What file format problems?

I’m prompted to write this post by a couple of comments I received from someone wanting my recommendation for a laptop. I, of course, told them to buy a Mac. They replied that their Mac friend in the US had lots of problems opening files and lots of video wouldn’t work on the Mac.

This is, of course, total nonsense. It’s just that a Mac out of the box isn’t quite finished. So I thought I’d tell you how to finish it properly so that all these problems just disappear. That’s what they pay me for at the University so you can get it for free.

First, common file formats. You can pretty much sum this up by saying “Microsoft Office files.” Now the Mac has no problem opening MS Word files previous to the latest version, 2007 for Windows and 2008 for Mac.

There are three possible solutions to opening the latest files; buy Office, install Open Office, download and use the Open XML File Format Converter for Mac from Microsoft. If you are a student or involved in education you can probably get a cheap copy of MS Office. The benefit of this solution is that you also get a bunch of fonts from MS that are cross platform. If you can’t get a cheap copy of office then you might prefer to buy a copy of Apple’s iWork 09 which has no problem with Office files.

If you want a free alternative then OpenOffice can also open MS Office files. Running OpenOffice used to be a little problematic but it now runs natively on the Mac. There is also a port of OpenOffice called NeoOffice that has some improved features such as support for services and grammar checking.

The final, and not terribly convenient solution, MS will give you a file converter “Open XML File format Converter for Mac” which will convert from the new format to the old one that can be read by a large number of software packages.

The other problem people run into is video. This, too, can be easily solved.

First, some explanation. Under Windows most video files are in WMV format while on the Mac they are in QuickTime format. Video and audio files use software called a “codec” to compress and decompress the data (COmpress and DECompress becomes codec) and each of these so called formats are actually wrappers around the data that tells the player software which codec to use. There are a number available.

So the first order of business is to get the Mac to understand WMV files. For this you need a free piece of software from Flip4Mac (now called Telestream). Microsoft have licensed part of their software and offer it for free as Windows Media Components for QuickTime. Installing this will allow you to play a large number of WMV files. Unfortunately some use codecs not included as part of this software. Fortunately Perian is an open source tool that will increase this to cover almost everything.

For anything not covered once you have installed those tools, as well as providing an interface I prefer over QuickTime Player and the ability to play streaming video, there is the VLC Media Player. On some Macs it even allows you to play DVDs out of region.

You may also find that people give you a thumb drive or external drive formatted in NTFS. This is a drive format common on the PC. For this you need to install NTFS-3G for Mac, a public domain NTFS driver for the Mac.

Once you have installed these tools you have a Mac that is capable of reading and writing almost all file formats and those incompatibility problems go away.

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