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The Slacker's Guide - VLC, MPlayer and Ashalii

by Chris Barylick
December 14th, 2005

Shareware to the Rescue: VLC and MPlayer
Somewhere along the way, we all become entangled in the conflict. Whether it's opening a file a friend or colleagues sent along or wondering whether your Web browser will support a given media type, we all become part of the format wars. And if there's money to be made in controlling a proprietary format (i.e., the prolonged war between QuickTime and Windows Media Player for something as substantial as the format of choice for Internet movie trailers), no party can claim itself completely innocent, especially if a technological crown jewel is at stake.

As much as I may love Apple and believe OS X to be the best operating system on the planet, I've long since come to the realization that QuickTime is as much a part of the format wars as anything else. Apple is selling a branded technology, and while it does it well, there are holes to fill. Granted, some of these aren't their fault. Technology changes, as do ways a data file is encoded or compressed; for the most part, Apple does an extremely good job with QuickTime and the number of formats it can cleanly play back for the user.

If Apple can obtain the rights to a new format, odds are it will be well supported in an upcoming version of QuickTime.

In cases where this is impossible or it will take a while to occur (Apple is fighting their multimedia wars on several fronts via its efforts to update QuickTime for both Mac OS X and Windows as well as fighting routine legal squabbles to ensure the licensing for its supported formats), there are workarounds, some of them arguably better for a format than what Apple has in place through QuickTime. Video Lan Client (VLC) and MPlayer fill in where QuickTime leaves off.

Shareware at is finest, VLC and MPlayer handle formats that QuickTime has yet to fully support, such as the .avi, some versions of .mpg and .wmv formats, which can throw Apple's software for a loop or are owned by firms which have no interest in licensing the format to Apple.

Download the programs (both are entirely free) and you're off. Just install the applications like any other program by copying them wherever you'd like on the hard drive and then drag the icons to the Dock for easy access. From here, you can drag almost any media file to the icons for easy playback.

Both programs feature full play list support, so multiple items can be queued up. Full screen made turns your Mac into a theater with as clean playback as the file allows (something recorded for a 640 x 480 resolution and played back at 1280 x 1024 may look a bit pixelated, as expected) and users can happily rip their favorite DVDs to file, then sit back somewhere down the line and watch a movie without having to migrate to the living room.

Add extensive control of audio and video settings and the programs are as well rounded as you'd expect any media player, although QuickTime's pro version happily includes encoding capabilities as part of its feature set.

Video Lan Client in action.

VLC and MPlayer are both open source software projects available for Mac OS X, Windows and assorted Linux distributions. The projects are open to anyone who wants to participate via feedback as a beta tester, and all comments are welcome.

VLC requires Mac OS X 10.2 or later to run and is available as a 12.8 MB download. The file requires 34.1 MB of disk space after expansion. For users running the older 10.1 version of Mac OS X, the 0.7.0 version is available for download and use.

MPlayer is also completely free to anyone, and is an open source project that will take feedback from anyone with an interest in the future of the software. The current version requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later to run and is a 6.7 MB download that expands to 13.3 MB on the hard drive.

As robust as VLC with a similar feature set, the programs compliment each other perfectly to provide a suite of small, low-overhead applications that can open almost any media format.

Anthony Michael Hall reprises one of Bill Gates' cooler moments, as presented through MPlayer.

Tetris Confined: Ashalii
Every so often, something comes along that catches you, makes you stop and blink. From there, you head back to see what it about that thing that caught your attention. This recently occurred with Curry Kenworthy's Ashalii, a shareware puzzle game that combines elements of Connect Four, Tetris and Poker in a space theme.

Logically, none of this fits and if the your brain felt as if it had run up against the front of your skull, you're not alone. Somehow it does fit, though, and the end result is like nothing you've ever played before.

Set in a grid, players must move descending pieces to their appropriate places on the grid to match like colors. Combine several identical pieces in a row to remove them from the board for a set amount of points and you're on to the next group. Like Tetris, players can rotate the pieces via mappable keys as well as move the entire descending mass with the mouse. And, like Tetris, disposed of pieces will clear room for remaining pieces to fall and add additional space to move around in the grid.

Arashii, a new shareware puzzle/tile video game.

Where the poker element emerges is in the idea of being able to have some control over the group of pieces that happen to be falling at any given time. Each game, the player is given three instances in which they can press the escape key to randomly alter which pieces are falling. While this isn't quite identical to handing in several old cards for replacements in a card game, it serves the same purpose and acts as three chances to completely change the situation in front of you.

Even if Ashalii isn't the be all and end all of shareware gaming, this is a good effort out the gate for Curry Kenworthy and Curry K. Software. The game is fun in both short and long doses and offers a different rendition of a puzzle game with familiar, accessible themes.

Ashalii requires Mac OS X 10.1 or later to run and is available as a 2.7 MB download that occupies 2.7 MB on the hard drive when expanded. The game is available for a $14.95 registration fee and a site license can be purchased for $149.95 that allows as many copies as are desired to be installed and run at any location. For more information, check out the site and for the PC hordes, a Wintel version is in the works.

Finally: Punishment

Since MacCentral's Peter Cohen decided to inflict what can only be described as concentrated psychological on me via this link, the pain must be shared on a larger scale. Still, anything that can make Positive K's "I Got a Man" look like a musical opus in comparison is worth mentioning.

That wraps things up for this week. If you've seen anything new or interesting in the Mac universe, please e-mail me.

Chris Barylick covers games for The Mac Observer, and has written for Inside Mac Games, MacGamer, UPI, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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