Walt Mossberg

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Deciding Which Media Applications to Keep

Here are a few questions I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability.

I have a new H-P (HPQ) laptop and there are several preinstalled media-playing interfaces that have been foisted on me. Do I really need all of these interfaces? Can’t I just get all of this media to run through Windows Media Player or iTunes?

Since you weren’t specific, I don’t know what media software came with your new laptop. I’m sure some of it may have been redundant “craplets” — the unwanted software PC makers load onto their machines in order to collect a fee from the programs’ publishers. And you are correct that many of the most common audio and video file types can be handled by Windows (MSFT) Media Player and iTunes.

However, the Internet is full of media file types that are best played, or can only be played, in specialized software — either separate applications on your computer or online players that are enabled via your Web browser. So, over time, most users will collect additional players, or plug-ins for their Web browsers, that will supplement their main media-playing program. One way to see if the media software on your new computer is necessary is to test what types of files it handles. If you can open and play these same files in Windows Media Player or iTunes, and you prefer to do so, then you probably don’t need the added software.

If I am running Windows Vista on my iMac desktop using Parallels, will Apple’s Time Machine backup program automatically preserve the Windows hard disk, too?

Yes. Parallels, and its competitor, VMWare Fusion, create virtual Windows hard disks inside a Macintosh. When you are running Parallels or Fusion, Windows sees these virtual hard drives as if they are distinct physical disks. However, they are in fact just very large files on your Mac’s hard disk. So Apple’s (AAPL) Time Machine backup program treats them like any other file and backs them up. Time Machine can also restore these virtual Windows hard disks, in their entirety, just as it can restore other kinds of files.

There are some caveats, however. Time Machine treats each virtual Windows hard disk as a big, unified blob of data, so it cannot peer inside them to recover individual Windows files you may have accidentally deleted while running Windows programs. Also, if your virtual Windows hard disk is large, and it changes often, then using Time Machine to back it up may suck up a lot of space on your backup drive, as numerous archived versions of the file accumulate.

I currently have a DVD player and a large stack of DVDs that I play through my analog TV set. After the 2009 digital TV conversion, will I still be able to use my existing DVD player and play my existing DVDs, even if I buy one of the government-subsidized converter boxes?

The FCC says DVD players and other add-on gear “will continue to work, even if they are only analog-capable.” But it adds that “manufacturers are producing a number of different connectors to hook equipment together and improve picture and sound quality. Check with your equipment retailer to determine the types of connectors that will work with your equipment.”

In other words, while there’s no inherent conflict, it all depends on your particular DVD player, your particular TV set, and how you have them connected. The best thing to do is consult closely with the dealer or manufacturer selling the converter box so that you understand how it can coexist with your current DVD player setup, or how you might have to alter your current setup.

You can find Mossberg’s Mailbox, and my other columns, online free of charge at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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