Multimedia playback: Why is dropping AC-3 support that important?

You may have asked yourself the question: “Is it really important to publish articles on some multimedia players' dropping AC-3 and warning people not to update? What's the point?” In the article below, I present you some examples of the consequences of Dolby's forcing developers to drop AC-3 support.

This all has had a disastrous effect on the usefulness of iOS itself. Other operating systems - most importantly, Android - don't seem to be removing AC-3 support. Nokia's Symbian even has built-in, licensed support for AC-3 and a lot of other formats - for example, to my knowledge, it's the only operating system that supports MKV playback out of the box. In this regard, Symbian and Android seem to be, currently, much more usable, at least for multimedia playback (again, if you don't jailbreak, playing back MKV's will always be problematic on iOS, while it can easily be done on Symbian without hacking the device and/or paying a penny for third-party players...). I only wish they matched iOS (tablet-)hardware- and number of apps-wise.

First, as I've already mentioned in some of my dedicated articles, AC-3 is used in a lot of non-iTunes Store videos; for example, every single consumer camera recording into AVCHD and every single ATSC recording you make of digital TV broadcasts in the NTSC lands. Yes, you can forget about watching the videos you shoot on your AVCHD video or still camera directly on your iPad / iPhone without (sometimes very lengthy if you use “dumb” converters also converting the video stream as well – unfortunately, the otherwise absolutely stunning HandBrake also does this) reencoding first. In addition, about half of DVD or Blu-ray rips you make from your own DVD / Blu-ray discs will have AC-3 tracks (or, on the Blu-ray, most probably an enhanced version of it). (The other appr. half will have DTS or its enhanced versions. They are and remain playable by most iOS players.)

Unfortunately, licensing  AC-3, at the current conditions (as of Nov. 30, 2012), is simply impossible for most iOS developers. Just to get it straight: Dolby is asking appr. $1 / sold copy + between $20k and $30k annual fee, independent of the number of sales + other fees for the license. It's way out of the budget of most iOS multimedia developers – no wonder no-one seems to be wanting / able to license Dolby's technology at the current prices. They earn far less by actually selling those apps. Which is pretty much unfortunate, as, again, a lot of media formats are currently nonplayable unless you either get the long-time licenser (which may mean far less licensing fees than the above-listed ones) of Dolby, CineXPlayer (which, unfortunately, has its share of problems - see my dedicated review) or jailbreak and use XBMC or RushPlayer+.

No wonder every single third-party media player (apart from CineXPlayer, of course) that has recently dropped AC-3 has a lot of negative feedback because of the dropped AC-3. (Disgruntled, angry customers don't necessarily know developers just can't afford paying the licensing fees Dolby has asked for. ) Just some examples: the current version (6.0) of the otherwise absolutely excellent (a winner of several of my roundups; for example, the Windows Media / Silverlight Internet TV stream playback roundup) GoodPlayer, currently, has 21 (!!!) one-star ratings, one three-star and two five-star. The vast majority of people that posted ratings really miss AC-3 support. Just two screenshots of the complaints (along with the current ratings):

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(click the thumbnails to see the entire shot. Unfortunately, it's not possible to include these entire shots in the article – they're just too large.)

Some other, top players fare only slightly better, ratings-wise. For HD Player Pro, which I too recommended, the “Most helpful”  reviews all complain about the lack of AC-3:

The free version of MoliPlayer (another recommended title) also has similar reviews:

Finally, the six most useful reviews of Oplayer HD (a decent – but, in my opinion, apart from the MPEG-2 decoding, not top – title) also complain about AC-3:

As you can see, even if you don't trying to play back videos with AC-3, a lot of people do. No wonder I too keep posting a lot of warnings (“Backup / download this title before it's too late!”) in my articles – this problem is very topical on the iOS scene right now. As, again, the above screenshots also prove. Some of the authors of the above reviews explixitly state they didn't know of the update's removing AC-3 (because the developer didn't explicitly warn their users) and/or didn't back up. I wish they had read my warnings before updating...

In addition, a lot of otherwise excellent players have simply been removed from the AppStore. The most important of them, you may have already guessed, AVPlayerHD (just look at the number of shares of my dedicated article  - 10.8k ShareThis links, dozens of Facebook and Twitter reposts / links etc.) It was removed from the AppStore back in September and, according to a recent mail of the developer, it still won't be re-issued to there in the near future. QQPlayer, a decent, highly recommended, free player, have been missing for at least a month. And the list continues: several other players have also been removed from AppStore. Just some examples (these players have previously been reviewed by me - or at least directly compared to the other players in all-in-one roundups like the WMV Playback bible, the DVD ripping / playback bible, the Closed Captioning bible, the rewind / fast forward gesture roundup etc.):

(the little brother of AVPlayer(HD) with an equally good engine – it's only some features that it lacks)

These are all missing as of Nov/30, 2012.

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<p>Werner Ruotsalainen is an iOS and Java programming lecturer who is well-versed in programming, hacking, operating systems, and programming languages. Werner tries to generate unique articles on subjects not widely discussed. Some of his articles are highly technical and are intended for other programmers and coders.</p>
<p>Werner also is interested in photography and videography. He is a frequent contributor to not only mobile and computing publications, but also photo and video forums. He loves swimming, skiing, going to the gym, and using his iPads. English is one of several languages he speaks.</p>