The idea of listening to high quality music sent down an ordinary telephone line would have seemed very far fetched just a few years ago, yet that is precisely what millions of people are now doing every day by downloading MP3 music files from the Internet.


We’ll leave the copyright and legality issues to one side for the moment and look at how it works. MP3, or to give it its full name, ‘Motion Picture Experts Group 1 Audio Layer 3’ is a clever way of compressing or reducing the size of files containing digital audio data. A variety of techniques are used, including so-called psycho-acoustical processing, which basically means removing sounds that you cannot hear, either because they are masked by other, louder sounds, or are beyond our normal hearing range.


The upshot of all this is that a 3-minute music track on an audio CD that would normally occupy 30 to 40 megabytes of disc space, say, can be reduced by a factor of 10 or more, to just 3 or 4 megabytes, at which point it’s small enough to transport around the Internet for downloading onto a PC. The quality of MP3 files recorded at the lowest compression settings or ‘bit-rates’ is not that wonderful, truth be told they can sound pretty dire, and added to the fact that most PCs make poor hi-fi systems, interest in MP3 would have probably have quickly fizzled out, but a couple of years ago the first personal MP3 players started to appear. They are usually a little smaller than a cassette Walkman; downloaded MP3 files are copied to the player’s memory or a removable memory card and played through a set of headphones. The quality is acceptable for listening to music on the move and unlike a tape cassette player there are no moving parts, so they don’t skip or jump. They’re small – at least one wristwatch player is now available -- have a frugal appetite for batteries and they are getting cheaper all the time, budget models cost from £50 upwards.


MP3 has been given a further boost by the widespread availability of CD ‘Ripper’ programs that convert tracks on an audio CD, played in a PC CD-ROM drive, into MP3 files. Most of these programs have variable bit rates and at the highest settings quality starts to get quite acceptable, close to the original in fact. In the past few months the growing number of personal MP3 players (more than 60 models are now available) have been joined by a host of other devices with MP3 playback facilities, including mobile phones and digital cameras, and most recently CD and DVD players. The latter can play back recordable CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 files. In case you’re wondering what the point of that might be, a standard CD-R disc can easily hold more than 12 hours worth of MP3 music!


MP3 is now almost respectable and Microsoft has incorporated MP3 playback into the Media Player program included with the new Windows ME operating system. There are now tens of thousands of web sites offering MP3 files to download in every possible musical style and genre, from the classics to the latest Spice Girls album. Some sites are perfectly legitimate featuring original copyright free material and sample tracks. However, most sites breach copyright but a few occupy a grey area, allowing users to share or swap their own music collections with others. Parts of the music industry, which has tried in vain to curb MP3, is getting in on the act and starting to sell MP3 music.


So how do you join in the fun and turn you PC into a high-tech jukebox? If you’ve got Windows ME all you have top do is open the Media Player and click on the Media Guide tab. This opens and Internet connection that will take your to a variety of sites offering tracks or selling albums. Downloaded files are stored in a nominated directory on your PC’s hard disc called the Media Library and can be played using the controls at the bottom of the Window.


MP3 files recorded at medium quality bit rates (are typically between 96 and 128 kbps and occupy between 3 and 5Mb of disc space. Download times vary according to the time of day but as a very rough guide, using a 56Kbps modem, expect files to take between 3 to 5 minutes per megabyte.


If you are using an older version of Windows ME it’s only slightly more complicated and all you need to get started is an Internet connection. You download MP3 files from web sites as you would any other type of file; however, before you start create a new folder on your hard disc called ‘Music’ to store them in. When you find a file you want to download click on the link, your browser asks you which folder you want to store the file in, so direct it to the Music folder. In order to hear the files you will need an extra piece of software called a Player. There are scores of them, mostly freeware or shareware and the best place to find a selection is in the Software section at Media Player 7, which is featured in Windows ME can also be used in earlier versions of Windows and can be downloaded from:


Players worth shortlisting include RealAudio Real Player, MusicMatch and WinAmp. Several of them also include CD ‘Rippers’, so you can create your own music library on your PC from CDs that you already own. Demo or shareware rippers are sometimes restricted to making low bit rate copies, until they are registered or the appropriate licence fee has been paid. Most personal MP3 players also come with MP3 jukebox software and CD Rippers.


If you are interested in finding out more about the concept of ‘sharing’ your music library have a look at the infamous Napster site, which is at the centre of the music industry’s current battle against MP3 piracy. Napster provides a free player, download and search program which helps you locate MP3 tracks by a variety of search criteria, including artist, name and title, the web address is:


Next week – Creating a calendar





A measure of the amount of digital data a system can process, measured in bits per second or ‘bps’, in the context of MP3 faster bit rates mean lower compression and higher sound quality



Recordable CD-ROM systems; CD-R uses discs that can be written to just once whilst CD-RW (read-write) discs can be recorded on and erased many times



Motion Pictures Expert Group, a division of the International Standards Organisation responsible for developing digital video and audio compression technologies



Occasionally it is useful to know how a program will perform on another PC with a different configuration. For example, you might want to install a copy of an application or game that you use on a desktop PC, on to a laptop with a similar processor, but only half as much memory. It’s also useful for system administrators to know how well new software products will work on PCs with varying specifications. Windows 98 has a facility that allows you to simulate different memory settings, which is a lot more convenient than opening the box and physically removing memory modules.


Go to Run on the Start menu and type ‘msconfig’ to open the Windows configuration utility. Select the General tab and click the Advanced button. About two-thirds of the way down you’ll see the item ‘Limit Memory to… and a dialogue box that lets you change the size of your PC’s RAM memory.  If you alter the setting, don’t forget to change it back afterwards by unchecking the ‘Limit Memory’ box.

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