The debate in utilities often comes down to fee vs. free.
There is a plethora of free software for the Windows PC, and many of the better programs offer a “Professional” or “Plus” version of their wares. But is it worth the price to upgrade, and are you really getting enough to make the cost worthwhile? In this edition of Windows Advisor, we explore three suites of third-party software and compare the free versions to the Pro versions of each. The results might surprise you.
While Apple’s QuickTime has long been a staple of any Mac user’s system, the versatile program has also proven to be a big hit among the Windows PC crowd. In fact, the program is one of the leading multimedia players for Windows, and can play MPEG, AVI, MP3, WAV, MIDI, and just about any other type of video or music multimedia scheme. Best of all, the program is free. So why should you pay $29.95 to upgrade to the Pro version?
With QuickTime 6.0 Pro, you can author your own MPEG-4 files. But what exactly does that mean? MPEG-4, which was first introduced in 1998, is based on the original QuickTime file format. Partly because of this, it only became an international standard in 2000, despite the fact that it offers DVD quality while using less disk space. But because MPEG-4 has its roots in QuickTime, creating and editing multimedia files with QT 6 Pro is very intuitive. The authoring software offers many advanced easy-to-use features (such as using heavily optimized encoders and decoders). If you’ve always wanted to create online movies but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg for expensive professional-level software, QT 6 Pro is definitely the way to go.
But what if you don’t care about authoring your own multimedia? The Pro version of QuickTime 6 offers bonuses for every level of user, including the ability to play movies in full screen, build a library of movies, adjust audio and video to your own personal preferences, create slide shows from your own digital images, create designer skins for the player, and more.
My favorite feature of QT 6 Pro is the ability to import and export video, audio, and still images from over a dozen different file formats, including the high-quality DV camcorder format. Even if you’re not authoring your own videos, it’s nice to be able to manipulate almost any movie file and save it to the format of your choosing. Authoring video notwithstanding, there’s plenty to get excited about when going Pro with QuickTime.
The folks over at RealNetworks keep changing the rules. First they had RealAudio, then the RealPlayer and RealJukebox, and now they’ve combined everything into the free RealOne Player. The player enables you to watch RealVideo-enabled movies (as well as AVI, MPEG, and other formats) in full screen, play, burn, and record CDs and MP3s, and even surf the Internet through RealOne’s built in Web browser. Not bad for a free product. (The company also offers a subscription streaming multimedia service called RealOne Superpass, with which you can view videos, concerts, news, and all sorts of different video events. Prices vary depending on what events you wish to view.)
Much like QuickTime, though, RealNetworks also offers a Pro version of the RealOne Player (called RealOne Player Plus) that you can purchase for $29.95. So what do you get for your money? The Plus version gives you a 10-band graphic equalizer that lets you adjust the sound exactly the way you like it, CD burning with more features, the ability to create 320Kbps-encoded MP3s, access to thousands of online radio stations worldwide, a universal playback system that allows you to play every major media format (even DVDs) through the player, and advanced video controls that allow you to tweak the videos you watch for brightness, contrast, sharpness, and hue. Not a bad deal if you really want to control the way you see, hear, and create multimedia on your PC.
And if you enjoy music, you’ll love the ability to record CD-quality MP3s. If you routinely rip and download music to your portable MP3 device, you’ll be able to listen to CD-quality music without having to lug around a bunch of CDs. If you’re not into MP3s, though, and are pretty much happy with everything the basic edition of RealOne does, there’s not that much of a need to upgrade. In fact, your money might better be spent subscribing to RealNetwork’s Superpass, which can bring a lot of new and interesting content to your PC’s screen without having to upgrade your player.
If you’ve ever needed to transfer files from your hard drive to an online server, you’ve probably used a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) utility. Ipswitch WS_FTP Pro 7.5 is, at least in my book, the best FTP program there is out there. But it costs $45, and if you’re only going to use the program to transfer the odd file now and then (and don’t want to use the abysmal FTP program that comes with Windows) you might not need to go Pro. And that’s where WS_FTP Limited Edition comes in.
WS_FTP LE, which was last updated in the year 2000, is free for the downloading and manages all basic FTP functions quite nicely. Easy to use and very user friendly, the program doesn’t have a lot of extras (such as scheduling, scripting, or remote-to-remote transfers) but will definitely get the job done for simple, straightforward tasks such as uploading new photos of your baby to a website or transferring new copies of your personal web page. LE does offer auto resume for interrupted transfers, which is a plus, but beyond that you don’t get a lot of frills.
If, however, you need to do more than just upload the occasional file, then you’re better off going with WS_FTP Pro. The scheduling and scripting features are a definite must-have if you’re dealing with tricky servers or need to set up files to be transferred automatically to different servers at certain times of the day. Pro also offers 128-bit SSL encryption support, (SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, is a protocol from Netscape Communications Corporation which is designed to provide secure communications on the Internet) which can come in handy if you’re working with sensitive files and don’t want to risk any security mishaps.
While there are certainly a lot to choose from, my favorite feature in WS_FTP Pro is the ability to synchronize (or mirror) folders and directories between your PC and a remote FTP server. This feature can be used to update a Web site or temporarily back up files on your PC, both of which I do on a fairly regular basis. If you’re not sure you’ll use all the extras, you can always download the trial version of Pro. Aside from providing 40-bit instead of 128-bit SSL, it’s fully functional and works for 30 days, giving you ample time to decide if you really need the power and functionality it offers.