Walt Mossberg

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Watching Webcasts on a Mac

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about watching Major League Baseball’s streaming Webcasts of games, the capacity of digital music players and the security of Wi-Fi.


I just bought a new Mac and I love it, but I am a die-hard Yankees fan and I find that, with the Mac, I can’t watch Major League Baseball’s streaming Webcasts of games. Is there a way around this?

Since I am a huge Red Sox fan, I hesitate to help you … but I will.

It doesn’t work, because MLB.com this year switched to a Microsoft video format that the Mac version of Windows Media Player can’t handle and it doesn’t support the Safari Web browser that Apple includes on every Mac. There is a workaround: download and use Firefox, instead of Safari; and download and install Flip4Mac, a free program that allows QuickTime to handle the newest Windows Media video format. You can get it at: http://flip4mac.com/.

But even this solution is seriously flawed. The problem — and the Flip4Mac people are working on it — is that it plays only for a few batters or so, and then you have to restart it by relaunching the TV feed in the Web site. This is a pain, but it does work, sort of.

A better solution is to simply run Windows on your Mac, and then play the MLB videos on that. I do this using a product called Parallels desktop, which runs Windows inside a window on your Mac. It’s available at: www.parallels.com.

I am not clear about capacity on digital music players. As far as I can determine, most music CDs run to about 600-700 MB, so a mere 10 CDs would fill most of a 10-gigabyte iPod, correct? On the other hand, I recently read that all of Mozart’s works would fit on a 10-GB iPod. So what’s wrong with my calculations?

When companies calculate the capacity of digital music players in terms of songs or CDs, they base their calculations on the use of music files that have been drastically shrunk from their original size on a CD. This is done by converting the songs to compressed file formats, including the MP3, WMA, or AAC formats. This is what happens when you import, or “rip,” a CD into iTunes or Windows Media Player on your computer in preparation for loading the songs onto a portable player.

A typical MP3 file compresses CD music by a factor of 10 or more. So, a 650-megabyte CD might take up just 60-65 megabytes on a computer or a portable player. There is a price to this compression: The quality of the music file is degraded. However, most people find the quality acceptable, especially with common types of music — pop, rock, country and hip-hop.

Many audiophiles and classical-music fans choose to compress their CDs less drastically, seeking a balance between space-saving and quality. This can be achieved by changing the settings in your music software. Others opt for no compression at all, though, as you noted, that severely limits how much music you can squeeze onto a portable player.

I would like to link up the computers in my home wirelessly but am apprehensive about the security aspects. Is it safe to use Wi-Fi?

Yes, in almost all cases. Wi-Fi networks come with an optional security feature that requires anyone using them to know your password. So, you can turn that on. Even if you don’t, your files would be at risk only if you had a neighbor close enough to access the network who is both skilled enough and nasty enough to want to poke around in your files. In most neighborhoods, that combination is pretty rare, as is the likelihood that hackers will drive down your street in a van with a laptop and steal your secrets.

However, I would also maintain a software firewall and turn off all file-sharing features of your operating system and other software.

There are exceptions. If you live in a large apartment building, the number of potential snoopers who are strangers goes way up, since many more people will be close enough to access your network than they would be in a suburban neighborhood of single-family homes. Also, no security system is perfect. Determined hackers could theoretically break into any wireless network.

But, in most scenarios, I believe Wi-Fi is safe.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.


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