Technology

Real Player's Streaming Video to Go


Real Network's latest program will let you record clips for offline viewing in a way that's almost user-friendly

I've grown very fond of YouTube (GOOG), from the stupid Mentos-in-Diet-Coke stunts to the clips of classic Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca comedy skits. But videos from YouTube and all other streaming media sites on the Web have one big disadvantage: For all but the very tech savvy, it's difficult to download them or take them with you on the road.

RealNetworks (RNWK) has the best solution to that problem I have seen so far. The latest version of RealPlayer, which will be available for free download by the end of June, lets you record any streaming video available on the Web that is not copy-protected and save it for offline viewing. You can even download some of the content to many handheld devices, although this is harder than it ought to be.

Like its predecessors, RealPlayer 11 (Windows only, for the time being) manages and plays music and videos and provides access to Real's music store and Rhapsody subscription service. The difference comes when you play a streaming video in Internet Explorer or Firefox. A button labeled "Download this video" appears in the browser. Click it, and a copy is recorded to your hard drive. Once it is downloaded, you can watch it when you are offline, burn it to a CD or DVD, or copy it to another device. The recorder can handle the popular streaming-video formats: Adobe (ADBE) Flash, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Media, Apple (AAPL) QuickTime, and RealMedia.

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Recording streaming video isn't new, but until now only people with the skill and inclination to find and install obscure programs could do it. RealPlayer 11 lets anyone record streaming video at the click of a button. Some content owners, whom Real Chief Executive Rob Glaser calls the "Flat Earth Society," are unhappy about making recording easy for consumers, but none has publicly threatened any action.

In any event, RealPlayer makes efforts to respect the rights of content owners. If, for example, you try to snag copy-protected content, such as an episode of CSI from CBS.com (CBS), you get a message saying the video cannot be downloaded. RealPlayer also will include any commercials tacked onto the beginning or end of clips. There is one additional glitch: If the ad is an integral part of the video, both will be recorded. But if it is a separate file, and you click "record," you'll save only the ad. To get the main video, you have to click again once it starts playing.

The iPod Disadvantage

What's annoying about these downloads is that they often turn into files on your hard drive with names that don't reveal their content. For example, every clip you record from comedycentral.com gets a name that tells you only that it came from Comedy Central. You have to change the names, or you'll never remember that the clip is Jon Stewart on The Daily Show goofing on candidate debates. Real should ask you to name the clip as the download starts. (YouTube videos usually have relevant names.)

It would also be great if RealNetworks made it easier to watch the video clips that you have synced to a handheld device. Handhelds can play anything recorded in Flash format, which fortunately covers most popular sites such as YouTube. But first you have to download special software for your Windows Mobile or Palm (PALM) device. Getting the clips to work on an iPod is far more trouble; most people will conclude that they're better off sticking with what Apple offers at the iTunes Store, even if they have to pay for it.

Overall, though, my quibbles with the new RealPlayer are minor. It's worth it just to be able to pop open my laptop, even on a plane, and have Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" or "The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook" ready to cheer me up.

Wildstrom is Technology You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at techandyou@businessweek.com.

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