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You see them all over, walking down the street, sitting on a bus or a plane, in line ahead of you at the supermarket. They look normal enough at first glance, but as you get closer, you see that they're - well, different. With their fixed gaze, staring straight ahead, unblinking, you can tell that their eyes just aren't right, that they're sort of hypnotized.
And then you get a glance at what they're looking at. A little white box! Could they be zombies? Aliens?
No. They're the Pod People.
The "pod" in question, of course, is an Apple or similar iPod that plays digital files (http://www.apple.com/ipod/ipod.html), known in the biz as "podcasts." Podcasts can consist of audio or video files, and most of the newest models of iPod can play the videos too. Even though the most popular iPods are made by Apple, they're as much at home with Windows PCs as they are with Macintoshes. And there are plenty of non-Apple products by other manufacturers, such as this one by Sandisk (http://tinyurl.com/j3jcu).
The idea of a podcast is that your pod device automatically gets updated with a new chapter of whatever it is you're listening to or watching.
When you find a podcast that you like, you click on the subscription link at the site, and the next podcast gets downloaded automatically to your iPod or similar device. The most popular software for downloading podcasts is, of course, iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/), which also comes in PC or Mac versions. ITunes saves the podcast to a folder on your computer and it automatically gets uploaded to your pod device when you plug it into the computer's USB port.
And where do you find podcasts to subscribe to? There are hundreds of sources all over the Internet; a quick Google search for "podcast" or "video podcast" will yield finds like http://www.podcast.net/, http://www.podcastingnews.com/, http://www.digitalpodcast.com or even http://www.podcastingnews.com/forum/link-254.htm, a listing of BBC podcasts that you can automatically download and view.
So you're all set to get into the wonderful world of podcast viewing, right? Except for one thing: You don't have an iPod! As it turns out, there is so much content available for iPods it almost makes you want to go out and spend the money - hundreds of dollars - to buy one. Almost, but not quite. It just doesn't seem right that the rich get richer - or that the richer, who have the spare money for an iPod, should have all the podcasting fun. What about the rest of us commoners who just can't afford or don't want to be bothered with yet another little "device" to shlep around?
You might ask, "Why can't I just watch video podcasts on my PC?" The answer is - because. They (I'm figuring this was an Apple marketing decision and not just a technical one) want you to buy an iPod. Video files for iPods are not the usual AVI (Windows) or Quicktime (Mac) that most of us are used to - they're in a separate format, called mp4 (mp4 or m4a extensions). Windows Media Player won't play 'em - if you want to access the rich content, you're going to have to break down and spend the money for an iPod. Unless you download VLC Media Player, of course.
Technically speaking, Windows Media Player could play mp4 podcast files, if a proper codec - the software that expands the compressed video file for PC playback - could be found (actually, one does exist, and it can be downloaded from http://www.free-codecs.com/download/3ivx.htm). But codecs can be a messy business, as anyone who has ever messed with them knows; they never seem to work as advertised, and there always seems to be another piece of the puzzle missing.
That's why they made VLC Media Player (http://www.videolan.org/vlc/). It plays (almost) everything - on (almost) every platform. Mpeg, Divx, DV, WMV, DVD - the alphabet soup of acronyms utilized for producing video from different formats and platforms that we have been forced to swallow for so many years mean nothing to you now. All you have to do is go to VLC's "open" command, find the file you want to play and grab the popcorn - your show is about to begin. VLC even does subtitles on DVDs. It can even stream video broadcasts throughout the house - like, if you wanted to view a file from a computer in one room on a computer in another room, or even on a TV hooked up to the second computer.
And of course, it does full audio playback, including formats that have required pesky installations in the past, such as Realplayer, required for Real Audio playback. With the amazing VLC, you will soon find yourself sporting that glazed-over Pod Person look, too - sans the iPod, of course.
Note: VLC officially supports Windows 2000/XP, but "should work" on 95/98; Mac version is universal (PowerPC/Intel) binary, OS X 10.2 or better.