When Real Networks announced the next version of RealPlayer at last month’s D: All Things Digital Conference, I described it as wanting to be like ‘Tivo’ for the web, in reference to the media player’s new flagship feature: one-click downloading and saving of online video. However, with the application only available to beta testers, it wasn’t untill last week that I actually got my hands on the software (currently Windows-only), courtesy of an invite from NewTeeVee.
Those of you who are long time RealPlayer users will no doubt have suffered from the application’s tendency to take over almost all of a PC’s media play-back duties, including non-RealPlayer file-types such as mp3 or .mov, even if they were already being handled by another application e.g. iTunes. In addition, Real made it far too difficult to locate the free version of its player, resulting in many users holding the company in very low regard.
Recognising this, version 11 has a much cleaner and less cumbersome installation process that offers a tick box asking which media-types you want associated with the application, along with the option to disable the new video download feature.
RealPlayer 11 will be available in two flavors: a free option which is limited to CD-burning, and a paid-for option that enables you to burn to DVD. Let’s hope that Real has learnt its lesson and will display the free version alongside the paid-for version, rather than being buried somewhere else on the company’s website.
Interestingly, Google Toolbar is also offered as part of RealPlayer’s installation, although I’m unsure if this is a new or existing partnership between the two companies.
The first thing you’ll notice about the new RealPlayer interface is how similar it is to iTunes. Down the left-hand side are buttons for ‘My Library’ containing filters for music, videos, downloads and recordings, playlists and auto-playlists, purchased music, and CD/DVD. The right-hand pane displays a column view of your content, and at the bottom are the player controls. Additionally, when playing video from your library, buttons appear giving you the option to zoom-in or switch to full-screen mode.
I’d be the first to argue that there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from Apple’s UI, and that the result of which is that anybody familiar with iTunes will be right at home with RealPlayer 11.
RealPlayer 11 also shares many features with iTunes, starting with its ‘jukebox’ functionality which enables you to import and organise music and videos, including adding meta-data and creating playlists. Additionally, like iTunes, media can be burned to CD/DVD from within the application itself.
As already mentioned, the biggest new feature is the ability to download videos from the web . With RealPlayer 11 installed, when you visit a website with embedded video (Real, Flash, QuickTime or Windows Media), a floating tab appears giving you the option to download the file or ‘record’ it in the case of a live stream. Once you click ‘download this video’ a copy is then placed into your RealPlayer library. I tested the feature on YouTube and found that videos downloaded quickly and without a glitch. Next up I tried to save a ‘Real video’ stream from the BBC but was greeted with the following message: ‘This clip is not downloadable from this site.’ That’s because RealPlayer honours any online video protected by DRM, preventing a user from saving it to their hardrive.
As well as downloading, the option to share the video link via email is also available. This should help Real persuade content owners that its new player has the potential to send traffic back to the originating site.
As with previous versions, the new player has buttons to access Real’s content portal, music download and subscription service, as well as log you into ‘Super Pass’ (Real’s premium paid-for content offering).
While it will be hard for RealPlayer to shake off its poor reputation, there’s much to like about version 11. The new interface and jukebox functionality has been appropriately borrowed from iTunes, and the ability to download and save videos from the web, not only works well, but should prove popular with users who want to build their own personal video collection. Having said that, it seems a bit old-hat to only give the option to burn media to a CD or DVD and not covert it for transfer to a portable media player such as an iPod. (Update: Real’s Matt Spragins left a comment telling us that this feature will be present in the final release.)
However, as we’ve previously noted, the legality of RealPlayer’s new download feature could be tested once it’s released, as it potentially breaks the Terms of Service of sites like YouTube.