Katherine Boehret

The Swiss Army Knife of Portable Videos

Every once in a while I watch an online video that’s good enough to send to a friend, share on Twitter and Facebook or save its URL so I can watch it again later. The final piece of the puzzle would be moving the video onto a mobile device to have it with me wherever I went.

Enter RealPlayer SP beta (realplayer.com), the latest in RealNetworks Inc.’s (RNWK) long line of media players that the company has churned out since 1995. RealPlayer SP—the SP stands for social and portable—is a free download that, once installed, grabs videos from the Web, converts them to the right format and transfers them to over a dozen portable devices. While other software programs perform two or just one of these tasks, the RealPlayer SP’s trio of talent makes it like a digital Swiss army knife.

After using the RealPlayer for moving several videos of all kinds to an iPhone, BlackBerry Curve 8900 and Palm Pre, I felt like I had more control over my portable devices and the media they held. And the freedom of knowing that this player is compatible with almost anything—including Apple (AAPL) and Palm (PALM) devices, Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerrys, T-Mobile’s G1 and Sidekick, Nokia’s (NOK) N97 and certain basic cellphones—is a major plus.

Behavior Problem

My biggest problem with using the RealPlayer SP has to do with my own behavior. Most of the videos I watch online and share with friends are less than five minutes long. This means that grabbing, converting and transferring videos to a portable device using the RealPlayer SP—albeit a relatively quick process—could easily take more time than the length of the video, itself. And many of the longer videos that I would want to move to a BlackBerry or iPhone are copyright-protected and thus can’t be downloaded by the RealPlayer SP.

Another factor is that more devices now have their own built-in app stores for downloading content to the device, without plugging into a computer for transfers like with the RealPlayer SP. The iPod touch, for example, can now download movies, music videos and TV shows over Wi-Fi thanks to a recent $10 software upgrade.

Mac Version Coming Soon

The RealPlayer SP works only on Windows PCs right now; a Mac version is due out by the end of this year. Likewise, it doesn’t work on Apple’s Safari browser but does work on Firefox, Internet Explorer and Google’s (GOOG) Chrome browser; I used all three with success.

If you’re not interested in using the RealPlayer SP for transferring videos to portable devices, you can still use it for downloading videos, saving them onto your computer and sharing them with friends via Twitter, Facebook or email. Tiny icons representing each of these sharing options appear in-line beside freshly downloaded videos. I shared videos of last week’s Congressional Luau at the White House via Facebook and Twitter, but the icon to share videos via Twitter doesn’t automatically shrink URLs to fit into a tweet. I shrunk the URLs myself, but this took an extra step1.

And though I’ve mostly focused on the RealPlayer SP’s ability to grab, convert and transfer (RealNetworks calls these tools the Downloader feature in the player), it also works as its own media player or helps you discover new content.

RealPlayer SP Beta downloads, converts and transfers videos from the Web to a variety of portable devices.

A premium version called RealPlayer Plus SP is available for $40. Premium features include DVD burning, DVD playback (if your computer can’t play DVDs) and video conversion to a special format called h.264—though the free version performs these conversions for videos being moved to Apple devices.

I jumped around the Web visiting sites and playing videos, which prompted the RealPlayer SP to display a small “Download This Video” message above videos that aren’t copyright-protected. Downloading videos worked on most sites, including AllThingsD.com, Slate, YouTube, Salon and CNET. As expected, I wasn’t so lucky with videos from the New York Times, BBC and Hulu, which hosts loads of TV shows and music videos. That’s because videos from these sites were copyright-protected and didn’t allow for downloading.

A Glitch

In one instance with a WSJ.com video, only the short ad that played before the video was downloaded, even though the download prompt indicated that the WSJ video was obtainable using RealPlayer SP. RealNetworks says this is a glitch it knows about and plans to correct.

The RealPlayer SP’s ability to download videos and transfer them to devices, rather than just copying them onto computers, forced me to be choosier about the videos that I downloaded due to the limited memory of the devices. Because of this, I wished the RealPlayer SP Downloader had a better built-in way to discover downloadable content. Currently, a link to something called the RealGuide pulls up suggestions, but I had a hard time finding clips there that I wanted to download. RealNetworks says it plans to improve the video-discovery process in the future, including adding things like YouTube keyword searches built right into the Downloader.

The Downloader Window

When I did find videos I liked, I clicked on the prompt to download the clip, found the clip in a tiny Downloader window, and chose to move the clip to a device (there’s a list of all available devices) or share it via Twitter, Facebook or email. Transfer times depend on the length of the video.

RealNetworks provides simple instructions on making sure your device is set to transfer when plugged in. For example, BlackBerrys must be set to mass-storage mode, Palm Pres should be set to USB mode and Apple devices synchronize with the iTunes library, where RealPlayer’s converted videos are sent for transferring to iPhones and iPods.

RealPlayer SP can be a real help when it comes to putting the content that you want on your portable device. Its ability to assist from start to finish—finding videos, converting and transferring them—saves time and avoids confusion. To succeed, RealPlayer SP needs to do a better job of helping people find worthwhile videos to transfer, or they’ll stop using it after just a few tries.

Corrections and Amplifications

1 Real Networks says its RealPlayer SP Beta’s Twitter video sharing capability has an automatic URL-shortening tool built in. This week’s Mossberg Solution product said the product lacked such a feature, because it never activated itself in our tests.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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