QuickTime 4, Apple

What: Audio/video player. Details: The QuickTime 4 Player is striking to behold -- not too busy, graced by clean lines and minimal, intuitive controls. There's the big, lonely Play button, next to the smaller Pause button; a pull-down panel displays icons for favorite channels, while the viewing area rides on top. The eye takes it in at once. Over a fast (i.e., non-modem) connection, streamed video -- newly available with this release -- almost matches the FM-radio-caliber sound, if you squint. Downloaded movies, free of bandwidth constraints, look excellent. Inside this attractive package, however, awaits some pesky bugs. QuickTime video viewed within Netscape froze up; after a second try, QT4's browser plug-in refused to install at all. The Player, meanwhile, claimed not to understand those same files. I'm not alone: Apple's tech-support page showed multiple reports of the same problems. (On several Macs, however, things worked nicely.) While QuickTime 4 also plays a variety of sound formats, its most noteworthy addition, MP3 support, doesn't extend to that format's newer "variable bit-rate encoding" dialect. Bottom line: Wait for version 4.1, at least on Windows.

-- Bob Massey

Win 95-98/Mac, free at http://apple.com/quicktime

WINDOWS 98 SECOND

EDITION, Microsoft

What: Operating-system upgrade. Details: This package is a collection of bug and year-2000 fixes, plus updates to help connecting peripherals via Universal Serial Bus and IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire) ports; it also throws in Internet Explorer 5, NetMeeting 3, some improved accessibility features and "Internet Connection Sharing," which lets multiple computers share a single Internet connection. Is it worth it? Unless you need something specific in that list, don't bother: the bug fixes are a free download from http://win dowsupdate.microsoft.com, as is IE 5. Those who buy the CD-ROM will find an installer that offers more information on what's being done. If only those reports were accurate: An upgrade of a Win 95 laptop took almost twice the promised 45 minutes, included four crashes and consumed 142 megabytes of disk space in the process. An upgrade of a Windows 98 desktop PC wasn't as bad, taking 57 minutes and hanging "only" twice. Bottom line: If Windows works fine now, leave well enough alone.

-- Alan S. Kay

Win 98, $20 (For Win 95, Win 3.1 users, $109)

WEBWASHER, Siemens

What: Web-browser Windex. Details: If you're tired of being reminded that Amazon.com has a book on everything under the sun, WebWasher can wipe those banner ads out of your browser window. A snap to install, the program works in tandem with your browser, scanning for patterns in Web-page code and Web servers common to advertising. WebWasher stops it from downloading the ads, then filters out pop-up windows and animated images. Less data is retrieved and loading times are faster; for those of us with 15-inch monitors, it also means a real increase in window space. You can also deactivate the program with a mouse click, then reload the current page to see ads. Who knows, maybe this program (or others like it) will spur Web-vertisers to develop less annoying, less intrusive ads. Bottom line: A better view through a cleaner window.

-- Jill Weisberg

Win 95-98, free at www.siemens.de/servers/wwash

CAPTION: QuickTime 4: Fuzzy reception for some.