When Apple introduced QuickTime back in 1991, it was the ultimate in gee-whiz technology. Before QuickTime, no one seriously thought about digital video on the Macintosh: the idea that comparatively lowly Macs could play back digital video even at postage-stamp sizes was considered impossible, and that digital video would become a data type like text or graphics in the minds of most users was unthinkable.
But it happened. Not only did Apple deliver with QuickTime 1.0 all those years ago, but they’ve continued to improve and refine QuickTime, moving it progressively toward the center of their operating system and expanding it to include all time-based media (video, sound, and otherwise) on the Macintosh. And QuickTime has more or less set the standard for digital video under Windows, due in no small part to the Mac’s dominance of the multimedia development world. With QuickTime 2.5, Apple adds some new features and tries to further legitimize QuickTime in the world of high-end digital video.
What’s New in QuickTime 2.5 — QuickTime 2.5 adds new features that are useful to both digital media producers and the average Macintosh user:
- Speed: First and foremost, QuickTime 2.5 is considerably faster than its predecessors, and the performance improvements extend from high-end Power Macs all the way down to low-end 68030-based machines. Although some sources claim improvements from 25 to 200 percent, my (admittedly incomplete) testing on a range of 68K and PowerPC Macs showed improvements in the 25 to 50 percent range for typical QuickTime uses.
- More native code: Power Mac owners will appreciate that portions of the Component Manager (originally introduced with QuickTime 1.5, then later rolled into the system) are PowerPC native. This not only helps QuickTime perform better, but also helps other system components like the Sound Manager, AppleScript, ColorSync and QuickDraw GX.
- New File Formats: QuickTime now allows QuickTime-aware applications to support a variety of graphic file formats transparently, including GIF, Silicon Graphics, and (notably) Adobe Photoshop. If you want proof, try opening a Photoshop document in SimpleText after installing QuickTime 2.5.
- Expanded CD AutoPlay: QuickTime 2.5 can now start audio CDs and some Macintosh CD-ROMs immediately when they’re inserted into a CD-ROM drive. CD-ROMs must be specifically designed to use CD-ROM AutoPlay, and to the best of my knowledge not many do, although I suspect support is more prevalent among children’s CD-ROMs. You can turn off AutoPlay using the QuickTime Settings control panel.
- Enhanced MIDI Capability. QuickTime’s MIDI support is significantly improved, providing CD-quality sound, and (although I haven’t been able to confirm that it’s actually there), QuickTime 2.5 is supposed to have a public API for the QuickTime Music Instruments format, enabling developers to add and use their own QuickTime MIDI instruments in programs such as MIDI sequencers and composition programs. Also for the first time, QuickTime can route MIDI to external devices using Apple’s MIDI Manager or third-party tools like Opcode’s Open Music System (OMS), or Mark Of The Unicorn’s FreeMIDI system. Another, ahem, MIDI-related "feature" is the ability to play MIDI karaoke files, which play a tune and show you the lyrics at the same time. Don’t try this in public unless you enjoy humiliation more than we do.
- New versions of old components: QuickTime 2.5 includes new versions of the Sound Control panel, Sound Manager (3.2.1), MoviePlayer, and QuickTime Musical Instruments.
- QuickTime Settings control panel. QuickTime 2.5 includes a QuickTime Settings control panel, which allows users to control aspects of QuickTime’s AutoPlay and Music settings. Unfortunately, most users probably won’t think to look at a QuickTime control panel to control these aspects of their Macintosh, let alone to control the behavior of their CD-ROM drive. Although I’d prefer to see these controls integrated in more appropriate places, at least Apple is enabling users to toggle these settings.
- Codec Improvements: In case you were wondering, codec stands for "compressor-decompressor" – the word shares a similar etymology to modem, which comes from "modulator-demodulator." QuickTime has long provided support for multiple codecs from different vendors and different purposes, and QuickTime 2.5 now includes asynchronous JPEG and Raw codecs for Power Macs and API-level codec extensions for manipulating multiple video fields (primarily of interest to high-end application developers and producers). QuickTime’s codecs also support computers with multiple processors.
- Other improvements: The improvements list continues with integrated support for QuickDraw 3D (so 3-D modeling applications can export resolution-independent 3-D movies in the future), support for PCI hardware acceleration, improved text handling (including capturing close-captioned text into QuickTime’s text track – it’s now possible to create transcripts from captured close-captioned video), alpha channel support, and a new Clock component that improves synchronization of sound, video, and other elements.
MPEG & M-JPEG Confusion — If you’ve been paying attention to digital video during the last year, you’ve probably heard of MPEG, a digital video format that’s being widely adopted and promises high playback rates with quality similar to a video cassette recorder. At the moment, MPEG isn’t a big deal for typical computer users because there’s comparatively little MPEG content available and because the MPEG format is CPU-intensive. Playing back MPEG video requires a fair bit of processing power, and most of today’s consumer-level machines can’t do it easily, especially at full-screen (640 by 480) sizes. A common solution has been to ease processor loads by using add-in boards dedicated to MPEG playback (like Apple’s MPEG system available for some Performas and Power Macs), but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a software-only solution is preferable. Since many forthcoming digital television technologies are based on MPEG, you can expect MPEG technologies to blossom in the near future.
Contrary to a number of published articles, QuickTime 2.5 does not include software-only MPEG support, although basic internal support for MPEG playback has been present since QuickTime 2.0 (see TidBITS-294). According to current information, Apple will release an MPEG extension to QuickTime to enable QuickTime to handle MPEG movies on its own; in the meantime, the premiere MPEG player for the Mac continues to be Maynard Handley’s Sparkle. Maynard works for Apple now and he’s helping work MPEG support into QuickTime; however, Sparkle is no longer being maintained and reportedly has problems under System 7.5.2 and higher, although I’ve never encountered any difficulties.
As part of Apple’s effort to further legitimize QuickTime at the high end of the digital video world, however, QuickTime 2.5 includes much-hyped support for a "universal" M-JPEG format. M-JPEG is a video format used in high-end video capturing and editing systems; unlike MPEG, it retains information about every frame of a movie (rather than interpolating between keyframes), which makes it more suited to high-end production. Unfortunately, every M-JPEG format has until now been proprietary and non-interchangeable. QuickTime 2.5 will enable high-end video people to exchange and work more easily with M-JPEG video – provided hardware vendors adopt Apple’s new formats. The bottom line is that QuickTime 2.5’s M-JPEG technology might be great for high-end video producers (and maybe a feather in Apple’s cap), but doesn’t mean much for end-users directly.
What Else? Apple took a slightly new route with QuickTime 2.5 by publicly making pre-release versions available to developers and serious QuickTime users. Although these beta releases were slightly marred by the distribution becoming too public, I applaud Apple for providing fast and thorough response to questions and bug reports during the pre-release period, and also for fixing a number of outstanding bugs.
The next step for QuickTime is version 3.0, which will enable QuickTime authors to build interactivity and a wealth of functionality into their movies – functionality which will also serve as the foundation for HyperCard 3.0 (see TidBITS-329). Apple is taking QuickTime very seriously and considers it one of the company’s core technologies. Apple’s new organization scheme places QuickTime under "Alternative Platforms," and the company has already announced QuickTime IC (Image Capture), which is an entire QuickTime-based operating system for digital cameras. Apple has been demonstrating its commitment to QuickTime in other areas, including Netscape plug-ins for QuickTime and QuickTime VR, and enhancements to QuickTime Conferencing. In short, QuickTime’s future looks bright, as long as Apple can manage to integrate QuickTime’s media capabilities seamlessly into the Mac OS and other operating systems.
Where To Get It — QuickTime 2.5 is available for free from Apple. QuickTime 2.5 requires System 6.0.7 or higher, but some features of QuickTime only work on later versions of the Mac OS.
Two versions of QuickTime are available from the Web site above: a 2.7 MB all-in-one install, and a version with two floppy disk images. Choose the one that’s most appropriate for you (the FTP site only carries the disk images).
If you’d like to learn more about QuickTime and digital video, be sure to check out Charles Wiltgen’s QuickTime FAQ, available in Acrobat PDF format at the URL below. (Charles works for Apple now, but the FAQ is not an official Apple document.)