PRAM can become corrupted, causing no end of unusual behavior. For instance, our neighbors recently complained that their Performa 6400 wouldn't start up from the internal hard disk or from a CD-ROM. Booting from an external hard disk also failed, but I was finally able to get it to boot from floppy disk, after which I ran several disk utilities that reported no problems. Finally, I tried zapping the PRAM, which instantly restored the Mac to full working order. The question, then, is: how do you zap the PRAM? Since that many long-time Macintosh users will know the answer, there's bonus information on the quiz answer page, including a list of settings stored in PRAM. Visit our home page to test your knowledge or maybe even learn a little! [ACE]
by Adam C. Engst <email@example.com>
One of the major new features in Microsoft's recently released Outlook Express 5.0 email client is its Junk Mail Filter, which, when turned on, examines incoming messages to determine whether or not you're likely to want to read those messages. The goal of the Junk Mail Filter is to identify spam, enabling users to avoid time-wasting or even offensive unsolicited commercial email. However, the Junk Mail Filter can produce unwanted results.
Microsoft's goal with the Junk Mail Filter is laudable - we all want to stamp out spam. Microsoft even took steps to avoid the problems that caused a similar feature in a beta version of the Windows Outlook Express 5.0 to engender a lawsuit from greeting card company Blue Mountain Arts. Unlike that beta Windows version, the Mac version leaves its Junk Mail Filter off by default, marks suspect messages instead of moving messages, and uses different filtering criteria and methods.
Unfortunately, after some research and thought, we feel that even the Mac version's Junk Mail Filter is problematic for companies using Internet email in legitimate ways. We heard almost immediately from readers that TidBITS was marked as spam by the Junk Mail Filter when its sensitivity slider was left in the default position. Although this behavior concerned us greatly, we were by no means alone, with legitimate email messages from other companies suffering similar electronic branding.
It may seem overly sensitive to quibble over being marked as spam, since users have several ways to override the Junk Mail Filter's actions after the fact. But on the Internet, business reputation is exceedingly important, and the damage done to a company's reputation if its email were marked as spam could be significant. We weren't concerned about our long-time readers being confused, but given Microsoft's size and industry position, a new subscriber could easily decide to believe Outlook Express's marking and think that TidBITS was spam. If that person decided to broadcast the information widely on the Internet, or if that person was a decision-maker at an organization or potential sponsor, our efforts to attract new subscribers and sponsors could easily be harmed. Other companies we spoke with had similar concerns.
Since we believed that the Outlook Express designers had acted with good intentions, we contacted them and explained our concerns. After some discussion of the specifics of our situation and the possible effects on us and other email-using companies, Microsoft agreed to do the following:
Issue a public statement (see below) alerting Outlook Express users that the Junk Mail Filter can mark legitimate messages as spam.
"Microsoft is aware that Outlook Express 5 Macintosh Edition's Junk Mail Filter may identify as suspicious some email messages that a user may want to read. Microsoft is working closely with industry experts to improve the Junk Mail Filter to help people better separate wanted and unwanted messages. For example, we recently learned that the subscription-based TidBITS newsletter was identified as suspicious. To assure that any wanted email, such as the TidBITS newsletter, is not marked by the Junk Mail Filter, please use any one of the following quick and easy solutions:
"1) Add the address of the mailing list to your Address Book
"2) Add the domain name of the Sender (e.g., tidbits.com) to the exception list in the Junk Mail filter
"3) Use the Mailing List Manager to create a Mailing List Rule for that Sender"
Work with us and other industry experts to improve the Junk Mail Filter so it is less likely to mark legitimate messages as spam. We've already had some discussions with the Outlook Express team and will continue to do so as necessary.
Investigate ways that other affected companies can learn what it is they're doing that might cause their mail to be marked as spam. This is not a simple situation, since if Microsoft published the rules used by the Junk Mail Filter, spammers would immediately modify their spam to circumvent it.
Finally, it's important to note that we are in no way accusing Microsoft of attempting to harm TidBITS or any other company. Although we're unhappy that this Junk Mail Feature proved problematic for us and others, we're pleased that Microsoft is responding promptly and appropriately.
by Jerry Kindall <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The recent popularity of MP3 goes beyond downloading music files from the Internet. Using MP3 encoding software, you can make MP3 files from music CDs you already own. The first part of this article discussed the ins and outs of MP3 encoding (see "Making MP3s, Part 1" in TidBITS-504); this week we present the results of donning headphones and making MP3s from five popular encoding programs.
Xing AudioCatalyst 2.0.1 -- AudioCatalyst was the first fast MP3 encoder for the Mac, and the first that could encode audio directly from CD without first saving it to your hard disk. While the initial release didn't have all the features of its Windows predecessor, AudioCatalyst 2.0 now enjoys parity with its Windows sibling.
The program feels like a Windows port, and its options are buried in different dialog boxes. Still, it sports a number of features its competitors don't. For one thing, it can automatically normalize the volume level of CD tracks before encoding them. (Many older CDs are mastered at comparatively low levels. Normalizing boosts the signal to take advantage of the full available dynamic range.) It also has a function to snip silence from the beginning and the end of a track automatically.
AudioCatalyst's panoply of features defined our expectations for other MP3 encoders. AudioCatalyst can look up track names for audio CDs from the Internet CD Database (CDDB), so you don't have to name the resulting files, and it enables you to specify how you want the files to be named (e.g., track number + song title + artist name) and will optionally create a folder for each album and yet another enclosing folder outside that named after the artist.
AudioCatalyst was the first Mac MP3 encoder to create MP3s with the full audible frequency range from 20 Hz to 20 KHz. (Older MP3 encoders cut off frequencies at 16 KHz.) At sufficiently high bitrates, this brings MP3 closer to CD-quality realism, although at lower bitrates, this barely audible data can cause the representation of the rest of the audio spectrum to suffer. Like almost all its features, AudioCatalyst lets you turn off extended-range encoding.
AudioCatalyst pioneered variable bitrate encoding (VBR), a feature that automatically increases the number of bits used to encode complicated or dense passages of music, while using a lower bitrate for simpler passages. Standard MP3 encoding, sometimes referred to as constant bitrate or CBR, uses the same number of bits per second throughout the file. VBR can substantially increase the quality of some MP3s with only a modest increase in file size. Some older MP3 players can't play VBR files, and neither can QuickTime 4, but most current players can handle them.
AudioCatalyst is the only program in this roundup that can MP3-encode live audio from your computer's microphone or audio line inputs. With the other encoders, you must first record the audio to an AIFF-format audio file using a program like the free Coaster, then encode that file as MP3.
If you need one of the features only AudioCatalyst provides, or if you will be converting a whole flock of files, no other program even comes close to offering as much functionality as AudioCatalyst. At $30, it's price-competitive with the other full-featured encoders in this roundup, and it's by far the most flexible. It's also one of the fastest and produces very good-sounding files. (In our low-bitrate torture test, it came in second.) However, the program's user interface is unnecessarily cluttered and complicated, so if you just want to convert a few favorite songs to MP3 without much fuss, one of the other programs would probably be better.
Casady & Greene SoundJam MP 1.1 -- SoundJam MP is both an MP3 player and an encoder. It can act as an audio CD controller and play streaming MP3 broadcasts from the Internet as well. (See "That MP3eaceful, Easy Feeling, Part 2" in TidBITS-501 for more on SoundJam.)
SoundJam is a good choice if you want to create MP3s and listen to them in a single program. Like its playback-only competitors Audion and Macast, it comes with a variety of "skins" for changing the program's appearance and supports both audio and visual effects plug-ins. It's the only player that supports Arboretum's Realizer plug-in, which is a fancy alternative to an equalizer that employs psychoacoustic principles to boost the audibility of bass on small computer speakers, enhance the stereo image, and synthesize missing high frequencies.
Despite getting high marks for value, SoundJam's current encoder functionality isn't competitive with the other encoders. The program has CDDB support for automatically naming your files and can create an enclosing folder named after the album. It also supports optional full-frequency (20 Hz to 20 KHz) encoding and can automatically switch out of this mode when encoding at lower bitrates. Even when encoding the full frequency range, however, SoundJam-encoded files sound a little soft and muffled compared to MP3s made by other programs. (Judgments of sound quality are extremely subjective, and there is little difference between any of the programs we looked at for bitrates of at least 128 Kbps. SoundJam 1.1 didn't do well on our torture test, unfortunately.)
The authors of SoundJam are aware of the product's sonic shortcomings and are working diligently to remedy them. After we published the first part of this roundup, Jeffrey Robbin sent us a beta version of a new version of SoundJam. He noted that some of the features weren't finalized, and in fact they weren't even sure what version number it would be, but he thought we'd find the sound quality much improved. And indeed it is. This beta version of SoundJam MP fared much better on our low-bitrate torture test, with very few artifacts, although it accomplished this feat by severely restricting frequency response - the resulting MP3 sounded more like AM radio than a CD. Still, we'll take a musically coherent but muffled MP3 over an artifact-infested one that's almost unintelligible, and the new SoundJam gave us fewer artifacts on the low bitrate file than all but one of the other encoders. At more typical bitrates, the muffled character we noted in version 1.1 was much reduced. The program has also added variable bitrate support and a feature that lets you strip out bandwidth-robbing inaudible frequencies below 10 Hz.
SoundJam already has the distinction of being the only MP3 encoder that takes advantage of Apple's new Velocity Engine. On a Power Macintosh G4, assuming you can get one, it's the fastest MP3 encoder you can buy, at least until Proteron delivers a promised upgrade to N2MP3. If you want a good deal on a multimedia player and encoder, SoundJam is worth checking out as it stands. The upgrade we tested will likely render it a strong competitor on the merits of its encoder as well.
Proteron N2MP3 -- Although we're at a loss to explain its name, Proteron's new MP3 encoder benefits from the most intuitive user interface of the programs in this roundup. It's so beautiful that it makes you wonder why every MP3 encoder doesn't work the same way. If this program doesn't win an Apple Human Interface Design Excellence (HIDE) award, something is seriously wrong.
Here's how it works. You put an audio CD into your computer's CD-ROM drive. As it mounts, the name of the desktop CD icon changes to the title of the CD you just put in, thanks to a quick CDDB look-up. You open the CD icon, and inside you find icons for the individual songs. N2MP3 tweaks this window, too, so you can see the title and duration of each track. To convert a song to MP3, double-click it to save it on your desktop (or another previously designated folder), or drag the song icon from the CD to any folder. The N2MP3 progress window pops up and a few minutes later, your fresh MP3 file is out of the oven. N2MP3 also provides a convenient way to encode audio tracks on Enhanced CDs (which don't show up on the Finder desktop as audio CDs) and uncompressed AIFF audio files.
The encoder barely has a user interface at all - just a few dialogs that let you choose encoding settings. Although the settings aren't as multitudinous as those in AudioCatalyst, they are far better organized, and aside from one minor omission, all the essentials are there. Although N2MP3 supports full-frequency range recording, you can't turn off the feature as you can in AudioCatalyst and SoundJam, which hinders its encoding performance at low bitrates.
You can choose encoding settings in a dialog that pops up at the beginning of each encode operation, or you can choose them in the N2MP3 Settings control panel and bypass the pre-encode dialog entirely. This "fast track" method is the closest thing to having MP3 encoding built into the Mac OS.
There's a unique play-during-encode feature, which of necessity limits the program to encoding at real-time speed. For fastest encoding, turn it off. We were slightly disappointed, however, to discover that this feature played back the original audio rather than decoding the compressed audio, so you can't hear what your encoded file will sound like. (We were hoping it would be like the tape monitor switch on a three-head tape deck.)
Like AudioCatalyst, N2MP3 offers variable-bitrate encoding, but provides more control. In AudioCatalyst, you can choose only one of five quality settings subjectively labeled from Low to High. With N2MP3, you set the minimum bitrate using the same slider you use to set the bitrate of a fixed-bitrate file, and then use a second slider to tell the program how good you want the file to sound; higher quality naturally implies additional bits. The manual reveals that when the slider is set to Better, the encoding bitrate for each split-second frame of the encoded MP3 file is automatically increased until there is virtually no distortion for that frame. As you move the slider closer to the Worse end of the scale, N2MP3 places lower and lower limits on the number of bits that can be added to each frame.
This is a powerful feature hidden in an obscure location and woefully under-explained, so we'll rectify that omission here. To make the best-sounding MP3 file the program is capable of without wasting unnecessary bits, choose the lowest possible base bitrate (32 Kbps) and drag the VBR quality slider to Better. Each frame of the file will then use the number of bits required for best results, and no more. It's a bit counterintuitive that a Better VBR file with the slider set to 32 Kbps can be significantly larger than one encoded with a constant base bitrate of 128 Kbps, but no other encoder offers such an easy way to get the best sound quality with the smallest file.
When set to its Fast mode, N2MP3 is the fastest encoder in this roundup, beating AudioCatalyst by a few seconds when compressing a 4-minute file on our 300 MHz G3 machine at constant bitrates. Although files encoded in this mode exhibit a slight sibilance (exaggerated high-frequencies during "sss" sounds) compared to the original, they are acceptable. (Proteron says that their encoder is optimized for 160 Kbps encoding, and the sibilance all but vanished when we tried again at that rate.) N2MP3 is significantly slower in Best Quality mode - in fact, it was slower than all but one of the other encoders, and that other encoder is free. In our torture test, N2MP3 was soundly trounced by AudioCatalyst. At ordinary bitrates (128 Kbps and above), though, N2MP3 held its own.
QDesign MVP 1.0 -- QDesign is no stranger to digital audio compression; their music compression technology was deemed worthy of incorporation into QuickTime 3 and 4. MVP is, like Casady & Greene's SoundJam MP, intended to be a combination multimedia player and encoder. (That's not the only thing they have in common, since the MP3 encoder in SoundJam is licensed from QDesign.) MVP even plays back QuickTime video and has features for finding, downloading, and buying music.
MVP's encoding options are even more limited than SoundJam's. You get to choose the (fixed) bitrate for encoding. And that's it. MVP does have CDDB lookup for automatic naming of files and gives you AudioCatalyst-style flexibility in name formats, but the program inexplicably cannot encode AIFF files to MP3, which excluded it from our time trials. With luck, QDesign will add this invaluable feature in the future. Files it encoded also suffered from the same slightly "soft" sound as SoundJam, for obvious reasons.
One point in MVP's favor is that it looks really nice (nicer than most of the "skins" available for SoundJam, Macast, or Audion, even though you can't change MVP's appearance) with an enormous track title display. It's also extremely simple to use and costs only $20.
Macromedia SWA Export Xtra & Lindvall MP3 Encoder 0.12 -- Macromedia Director's Shockwave Audio (SWA) feature enables Director files (embedded in Web pages through the company's Shockwave plug-in) to include streaming audio. Although Macromedia doesn't promote the fact, SWA is essentially MP3. The SWA Export Xtra is a plug-in for the company's SoundEdit 16 audio editor, which costs about $300. But fear not, ye cheapskates - Johan Lindvall has written a little application called MP3 Encoder that supports just enough SoundEdit 16 plug-in voodoo to run the SWA Export Xtra and to remove the SWA-specific bits of the file before saving it. It's free, and so is the plug-in. Voila, instant free MP3 encoder.
No one will mistake MP3 Encoder for AudioCatalyst. Its user interface is almost as minimal as MVP's. You can't encode directly from audio CDs; instead, you must use MoviePlayer or the freeware Track Thief to create AIFF audio files, which require about 10 MB per minute of music.
The SWA Xtra lacks variable bitrate support; nor can it encode the full audible frequency range (it only goes up to 16 KHz). And it's slow: the two slowest times in our trials were achieved with this software in Normal and Higher Quality mode. But it does work - very well, in fact, despite its limited frequency response. This encoder did better on our low bitrate torture test than any of the other programs. And did we mention it's free?
The Final Note -- All of the MP3 encoders in our roundup have at least one reason to recommend them, and all produce reasonable files at typical bitrates. MVP plays a wide variety of multimedia files and is the least expensive of the commercial products. SoundJam is slightly more flexible than MVP, can play Internet MP3 streams, and has the visual bells and whistles of its playback-only competitors. It also comes with Realizer, which can improve sound on typical computer speakers and is attractively priced compared to a separate player and encoder.
N2MP3 produces better-sounding files, is even more configurable, and has a elegant and simple user interface. AudioCatalyst is extremely configurable, very fast, and produces great-sounding files. And the SWA Xtra/MP3 Encoder combination is free and does very nice low-bitrate encoding.
Although we had hoped a single program would pull ahead from the pack, it wasn't meant to be. If we're forced to pick, our vote goes to N2MP3 for most users and AudioCatalyst for audio geeks. In fact, our dream encoder is a cross between the two: Xing's encoder and N2MP3's user interface, with an extra checkbox or two in the Advanced settings to satisfy our tweaker's urge. Nevertheless, the state of MP3 encoding on the Mac has gone from lame to robust in a remarkably short time, and that's a credit to all the developers involved. Try all their wares to see which suits your needs best. You'll enjoy playing with this technology.
[Jerry Kindall is the founder of Manual Labor, a technical writing and Web design firm specializing in the Macintosh. His music collection includes, at last count, over 900 CDs.]
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
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