In its upcoming RealPlayer 11 release RealNetworks is taking a serious stab at integrating features that let you save and organize Web videos to your PC and also burn those videos to CD and DVDs. A public beta release is expected this month. In the meantime, Real gave me the opportunity to test a beta version of RealPlayer 11. Here is what I found.

The single defining feature new to RealPlayer 11 is the software's capability to save Web video in one click from thousands of Web sites. You don't even have to watch the video. Just visit a site such as YouTube, Comedy Central, or PBS and before the video even starts a "Download" button pops up. You can choose to just download the video - without watching – and continue surfing to other sites on the Web.

When you hover your mouse over the video a "Download" button appears allowing you to begin the download. Don't expect to be able to download just any video. Those that are authored using copyright protection are off limits. For example, when I tried to download any of the full episodes of TV shows offered for free by CBS I received an error message from Real stating: "This video's copyrights owner may have copy-protected the video file with DRM."

Video formats supported for download are Windows Media, RealVideo, and Flash.

The Download Manager allows you to keep tabs on downloads. In my test it took only a few minutes to download an 11-minute 300K video. You can also download multiple Web video streams at the same time.

Real's My Library where you can manage your videos by name, genre, star rating, quality, and format.

Playback is limited to the RealPlayer 11 viewer. Real allows you to create playlists for watching multiple videos at the same time in a row, just like with audio playlists.

Along with the ability to save video is the ability to burn videos to video CD (VCD) or DVD for playback on your TV or PC. Users of the basic version of RealPlayer 11 will only be able to create a VCD. Plus users will be able to author DVDs as well as transcode stored video into formats other than the proprietary format Real stores them in.

The capability to transcode files in different formats is key for anyone interested in playing back video on anything other than a PC such as Apple TV or mobile devices like the PlayStation Portable.

This is a screen of the burning utility that comes with the RealPlayer 11. I struggled to get the beta version to work correctly and never was able to get it to work without the program crashing.

Plus

I didn't test the Plus version of the Real 11. But here are a few of the other features besides being able to burn to DVD that you'll get if you decide to make the upgrade:

* Advanced video controls
* Video brightness, contrast, sharpness, and hue tools
* Audio ripping, mixing, and burning.

Interface upgrade

Lost in the Real 11 upgrade hoopla over video is the fact the RealPlayer has received a meaningful facelift with some improvements to usability. This version of Real 11 looks a lot more like Windows Media Player. Gone are some of the big navigational tabs up top, replaced by content buttons.

Sour notes

On the downside, Real 11 appears to store video files in a (.ivr) format making them unplayable on other media players like Windows MediaPlayer and WinAMP. Real says only in "some situations" it renames the video with a different (.ivr) extension. In my test downloading dozens of videos all files were saved using this extension.

I wouldn't care about the format, but because it seems to be so closely tied to the RealPlayer I'm limited to only burning and playing back videos with RealPlayer. For paying customers of Real 11 Plus they can take the additional step and transcode files into a different video file format and theoretically edit and burn videos using any video editing software package. I assume this to be true, but didn't test the Plus version of the software.

Part of me understands RealNetworks' insistence on using what I consider an unwieldy format in the free version of the player. It creates a need to upgrade to the fee version of RealPlayer 11 (expected to cost a one-time fee of $30). I don't blame Real for wanting to make money, but I don't like the hassle factor it imposes on me. That said, I might consider other video recording programs that might not be as easy to use or full featured, but won't cost me a dime.

Sites like KeepVid.com, Vixy.net, and Zamzar.com help you convert Flash videos to a format of your choice for free. Windows applications such as KeepV.com, VDownloader, YouTube Grabber, and Orbit Downloader are also free. Vidtaker and Ook? Video Ook! are two free Firefox extension that can download videos from most streaming sites.

It's hard to ignore the video explosion taking place on the Internet. I'm glad RealNetworks is responding with a tool for taming, tagging, and bagging videos.

I look forward to a more polished beta.
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