Audio Wars: WMA Tops MP3...Sometimes

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - When it comes to subverting popular computing technologies to serve its own stockholders, nobody beats Microsoft Corp. The company did it with graphical user interfaces, it did it with dozens of disk and file utilities, and it did it again with the Web. Now Microsoft wants you to leave the widely accepted MP3 file format behind and come over to the dark side: Windows Media Audio. It would be easy to dismiss WMA as a crappy substitute for the real digital- audio McCoy, but--surprise!--WMA may actually turn out to be better than MP3 for many of us.

MP3 encoders such as Jukka Poikolainen Software's Easy CD-DA Extractor (www.Poikosoft.Com/cdda), the MusicMatch Jukebox (www.Musicmatch. Com), and Xing Technology's AudioCatalyst (www.Xingtech.Com/ mp3/audiocatalyst) let you create MP3 files at a variety of bit rates suited to the audio quality of different sources--64 kbps may be plenty for a vintage monophonic jazz reissue, but a modern stereo recording might need 192 kbps or more. Most MP3 encoders can hear the difference between a CD track encoded at 128 kbps and the same track encoded at 160, 192, 224, or 256 kbps. The higher the bit rate, the better the sound--especially at the higher frequencies and when played through first-rate audio equipment. But the higher the bit rate used for encoding, the bigger the resulting file--which means that downloads will take longer, and fewer files will fit on your digital audio player.

According to Microsoft, WMA files sound as good as MP3 clips, at half the bit rate (thus consuming half the disk space). The truth isn't quite so simple. In a test conducted by the National Software Testing Labs (see Final MSAudio Report at www.Nstl.Com/downloads), a majority of listeners thought that a WMA file encoded at 64 kbps sounded more like the original audio CD track than an MP3 file encoded at 128 kbps did. The lab didn't compare the formats at higher bit rates, though.

In a herculean double-blind test, Sound and Vision magazine found that the quality of MP3 and WMA were roughly equivalent when both were encoded at 128 kbps, so it's possible that WMA's advantage exists only at the lower rates. To read the S&V article, browse on over to www.Soundandvisionmag.Com, enter Windows Media Audio in the search box, press , and choose Download Showdown.

If you currently download or encode a lot of 128-kbps MP3 audio files, switching to 64-kbps WMA could save you a fair number of megabytes and let you cram twice as many tracks into your digital audio player's limited memory.

Microsoft's free Windows Media Player 7 lets you encode CDs into WMA format, play back both MP3 and WMA files, and upload either format to your audio player. You can download the 7.2MB player from www.Microsoft.Com/windows/windowsmedia.

Microsoft predicts that most digital audio players being sold this holiday season will play WMA audio. RCA's Lyra plays both MP3 and WMA formats, but most other players are MP3-only, so don't jump on the WMA bandwagon yet if that's how you primarily listen to digital audio. As we went to press, Creative Labs and Diamond promised WMA compatibility upgrades for their respective Nomad II and Rio 500 players.

If you don't use a digital audio player, WMA could still be a good choice. Most leading digital audio playback applications--including Winamp, RealPlayer, and (of course) Windows Media Player--play WMA files. And if all those downloaded files are piling up on your hard disk faster than you can burn CDs, you may want to convert your existing library of MP3s to WMA. A great tool for the conversion is Dennis Rebentrost's US$19 Audio Converter 2.05. You can download a 30-day demo version of the utility from www.Dennisre.Com/ audconv/index.Html.

You may also need to download the Windows Media Audio component from ftp.Dennisre.Com/audconv/wmaudiosetup.Exe, and install it.

Have Bookmarks, Will Travel

I recently purchased a notebook computer and would like to sync it with my desktop machine. Is there a way to copy my desktop's Internet bookmarks and address book to my notebook without having to retype them?

Jack Serrano, Floral Park, New York

Yes, and it's not as hard as you might think. You don't say which browser or mail program you use, so I'll provide steps for the most recent versions (as we went to press) of both Netscape Communicator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

First we'll look at the procedure with Communicator. To move your Navigator 4.7 Bookmarks to another PC, start the program, press -B to open the Bookmarks window, choose File*Save As, browse to a floppy disk, and click Save to create a copy of the file using the default name of bookmark.Htm. (You could also browse to a folder on the other computer if the PCs are linked by a network or other connection.) If you copied the file to a floppy disk, insert the floppy into the destination machine's drive, launch Navigator on the system, press -B, choose File*Import, and browse to the bookmark.Htm file that you just saved.

To copy your address book, press --2, or select Communicator*Address Book to open the Address Book window, select File*Export, browse to a floppy disk or folder as described above, enter a name for the file, and click Save.

Now all you need to do to finish the process is to move to the destination machine, open Address Book, choose File*Import, select the LDIF file (address book) option, click Next, and select the file in the Import LDIF file window.

Here's the same procedure for IE 5: choose File*Import and Export to start the Import/Export Wizard, and click Next. Highlight the Export Favorites option in the following screen and click Next again. Select the Favorites folder in the next screen and click Next yet again. Then select Export to a File or Address, browse to the floppy drive or folder on the destination machine, and click Save. Then click Next and Finish to complete the job. To import the file on the new machine, start the Import/Export Wizard, click Next, select Import Favorites, click Next, select Import from a File or Address, and browse to the file you exported. Click Save*Next, then Next, and finally Finish. At this point you may want to ice down your aching index finger and send your mouse in for its 10,000-mile maintenance service.

Transferring your address book is a bit less click-intensive: Open Outlook Express, choose File*Export*Address Book, select Text File (Comma Separated Values), and click Export. Browse to the proper location, type in a file name, and select Save*Next. Select the data fields you want to export and click Finish. To import the file, open Outlook Express on the destination machine, choose File*Import*Other Address Book, select Text File (Comma Separate Values), and click Import. Browse to the file you saved previously, click Next, and then click Finish.

Send your Internet-related questions and tips to nettips@spanbauer.Com. We pay $50 for published items. Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

Download Of The Month

Glassbook's Free E-Book Reader

I love to read, but I can't always get to a library or bookstore. That's why I'm thankful for Glassbook's free Glassbook Reader 1.1, Which allows me to read books on any PC. The Glassbook Reader is a 6MB download from bookstore.Glassbook.Com/store/getreader.Asp. It does a good job of reproducing the look of the printed page, including fonts, justification, and font-smoothing (see below). You can bookmark your place, rotate the display 90 degrees to view books in portrait mode on your laptop or desktop PC, and download multiple free books from Glassbook's Web site (bookstore.Glassbook.Com/store/free_title_list.Asp). The list of free books includes Willa Cather's My Antonia, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Stephen King's Riding the Bullet. The reader will even replace your copy of Adobe's Acrobat Reader if you want, since Glassbooks are created in Adobe's Portable Document Format. Of course, Glassbook would like you to buy books from its site, which you can do from within the reader itself. Prices are about the same as for hard-copy editions. The $39 Glassbook Reader Plus 1.1 Adds a digital version of the American Heritage dictionary, the ability to highlight and annotate text, and other extras.

Expand Your E-Book Library

Electronic books are nothing new to the folks at the Gutenberg Project volunteer organization. They have been lovingly digitizing, editing, and publishing public-domain texts since 1971. The 3000-plus plain-text files at www.Gutenberg.Net won't work with e-book readers but can be read with any word processor or text editor. The ad-supported InfoBlast reader (www.Binarybliss.Com/product.Asp?Aid=339) is helpful for indexing, searching, and marking your place. Herr Johannes would be proud.

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