RealPlayer was the king of streaming media in the early days of the World Wide Web, but its importance has waned in recent years. Rather than focus entirely on streaming video and audio developments, RealPlayer branched out into paid content offerings and drifted away from the core free media player that everyone adopted to watch streaming movies in the first place. Also, Web 2.0 video sites such as YouTube, Google, Viddler, and Revver--mostly utilizing Adobe Flash Player--have owned the streaming video market.
The Web browser is now the dominant software for streaming media, and a new beta version of RealPlayer represents that shift in the media landscape. While RealPlayer seemed to originally be designed to prevent users from downloading music or video content locally, the new version 11 beta specifically allows users to save streaming content to their hard drives with the click of one button.
(CNET's Donald Bell reported on RealPlayer 11's downloading capabilities when they were first announced back at the end of May.)
It's simple to download Web video streams directly from your Web browser...but only as long as you're using Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer. I wasn't able to download Web videos using Opera, Safari for Windows, or Avant Browser.
After installing RealPlayer 11 beta, Firefox and Internet Explorer can be enabled with a "Download This Video" RealPlayer link that will appear above any embedded streaming video (without digital rights management) upon page load or when you hover your mouse over it, depending on your "Download & Recording" settings in the RealPlayer Preferences menu. Clicking that link will download the streaming video file (usually in FLV format) to a specific directory on your hard drive, which can also be specified in the Preferences.
Once saved, the file is automatically added to your RealPlayer media library, where you can play back saved movies at your leisure. Most of my download tests of Web video worked fine, and for FLV files the playback is nearly identical to a standalone Flash movie player like FLVPlayer. However, since RealPlayer uses a great deal more resources than FLVPlayer, it's not the greatest solution if you only want to watch YouTube videos locally.
Recording audio streams is a completely different practice that is accomplished from the RealPlayer application itself. You can add a streaming audio URL--such as my favorites at SomaFM--simply by selecting File -> Open and then entering the URL manually. You can also configure RealPlayer to be your default media player for such links so that it will automatically start when you click a link in your Web browser.
Once the music stream has begun in RealPlayer, recording is as simple as clicking the red "record" button that sits right next to "play." Until you click that record button again, RealPlayer will continue to "rip" the current stream into a single track. After you click, RealPlayer will then save that recording as one track.
What's a little odd, however, is that RealPlayer will save your MP3 steams as IVR files. IVR, or Internet Video Recording, is a new proprietary format that Real has created for this functionality. Now, how many other media players support IVR? I don't know of any. It seems like Real added this proprietary format solely so we wouldn't record streams and then transfer them to our portable music players, which is a bit of a bummer.
Also, when compared to the audio stream-ripping capabilities of a program like Quintessential Player, RealPlayer looks like a bit of a chump. Quintessential records every song automatically as MP3 files with all of the ID3 tags included--no manual effort at all. Dividing tracks manually and renaming them correctly is more of a hassle than you might think, in addition to the difficulty of doing anything with IVR files aside from playing them in RealPlayer.
While it's certainly nice to be able to download YouTube videos and other streams as I'd like, RealPlayer still suffers with some file compatibility issues. It does play all of the major formats, of course, such as MP3, WAV, WMV, MOV, AAC, and MPEG4 formats, and its own proprietary RM, RAM, and now IVR files, but I had no luck with some other popular formats such as Ogg Vorbis or FLAC.
Both FLAC and OGG files are supposed to work in RealPlayer 11 beta with additional plug-ins, and I was prompted to download the extra files via RealPlayer's update manager. However, the resulting search warned me that "There is no software update available from Real to support this content." Likewise, although I have the DivX codec installed for other video software programs, opening a DivX-encoded AVI file in RealPlayer elicited another error. There certainly may be ways of installing the plug-ins necessary to view or listen to such files, but RealPlayer 11 beta doesn't make it easy.
Another odd bug I found is that I'm continually reminded that my credit card information for the RealOne SuperPass needs to be updated...even though I've never bought or registered for a RealOne SuperPass. Based on Real's reputation in the software community, I'm sure that the error is an honest mistake instead of a scam to elicit credit card info, but it's still an annoying pop-up.
Also annoying is the RealPlayer insistence on forcing itself into my start-up items. I couldn't find any settings in the preferences to rid myself of it. Luckily, Scotty the Watchdog from WinPatrol keeps my start-up list lean and mean.
All said, RealPlayer 11 is still a work in progress, and I shouldn't be surprised to find a few rough corners in the beta version. Those of us frustrated by all of those "Buffering - 16%" messages over the years will be delighted to download files directly to our local drives for later watching or listening. However, with Firefox extensions like Ook? Video Ook! and VideoDownloader that easily download YouTube videos, as well as the aforementioned Quintessential Player and other music programs that rip streams, RealPlayer's download epiphany may have come too late.