Katherine Boehret

Saving a Favorite Web Video

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Thanks to faster computers and higher bandwidths, many Web sites now contain video of one kind or another. Slow, stuttering footage is a thing of the past, and video-sharing Web sites are hot commodities, demonstrated last year when Google bought YouTube for $1.6 billion.

You can browse the Web watching videos until your eyes glaze over, but you can’t easily save any of that video footage to your computer in an organized library. So while your photos, music and email can be neatly categorized and revisited on your computer’s hard drive, videos that you see online may never come your way again.

This week, I tested the newest version of RealNetworks Inc.’s RealPlayer, which offers a distinctly useful feature: the ability to copy any video from the Internet onto your PC, as long as it isn’t protected by a copyright. This player, which was just released in its beta (or testing) version last month, is available as a free download from www.realplayer.com.

RealPlayer 11 copies videos from the Web to a PC with one click; a progress window shows the status of multiple simultaneous downloads.

Once downloaded, RealPlayer 11 smartly runs on Microsoft’s Windows XP or Vista machines in the background, only making its video-copying capability known when a video appears on a Web page in your browser. A tiny message labeled “Download This Video” pops up from the video viewing screen, and when selected, this initiates a download of the entire video. You don’t need to be at the start of the video to copy the whole clip. In fact, you can copy an entire video without watching it (I used RealPlayer 11 to copy videos for watching later when I didn’t have a column to write). Saved videos can be shared with friends, organized into playlists or burned onto CDs.

I tried RealPlayer 11 on my Windows XP desktop and on my Vista laptop, using both Internet Explorer 7.0 and Mozilla’s Firefox 2.0 without problems. Being able to copy videos made me realize how many clips I watch online, footage that might otherwise have been forgotten had I not saved it on my computer. Granted, not all the videos that one watches online are worth capturing, but it’s nice to have the ability to save them with just a mouse click.

I missed being able to use RealPlayer 11’s video downloading on my Apple computers, but RealNetworks says it will make its player usable on Macs before the end of the year. The company also says it is working on plans to make these saved videos transferable to portable players, including Apple’s iPod, so that after downloading numerous videos, you need not be tied to your computer to watch them. In the case of longer videos, downloading took more time, and I wished this RealPlayer made it possible to watch videos shortly after they started downloading, like Apple does with movies downloaded from its iTunes Store.

Downloading this new RealPlayer was surprisingly painless — a welcome change compared with my experiences downloading the company’s previous players. In three quick steps, I downloaded RealPlayer 11, accepted a license agreement and adjusted a few settings such as whether or not I wanted to use RealPlayer 11 by default for playing all videos on my PC. I was never prompted to enter my date of birth or email, like RealNetworks downloads in the past.

I visited various sites to retrieve video footage, including YouTube, AOL videos, Google videos, sports Web sites, television network sites and news sites like WSJ.com and AllThingsD.com. Every popular video file format is supported. To save time, RealPlayer 11 lets you download multiple videos at the same time; a small window shows the status of each download, including how much time remains for each download and an option to cancel the download. There are no limits to the number of videos you can download simultaneously, as long as your Internet bandwidth can manage.

I copied numerous videos, including the first episode of my new favorite TV show, ABC’s “Traveler,” a music video from country singer Keith Urban and a National Geographic video on bowhead whales. After gathering a bunch of clips, I organized some of them into playlists and sent others to friends by selecting “Share Video Link” from the top of the screen, entering emails and a personal message about each clip. These emails are sent with embedded links to other sites, like YouTube, and the recipient doesn’t need RealPlayer 11 to see the videos, though a link for this free download appears at the bottom of the emails.

If a video is copyright protected, the “Download This Video” message that enables copying is replaced by a message that says “Video Cannot Be Downloaded” with a one-line explainer on digital rights.

(To the chagrin of content owners, this isn’t as much of an impediment as they hoped, because a large amount of video content is illegally posted online. Even if a video was originally posted in a protected format, someone may have copied it and re-posted it illegally with the protection stripped off. RealPlayer will copy these clips, as it can’t tell whether they were originally meant to be protected.)

In a couple instances, videos didn’t display messages about downloading or not downloading, in which case I wasn’t able to copy the video. RealNetworks says this is a rare occurrence.

RealPlayer 11 can also be used to record live streaming video in real time, like the constantly recording panda camera that was set up to document every move made by Tai Shan, the giant panda born in Washington’s National Zoo two years ago. I tested live recording by capturing a live stream of video from CNN.com for 35 minutes. But RealPlayer 11 can’t be set to record certain programs or at certain times like TiVo does with television.

Though I focused on its video-copying capability, RealPlayer 11 is still a media player in its own right. It is divided into six categories at the top of the screen: Now Playing, My Library, Real Guide, Games, SuperPass and Burn/Transfer. If you pay an extra $30 for RealPlayer you’ll be able to burn your videos onto DVDs rather than just CDs. Real Guide serves as a link to RealNetworks’ suggestions of videos and also lets you search for more videos. If you visit the My Library section while a video is playing, a miniature view of that video appears in the lower right corner of the screen.

Many sites offer to help you email videos or obtain a video’s URL for embedding into your own Web site. But these options often appear only after you’ve watched an entire video, and they don’t help you save videos onto your PC. RealPlayer 11 strikes a healthy balance: It’s useful without intruding on your browser. If you stopped downloading videos from the Web to your PC, you wouldn’t be bothered by its subtle downloading prompts.

RealNetworks will release a second version of this beta before the end of the year, including options for transferring videos to portable players and Mac compatibility. For now, the free download of this first version is smart, simple and fun to use.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

  • Email: MossbergSolution@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications:

Any video can be copied as long as it isn’t protected by digital rights management. This article erroneously states that RealNetworks Inc.’s RealPlayer 11 can copy any video from the Web, as long as it isn’t protected by a copyright.

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