In addition to its venerable, but aging offering, AVI, Microsoft makes another, more modern player to accommodate today’s more advanced codecs and the demands for quality and convenience by consumers. It’s called Windows Media Video (WMV), and is said to have first come about as a response to a RealNetworks product built for Internet streaming on a computer. But WMV has also grown over the years for a variety of uses beyond web streaming on the computer, and is being used in mobile devices and consumer products.
WHAT IS WMV
WMV leads something of a double life, adding a twist to the usual definition of a player. Acting as a container for various codecs like a typical player format and as a codec. When the .wmv file extension is used as an actual codec, it is contained within Microsoft’s Advanced Systems Format (ASF). Confused? Don’t feel alone. There certainly are complex technologies involved with this kind of audio/video software, particularly when diverse formats are held in different containers and file extension names are intermingled. For purposes here, just consider WMV the same way you would think of AVI, MP4, FLV, MKV or other players.
Watch WMV Videos
WMV was designed to hold content with very high compression ratios, thus making it excellent for storing large amounts of data, then playing it back at superb quality. It’s particularly good at delivering high-definition (HD) video in 720p and 1080p, the two most common consumer formats. At its uppermost implementation it can contain the VC-1 codec, which is one of the three mandated by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) high-definition formats (MPEG-2, H.264 and VC-1) designated for use in Blu-ray products. VC-1 is also used in Microsoft’s Silverlight format, which is how Netflix distributes its instant content on PCs.
CURRENT WMV PLAYERS FOR MAC AND WINDOWS
First, be careful not to confuse WMV with Windows Media Player (WMP), which is an application program that runs on Windows machines to playback (ideally) WMV content. It’s not unheard of to have problems running a non-Microsoft codec if it isn’t installed properly in the Windows Media Player. As always, there is a selection of alternatives to WMP. Some of the popular free players, which are compatible with WMV, include DivX, VLC ,and RealPlayer. Microsoft used to offer a Mac OS X version of WMV, but discontinued the practice several versions ago. As for a free WMV player for Macs, Flip4Mac (licensed by Microsoft) is a popular, free plug-in, that allows WMV movies to be played through Apple’s QuickTime player.
WMV CONVERTERS and ENCODERS
Here again, we enter a broad field with many levels. For simple format conversion, the free WMV players are capable of converting a particular format into WMV and vice versa. For the most part, these only offer a restricted range of settings for bit rate, resolution, color adjustments, frame rates, audio conversion options, etc. when compared to dedicated converter/encoders. Remember, these are also players with the ability to playback a large number of codecs, so don’t expect a free product to be able to address every bell and whistle you can imagine when it comes to converting and encoding.
Dedicated products such as Microsoft’s Expression suite (Windows only) or the Sorenson Media Squeeze series (Mac and Windows) have a much greater selection of tools for doing much more intricate work with many more parameters. But keep in mind these are typically for professional use. They’re designed to optimize the latest features in creating high quality and adaptable content for the desktop, Internet, video distribution, and mobile devices such as phones. These converter/encoder products cost well under a thousand dollars, but will give you the best set of options in taking WMV content and repurposing it for whatever application you have.
There are also a few other products that are primarily used as converters or encoders (sometimes also collectively called “transcoding”), which are either free or are available at a low price point. Those include SUPER (Simplified Universal Player Encoder & Renderer) for Windows only, and the Any Video Converter (Mac & Windows). An open source tool called Handbrake that is gaining in popularity and runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux might be added to the list later, but sadly the online documentation does not indicate if it handles WMV yet. Handbrake does deal with the increasingly accepted Matroska (MKV) container format.
WMV: THE NEXT STEP
Microsoft doesn’t like to be left behind. They are not always on the forefront of introducing innovative products, but once they see a market exists, Microsoft can go after it in a powerful way. With WMV, Microsoft has stepped up to the challenge, not only continuing where AVI left off, but in going beyond to offer a format that offers high-quality, flexibility, and growth in a technology environment that is not only ever-changing, but one which can quickly be turned on its head by seemingly insignificant players from out of nowhere.