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RealPlayer 11: A new way to handle online video

RealPlayer's latest release, Version 11, allows free downloading of (some) Internet video content.

Back in May, Señor Bell wrote about the new RealPlayer, which promised users the ability to download video in a variety of formats (Flash, WMV, Quicktime) from a variety of sites (YouTube, Comedy Central, and so on) using a variety of Web browsers. Somewhat unsurprisingly, I've gotten a variety of results. RealPlayer is fresh out of beta (download Version 11 for Windows from perfect time to put it to the test, in my book. Personally, I don't find the latest version particularly useful for my video tastes, but you may find it compelling, depending on your preferences, when it comes to online video.

Let me just get this out of the way first: The RealPlayer software interface is...unattractive. Mostly it's just cluttered, but the utilitarian look and feel leave something to be desired, as well. It's relatively easy to get the hang of, at least, but I frankly expected better from the peeps who bring us Rhapsody. All that being said, the inconspicuous, integrated "Download This Video" button is both well-designed and useful, and videos are saved in an obvious spot (under Downloads & Recordings) for future access. Now if they could integrate this button's functionality with another jukebox for media organization (say, Rhapsody), I believe we would have something here.

Of course, simple downloading of Internet video is a compelling feature for some. And the fact that it's free makes it all the more user-friendly. However, if you want to actually take your newly downloaded video "to go" on an iPod, you'll need to plunk down $40 (a one-time fee) for RealPlayer Plus. The Plus version also includes several other advanced features (outlined in the screenshot above) that some users might find handy. I tested both the downloading functionality and the iPod transfer feature, and both were pretty slow. It took about 12 minutes to download a 24-minute video clip from Google Video; RealPlayer then took its sweet time--about an hour--encoding and transferring that video to the iPod. It's definitely an exercise in patience, though--to be fair--the video-grab feature is really intended for short video clips of about 5 minutes or less. More unforgivable is the fact that the app refused to play nice with Outlook, causing the e-mail client to crash when any encoding or transferring was taking place.

So what kinds of video can you expect to work with RealPlayer's download feature? The short answer is "nothing with DRM protection of any kind." So if you're thinking of capturing the latest episode of Heroes to watch on your iPod (an especially enticing idea now that the iTunes store is NBC-less) you can forget about it. I also went after some Bravo, FoodTV, Netflix, and Comedy Central content--all to no avail. For Bravo, FoodTV, and NBC, the "Download This Video" button popped up, but the resulting grab was just the commercial segment. Sadly, while Comedy Central videos worked during the beta period, the site has since switched to streaming flash, with which RealPlayer 11 is incompatible (the button changes to "Video cannot be downloaded," though--somehow--commercials are downloadable). Netflix uses a proprietary format that the software doesn't even recognize as video. In any event, this adherence to DRM is better for RealPlayer in the long run, but it's really too bad about the FoodTV restriction--how handy would it be to have quick and easy recipe clips on your iPod?

There are, naturally, plenty of video sites that work just fine with the software. Google Video, YouTube, Metacafe, and any other site with user-generated content are all fair game. Also, there are some TV network sites that keep their formats open and free of restriction--Cartoon Network, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic, for example--though you often have to sit through a loud, unmutable ad while you wait for the video to come on. Of course, this is dependent on the sites and not RealPlayer, but I can't help complaining here. Also, it's worth noting that you don't actually have to watch the video while it's recording: You can pause, mute, or even move onto another video and cue that up for downloading. That's definitely a big plus.

In the end, the usefulness of this new RealPlayer 11 feature depends largely on the type of content you are interested in saving for offline viewing (if you're into music videos, for example, it's great)--and also how enterprising you are (I came across a couple of questionable sites with plenty of network TV content that was readily compatible with the software). It is free, so there's no harm in trying it out--unless you count the harm to your eyes/brain by having to deal with the RealPlayer interface. If you're an iPod user who wants to take videos on the go, just make sure you test out the free version with your favorite content providers before you dole out the cash for the Plus option.

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