With RealPlayer 10.0, RealNetworks joined Apple and Napster in offering 99-cent music downloads. The newest version, 10.5, incorporates a revolutionary feature dubbed Harmony Technology. Basically, Harmony Technology will allow virtually all MP3 players, including the Apple iPod, to play songs purchased from the integrated RealPlayer Music Store. This ability directly addresses hardware and codec compatibility issues that have confused the world of legal downloads but also raises legal questions surrounding Real's method of "decoding" copyright protections that would, for example, allow the iPod to play back Real files.
RealPlayer 10.5 can handle just about every format you throw at it--even Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) tracks from the iTunes Music Store and secure WMA files from Napster 2.0. And two new codecs, RealAudio 10.0 and RealVideo 10.0, have improved the overall playback experience. Despite some performance issues, RealPlayer 10.5 is a worthy addition to the crowded field of media jukeboxes. Note, however, that features such as access to video content provided by RealNetworks' partners are available in only the premium package, which costs $10 per month.
The interface is still cluttered and sluggish, but it's more streamlined than in previous versions, and RealNetworks did a pretty good job of integrating the RealPlayer Music Store within the software. It includes detailed descriptions of each track and artist, along with purchase recommendations that actually make sense. Instead of the generic, licensed stuff that appears in other stores, you'll find rich artist information culled from RealNetworks' subscription service (formerly Listen.com Rhapsody).
Tracks go for 99 cents a pop, and you can grab albums for $10. While the promotion for 49-cent tracks is over, you can still purchase the featured (and weekly) Rolling Stone Top 10 for that low price. The current catalog is about 500,000 songs deep. Just as with the competition, certain tracks are available only as part of their whole album, and some albums aren't sold in their entirety. In addition to browsing the store, you can make playlists, rip CDs, burn custom mixes, and listen to thousands of online radio stations. Real has finally added MP3 encoding at bit rates up to 320Kbps for free; in the past, you could encode only at a paltry 96Kbps unless you paid for the Premium version.
Users can select from a huge list of now compatible devices, including the iPod.
You can enjoy your purchases on up to five PCs (no Macs, although RealPlayer 10.0 is available for Mac OS X; we also suspect that the introduction of Harmony Technology will make the Music Store Mac-compatible) and burn individual songs to disc as often as you like, though there's a five-time limit for unique playlists. Before Harmony, you could transfer the music you've bought to only the Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra and the players in Palm's Zire and Tungsten lines--not an impressive list at all. But with today's announcement, you'll be able to transfer purchased songs to just about any player on the market, including the iPod. Tracks are available in the AAC format, and they sound better than iTunes' offerings, thanks to a higher bit rate: 192Kbps vs. Apple's 128Kbps. If it's true that you can listen to purchased tracks that are higher than 128Kbps on the iPod, which would you choose?
In version 10.0, transferring purchased tunes to your iPod required work; they were protected by RealNetworks' proprietary Helix format, which the iPod doesn't support. You'd have to burn those files to a disc, rerip them to the iPod-friendly MP3 format, then move them to your iPod. Thanks to Harmony, RealPlayer will detect that you have an iPod, then transfer a compatible file. We were able to transfer and play back two of the songs purchased off the Music Store without a hitch. These songs showed up as 192Kbps AAC files on the iPod, and they sounded excellent. In addition, we transferred the same songs to an M-Systems plug-in MP3 player and were able to listen to those files as well. However, these files were apparently transcoded into WMA, and sound quality was slightly poorer than that of the same track purchased from BuyMusic.com.
While the music store is generating most of the buzz, RealPlayer 10.5 also benefits from new video and audio codecs, as well as TiVo-like pausing and playback of live video and audio streams. RealAudio 10.0 supports an updated, high-quality version of its own format, along with 5.1-channel sound for DVDs. RealVideo 10.0 offers HDTV-caliber video at less than 5Mbps, so output is better, with less pixelation and warbling. The company also claims that the new codecs improve the jukebox's performance, but it's sluggish, even though audio and video are precise and clear.
RealPlayer 10.5 exhibits occasional performance problems, and RealNetworks' music store, while a necessary component in the pay-to-play game, isn't exactly innovative. But we welcome this jukebox's open approach to other formats as well as its compatibility with an innumerable number of players using Harmony, which combines with integration of excellent Listen.com content to make RealPlayer 10.5 a worthwhile upgrade.
Download.com editor Justin LaBo contributed to this review.