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Take a Web break: Watch a video, play a game, learn something new

After a long day at work as a professional moving planner, Bonnie Marks doesn't have the patience to sit through an hourly newscast on television to catch stories that matter to her.

Instead, the 38-year-old mother of two prefers to go online to news sources, such as CNN and MSNBC.

"Watching news on TV just takes too long," explains Marks. "With the Internet, I have the freedom to pick and choose what I want to watch—information that's relevant to me."

Marks says she also enjoys e-mailing funny video clips to her friends, and she watches movie trailers online to make sure that the content is appropriate for her kids. And she is not alone. Thousands of Web surfers have discovered that the Internet is an endless source of interesting videos.

Why Web video?
Unlike television, online video lets you choose when the action starts and stops (or pauses); it's accessible wherever you have an Internet-connected computer (try watching stand-up comedy during your lunch break at work); and you can view personalized content from all over the world (in your native language). You can even watch comedian Amy Sedaris learn (sort of!) all about the 2007 Microsoft Office system from her rabbits on the Microsoft Video Portal.

Full-length movies and television shows are now well established on the Internet—some even in high definition.

What you need
Watching video on the Web is a fairly easy process—providing that you have the right setup.

For hardware, it's recommended that you have a high-speed (broadband) Internet or DSL connection (rather than a telephone-based dial-up service), as video can be quite choppy to watch on slower speeds.

When it comes to software, you simply need a Web browser, like Windows Internet Explorer. Depending on the site that's hosting the video you've selected, you may also need a media player installed on your PC, such as Windows Media Player. If you clicked Windows Media file, the program will automatically open in a separate window for you. You can choose to watch it in full-screen mode, if you like, by double-clicking the video.

Windows Media Player supports many popular video file types, such as those with the extension .WMV, .AVI, .MPEG, and DivX files (with a free plug-in), but some videos may require another program. For instance, .RV video files require RealPlayer, while .QT or .MOV files require QuickTime.

You might also be asked to select a specific speed, such as 100K, 300K, or 500K. This refers to the speed of the video as it streams to your PC. You can tell how fast your download speeds are with free online tools, such as the one provided on MSN. It takes about eight seconds to complete, and your speed is shown in an easy-to-read graph. So, when you're faced with specific speed choices and you have broadband, try to go with the fastest one first to see how smoothly the video begins streaming.

If a video doesn't play, you will likely find a note on the site about the program you need to play the file. The site may also include a link to download that program.

Sometimes you'll have the option to download a video and save it to your hard drive instead of watching it in your browser. To play the clip offline, you'll need one of the media players mentioned above.

Happy viewing
Here are a few recommended video sites to get you started:

Epicurious (cooking techniques and chef videos)
DIY Network (wide range of topics, from designing your home to selecting a real estate agent)
Oprah.com Video (clips from past shows, divided into categories)
MSN Video (news and entertainment)
Microsoft Video Portal (tips and tricks for using Microsoft software, fun videos, and ads, including the popular Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld ads)
Spike (movie trailers, entertainment news, and online gaming)
Weather.com (weather-related video clips)
Podcast.com (audio and video podcast directory for news, self-enrichment, and popular culture)
WindowsMedia.com (entertainment videos)
Hulu (feature films, and current and archived TV programs)
YouTube (amateur videos, TV programs, music, and film clips)
Netflix (expansive collection of feature films, documentaries, TV programs—available for instant download)

Involve yourself
Watching isn't the only way to engage with the Web. Perhaps you're in the mood for something a little more interactive? You can test your wits against an array of puzzles, riddles, and logic games at BrainBashers. At JigZone, you can spend a little time (or a lot!) working out jigsaw puzzles, and you determine the complexity level. The site also lets you upload your own photos and convert them into puzzles. The best part is that you never lose a piece under the rug.

The popularity of Sudoku has exploded lately, and the number of Web sites satisfying the craving has kept pace. Two of the best are Sudoku.com, which offers games and variations at all difficulty levels, and Sudoku Online, where you can also hone your word smarts with acrostics, cryptograms, and other puzzles.

You might also spend your Web break brushing up on old skills—or learning a new one. As a medium for learning at your own pace, the Internet is hard to beat, whether you're working toward a graduate degree or just getting tips on your golf swing. DIY Network presents step-by-step how-tos on everything from growing better tomatoes and installing a sink to knitting a scarf and building a deck.

On the Web, the old cliché "something for everybody" really applies. Here are a few more free learning sites worth exploring:

•Guitar for Beginners and Beyond (lessons, theory, music clips, and players' forum)

•StudySpanish (tutorials in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar)

•TED (online lecture series on arts, technology, business, science, and other topics)

•Microsoft Videos (how-tos, technical guides, and training for Microsoft products)

•Learn-to-Draw-and-Paint (tips and techniques for various artistic media, such as pencil, pastel, oil, and watercolor)

•Online-History (extensive coursework on Western civilization and U.S. history)

•Learntodance (video and text lessons to get you started on the cha-cha, swing, flamenco, and more)

Article written by Marc Saltzman and adapted from an original piece from Microsoft Home Magazine.

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