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Battle of the Brands (Retro Review)

WMPlayer 7 vs Real Player

You plop a music CD in your PC. It plays. You download a video clip from the Web. It plays. You tune into an Internet radio station to listen to streaming audio. Ditto.
My point? You probably don’t give a bit whose software plays digitized entertainment on your PC. As long as your Britney Spears and Wayne Newton MP3s–obtained legally, of course–play without a hitch, you’re happy.
But your choice of media players is very important to those who distribute them. Microsoft and RealNetworks may give away their media players (both are freely downloadable from the Net), but they don’t view these apps as philanthropic efforts. On the contrary, these players are seen as potential profit centers in today’s Net-centric world.
How? There are millions of Windows users out there. If each is running your media player, which links consumers to your entertainment portal, you can charge advertisers top dollar to advertise on your site. If, say, 50 million people log onto your Web “media guide” every day, you can charge Disney a leg and a paw for a splashy “Dinosaur” ad. And that’s just the beginning. Add retail revenues from online video, CD, DVD, and (eventually) pay-per-view and MP3 sales, and you’ve got the makings of an e-cash cow.
Market share is everything, and that’s why you’ll never have to pay for a media player. Media Player 7 is also included in Windows ME, Microsoft’s new consumer operating system and successor to Windows 98.
For this article, we previewed beta versions of each program. Windows Media Player 7 had the better interface, yet Real Entertainment Center held its own in a feature-by-feature comparison. Each app incorporates an Internet radio tuner that helps you find thousands of music and talk sites from around the world. Each lets you copy audio CDs to your hard drive, and transfer audio files such as MP3s to portable music players, Zip and CD-RW drives, and other removable storage devices. And each automatically identifies the artist and album of the CD you’re playing, provided your Net connection is running.
Windows Media Player 7 is easier to use because it integrates all of its features into a single point-and-click interface. A column of large buttons on the left side of the screen displays your options, and the contents of the central, browser-like window change to suit the task at hand. Curious about the Korean Top 40? Click the Radio Tuner button. Want to burn an audio CD? Select Portable Device.
The Real Entertainment Center (REC), on the other hand, is a collection of three separate utilities: RealPlayer 8, an audio/video player with an integrated media guide; RealJukebox 2, an applet for playing and recording digital audio; and RealDownload 4, a tool for downloading and organizing files from the Net.
Each REC applet operates as a standalone utility and is available separately. And that’s where the trouble lies. It’s easy to get lost in REC’s mishmash of overlapping windows-one for Player, one for Jukebox, and so on. Some features, such as the radio tuner, are duplicated in more than one app. This design may make sense for, say, RealPlayer users who want the most popular features of RealJukebox but who don’t want to download the entire program. But the feature duplication will likely confuse REC users.
Windows Media Player 7, on the other hand, was built from the ground up as a single utility and has a more intuitive and integrated look and feel. Advantage, Microsoft.
Both programs let you “rip” or record entire CDs to your hard drive in a matter of minutes. You can listen to songs while they’re recording, too. The process is a breeze in either app: Simply click the red Record button to rip a single track or an entire CD. REC has the edge here, as it allows you to record in several file formats: RealAudio, MP3, Wave, or Windows Media (WMA). Media Player 7, however, records in WMA only.
Radio and more
I liked the radio tuners in REC and Media Player 7. Both allow you to search for stations by format-alternative, hip-hop, salsa, and so on-and include search tools for ferreting out more esoteric selections. The streaming-audio quality was good in both apps.
Hipsters will dig the visualizations, or colorful graphics that groove to the music. They’re fun to watch–for a while, anyway–but frankly I got bored and turned them off after a few minutes. Both apps have plenty of them, though.
REC also has RealDownload 4, a utility for downloading files from the Net. It works well enough and conveniently places all your downloads in the same folder, but it’s hardly indispensable. Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator already provide similar functions.
Overall, Windows Media Player 7’s all-in-one interface makes it my top pick. It’s easier to use than Real Entertainment Center and lacks REC’s multiple menus and overlapping features. But I’d be happy with either app. After all, both offer a ton of cool entertainment features, and they’re free.
What’s not to like?