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RealAudio plays new strength

Progressive Networks will introduce a new version of its RealAudio player Monday designed to make surfing the Net's channels more convenient.

Progressive Networks will introduce a new version of its RealAudio player Monday designed to make it easier to surf the Net's channels, CNET has learned.

Part of a growing category of streaming audio products, RealAudio lets users listen to sound clips as they are downloaded from the Net, instead of waiting for the clips to be downloaded to the hard disk and then played. RealAudio has gained acceptance as the basis for radio broadcasts on a number of Web sites, including CNET's; nevertheless the company is facing increased competition from vendors such as Macromedia, which recently introduced a new version of its Shockwave plug-in with streaming audio capabilities.

Progressive Network's new software, RealAudio Player Plus, doesn't significantly improve the quality of audio broadcasts, which range from FM-caliber sound at best to AM-like static at worst. It does, however, include some features that make surfing the Net more like tuning in radio stations.

The software comes with custom preset buttons that provide fast access to Web sites with RealAudio content. It also comes with scanning, a feature that allows users to automatically surf from sound clip to sound clip, according to sources familiar with the product. The company plans to make the product available on its Web site Monday for Macintosh and Windows.

Player Plus will also allow users to save RealAudio clips to their computers for offline listening, while users of the current RealAudio 2.0 Player are limited to listening online. For users with slower 14.4-kbps modems, Player Plus will allow them to improve sound quality by increasing the amount of a clip that is downloaded before it plays, sources said.

Progressive Networks will retail Player Plus for $29.99 beginning in late September.