Tech Review: What's New in Windows Media Encoder 7
Microsoft's recent release of Windows Media Encoder 7.0 contains impressive administration and stability upgrades, new codec features, and most notably, a flexible user interface. In short, the free upgrade from version 4.1 is worth your time.
The most conspicuous change is a complete user interface overhaul, improving upon v4.1 -- which operated like a shareware utility designed by a bored developer locked in a broom closet. Codecs were not identifiable by their characteristics, saved preferences only represented a partial set of encoder settings, and occasionally, one would select the wrong option and receive a never-ending chain of warning dialog boxes.
In version 7.0, the opening screen prompts the user to choose a pre-made wizard or a custom set of preferences. In this version, preferences include everything necessary to reproduce the encode: where the media is coming from, what the encoder is doing with it (i.e. codec settings and metadata), and where the encoded output should go. Only relevant codec choices are shown and the interface is consistent with other Windows applications.
The settings are saved as Windows Media Encoder (.wme) session files, which are not compatible with past ASF Stream Descriptor (.asd) files, so preferences will need to be re-created. In many cases, the wizards are plenty powerful, and should a custom session be necessary, the options dialog boxes have concise, context-sensitive help.
Central to the new interface is an informational console that, especially in full-screen mode, looks more like the next hot 3D adventure game than a streaming tool. Layout aside, the console summarizes current encodes (including the estimated time remaining), and displays the remaining time the machine can keep encoding without running out of disk space, and the number of servers/users connected to the encoder. In fact, in another tab, each connection is shown individually.
The new release also seems to have tamed many stability gremlins found in the previous version. Users of v4.1 may be familiar with occasional encoder lockups, especially during operations like starting, stopping, and saving. One particularly irksome bug in v4.1, which caused the encoder to freeze after saving encoded files to the hard drive, was not reproduced in v7.0. During testing, the new release did become unresponsive once, but it recovered independently and did not interrupt the stream. That's a considerable improvement over v4.1.
Microsoft's much-touted remote administration capability is very similar to that available with the Windows Media Server. To configure previous encoders remotely, the administrator was forced to use remote-console software like VNC or pcAnywhere. While not the most straightforward option to set up, once configured, the admin tool works as advertised. Note: It does require either Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) Web server software or a custom distributed COM object.
Codec improvements come mostly in the form of new features, not quality leaps. Among the most interesting is time compression, which lets the encoder convert a one-hour source clip into a 30-minute compressed file. For surveillance, highlight shows, and similar applications, time compression could save users from having to seek to the action.
It's also now possible to capture raw, uncompressed video. Used in tandem with NTFS support for files larger than 2 GB, the opportunity for archival quality streaming content exists. Microsoft says the file size limit is "over 30 GB," without an exact ceiling. Of course, a fast machine with plenty of storage is still necessary for raw capture.
Rounding out the codec improvements is the ability to transcode from MPEG-1 source files and to perform inverse telecine -- eliminating extra frames from sources that were converted from film to video. One notable new feature is comprehensive screen capture support, with 20k and 128k support out-of-the-box.
Old hats with v4.1 may miss a few features, or at least need to transition from them. The Media Streaming Broadcast Distribution (MSBD) protocol has disappeared. The 7.0 encoder no longer supports it, nor does the 7.0 player. In its place, HTTP is used for communication between the encoder and servers or clients. Both protocols are TCP-based, so while quality shouldn't suffer, it will require migrating URLs and potentially a firewall configuration change.
Also deprecated, although not as harshly, is the .asf (Active Streaming Format) extension. In its place are .wmv (Windows Media Video) and .wma (Windows Media Audio). While the .asf extension is not mentioned anywhere in the new encoder, the legacy extension is fully interchangeable with the new naming convention and nothing needs to be renamed. The severed extensions allow audio-only software to play only audio files and won't interfere with video playback.
Finally, third-party codec and M-JPEG capture card support is still absent.
Overall, the new encoder reinforces what has traditionally been a weak spot in the Windows Media arsenal. Even content creators who are satisfied with older encoder releases are likely to find enough timesavers in version 7 to make the upgrade worthwhile.