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RealVideo, Part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

RealVideo makes a splash

Technofile for April 13, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

I write about technology and like to think of myself as an expert on the Internet. But I've been asleep at the keyboard lately. I knew that the minute I installed some new software on my wife's PC.

When I put Progressive Network's RealPlayer on her computer last week, I clicked my way through a few menu items and let the installation software make its own choices for whatever it had to do. Then I found a little window on the screen with buttons along the bottom—buttons that looked like the ones on my car radio.

That's when I discovered the extent of my technological narcolepsy.

When I clicked the first button, the little window suddenly got bigger, and a small TV screen popped up. A guy in a suit was reading the news—in color, too. Just like real TV.

Cute demo, I thought. Progressive Networks must have put a video clip into the software for first-time users.

Then the screen flipped to a commercial for a new Lincoln. An ad for cheese or milk or something else came next. By this time I wasn't paying attention to the message. I was too busy with the discovery itself—a live TV-network news show on the PC.

Let me explain that televisions and computers usually don't like each other. You can add a circuit board to a computer and attach your cable-TV connector and watch TV in a little window, that sort of thing. Usually the picture is somewhere between bad and terrible.

But I had done none of those things. I had simply picked up some free software off the Internet and clicked my wife's mouse a couple of times. The computer was already connected to the Internet, so the RealPlayer software had a head start when it opened its window on the screen. It saw the beckoning connection and grabbed the first signal it came to.

And that's how I ended up watching the Fox network's cable-news show for a couple of hours on a lazy Saturday night. The RealPlayer had turned the PC into a TV.

I'm amazed. I'm aware of earlier attempts to send TV programs out over the Internet so they can be viewed on personal computers, and I joined a couple of tests to judge the quality of these earlier attempts. All of them were hopelessly infantile. Pictures were jerky and sounds were murky. Worst of all, live TV was out of the question. All you got were reruns or taped segments.

Progressive Networks became famous by developing RealAudio, the standard method of sending live sound to computers across the Internet. Millions of Internet users tune into RealAudio programs from radio stations and broadcast networks (from National Public Radio and others) each day.

Now the company has added the TV equivalent, called RealVideo. Both RealVideo and RealAudio are now handled by the same software, the RealPlayer. (It replaces the ubiquitous RealAudio player most of us have used.)

The RealPlayer is available for both old and new versions of Windows and for a Power Macintosh at the Progressive Network's download site, A basic version of the RealPlayer is free; a fancy "Plus" version costs $30. The free player works just as well as the $30 one.

RealVideo does its magic by turning normal TV pictures into highly compressed images that are reconstructed by the RealPlayer at your PC or Mac. This eliminates the need for a high-speed connection to get acceptable pictures of live TV shows. If the connection goes bad, the RealPlayer uses a buffer (a temporary storage area) to fill in the gaps for as long as possible.

In many cases, the results are surprisingly good. In my listening tests, sound quality was only fair in TV shows, but it was about as good as FM-radio sound when I tuned the player to one of the classical FM stations on the Internet.

One of the best features of RealVideo isn't apparent if you only use the player. You can make your own videos using the same process. I'll tell you how to do that next week.

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