what an audio and video player should do is still evolving. Over the years,
three outfits (all relatively “big boys”) have battled to play digital
video and audio on your PC: Microsoft (with Windows Media Player), RealNetworks
(with RealOne Player, the successor to RealPlayer), and Apple (with QuickTime,
also a player). Today you almost need each companies' free program, if
you want to take advantage of all the audio and video on the Web.
RealOne, however, has introduced a new option: premium services (like
music downloads and exclusive video) for a monthly fee. At least for now,
only a few users will find this for-pay content worth the cost, especially
since the free version can offer worthy entertainment and information for
Current free and subscription services usually use RealOne Player. This
nifty all-in-one multimedia application lets you watch video, listen to
music, rip (digitally copy) CDs into digital files, and manage your music
and video collections. The free version can also provide a handy "best
of the Web" menu that collects sports, news, and entertainment clips from
around the Net.
RealOne Player improves
on the example set by Microsoft's slick, multitalented Windows
Media Player. In addition to a visually stunning interface, RealOne's
controls, in particular its media library, appear to work the way you want
Microsoft's Windows Media Player 7.1, a recent overhaul of the free
player, does many of the same things, but for me, 7.1's interface makes
organizing and playing files harder. Apple's free QuickTime,
offers only bare bones playback features. Of course, while RealOne is recommended
for storing most of your media, you will probably need to obtain a copy
of all the players for your hard drive. That's because no single program
plays all the formats. You need Apple's player for QuickTime media and
RealOne for RealOne formatted files.
Like Media Player and RealOne, QuickTime offers access to a nice selection
of streaming video and audio sites. QuickTime TV includes ABC News, the
BBC, CNN, Disney, and MTV. Unfortunately, it lacks its competitors' ability
to browse through the kazillions (very large number) of independent streaming
Internet radio stations. QuickTime also lacks a media library feature for
organizing clips on your computer, and it doesn't interface with CD burners
or play audio CDs.
Windows Media Player and RealOne offer similar features, with standard
playback controls and media libraries. Both will allow you to rip tracks
from audio CDs to digital files and transfer the digital files onto audio
CDs or portable digital audio players. Both also play a healthy portion
of the audio or video clips you'll find on the Net, though it appears that
RealOne has a slight edge (it plays Windows Media Player audio files, but
not video files), while Microsoft's program turns up its nose at all Real
Media Player rips CD audio only to its own format (fine as long as you
don't intend on playing the files on a portable device that plays only
RealOne will rip both to its own format and to MP3. RealOne's MP3 ripping
is limited to a rate of about 96 kbps, which is noticeably lower than CD
quality. (RealOne's premium service, as expected, gets you higher quality
ripping, but at a price).
||XP's version of Media Player supports third-party
MP3 ripping plug-ins that cost about $10.
I believe RealOne has a light, clean interface that is easier to learn
and navigate than Windows Media Player's interface. In the media library
area, for example, a player organizes all your video or audio clips by
artist, album, genre, and media type. Browsing a voluminous library of
audio clips in Windows Media Player is frustrating. You get either long
lists of albums (not identified by artist), or else long lists of artists,
then a single folder listing all of an artist's songs. A column in the
song display may identify which album a track belongs to, and at least
you can sort by album to group tracks together, but usually the tracks
will still be listed in the wrong track order. If Media Player is compared
to listening to classical music it would probably be like playing the finale
before the overture.
Choose the free RealOne player if you want to have a great looking multimedia
application that lets you watch video, rip digital audio, manage your multimedia
library, and try video and audio programs available on the Web. Or choose
one of the others and live with what you get.