RealPlayer 7.0

RealNetworks offers two versions of the player, Basic and Plus. Available for free download, RealPlayer 7 Basic is further broken into three options: Complete, Standard and Minimal. We downloaded the 3.4MB Minimal version, aptly named because it's designed to get you going with the bare minimum for playing streaming audio and video: support for RealAudio, MP3, and RealVideo files, plus a rudimentary help file.

The 7MB Standard version adds support for other popular media formats (including .wav, .au, .aiff, .avi, .mov and MPEG) and integrates RealJukebox, which optimises your player for downloading and playing music from the Web. The 7.4MB Complete version offers support for additional, less commonly used file formats. For $US30, the Plus version (available for purchase via RealNetworks' Web site) adds a 10-band graphic equaliser, video playback controls, additional live radio stations, and other high-end features.

RealPlayer 7 is still in beta; the final version is expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2000.

For your viewing pleasure

There are several useful new features in RealPlayer 7. The redesigned player features a streamlined interface that facilitates accessing Real media content, no matter where it's housed on the Web. The first thing you'll notice is the addition of a browser-like location bar that lets you input URLs and go directly to RealAudio and RealVideo content on the Web. The bar also pulls down to show your past content and media visits, so you can go backward and forward without having to search manually for previously visited sites. RealNetworks also corrects a long-standing oversight: the player window can now be resized manually.

In keeping with the "content is king" approach of this version, Real includes a button for automatic access to the newly launched Take5 showcase, RealNetworks' daily take on the Web's top five streaming media elements, culled from various Web content partners.

Staying on top of breaking news is also easy: simply configure the player to alert you when new content is available via RealNetworks' portal site (separate from Take5, but also located at www.real.com). When new content is added to the site, you'll see a small star on the Real icon in your Windows system tray. In addition to Take5 there are over 100 customisable audio-visual channels accessible directly from RealPlayer 7.

Audio hasn't been neglected in this upgrade. MP3 playback is improved to provide support for streaming and variable bit-rate MP3 files. And the new LiveStations radio feature expands upon RealNetworks' preset radio stations of the past. You get instant access to more than 100 stations, and the station list, housed on RealNetworks' servers, is continually updated. You can search for radio stations based upon a station's properties, country of origin, or genre (there are 11 in all, encompassing everything from alternative and jazz to pop, rock and talk).

Performance issues have also been addressed. RealNetworks claims RealPlayer 7.0 is up to 40 per cent faster than previous versions, an improvement users of past versions will appreciate; individual results will vary depending upon your Internet connection and your PC. After putting the player through its paces, we'd agree that there's a discernible difference in sound quality. There was also a noticeable drop in video stream freezes, even when used over a 28.8Kbps dial-up connection. Radio stations sound almost as good as they do on a medium-quality stereo, and static has been nearly eliminated.

Once you have a Web utility, it's hard to justify downloading the many updates that come along. But RealPlayer 7.0 is one update well worth its download time.

RealPlayer 7

Price: free or $US30 for the Plus versionDistributor: RealNetworksURL: www.real.com

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