Test Driving RealPlayer 10 for Linux

I had bitter feelings about RealNetworks products and practices years ago, but over the last couple of years I find that RealPlayer8 is one of the first apps I open on my linux machines. I confess I am a BBC Radio addict living in the USA and streaming audio is my only way to listen.

Click for a larger view The recent announcement of RealPlayer 10 for Linux caught my eye and I decided it was worth taking it for a test drive. Since I was not sure how this might impact my production machines I decided to just slap a new instance of Slackware 10 on a spare partition of my test box. My main linux machines all run Slackware and Dropline Gnome so it seemed best to work with a ‘plain vanilla’ clean install.

My test box is a home built Abit AI7 mb, Pentium4 2.4GHz, 512MB ddr, 60GB Maxtor, Geforce3 ti500 video; my trusty old Ensoniq 5880 audio card; and nice high-speed cable broadband. I already have Slack 10 running in another partition on this machine with RealPlayer8 so I can compare the new and old on the same hardware.

My main concern about the new RealPlayer10 (RP10) was that it might break some of my older scripts and applications that I use to rip ogg audio files. I decided to take the full leap and loaded the Slack 10 CD’s optional 2.6.7 kernel, Gnome 2.6.2, new Alsa 1.0.5 drivers, the latest Nvidia 1.0-6111 driver, GCC 3.3.4, and Mozilla 1.7. Install went smooth and I chose not to do any of my usual final configuration tweaks.

Click for a larger view I went to the new RealPlayer 10 website (www.real.com/linux) and downloaded the 6762kb RealPlayer10GOLD.bin file. This is the July 30, 2004 GTK+2 based package which sports a total rewrite from the years-old version we have all been running (Figure 1). There are lots of major changes so that is why I went to such an extreme to test it in a clean and pure install. You can learn more about the great new HelixPlayer1 project and how it relates to RealPlayer 10 at the Helix Community website. My focus here is on RP10 since I am primarily interested in streaming RealAudio.

Install was straight forward following Real’s brief instructions on the website. To recap, I installed as root:

# chmod a+x RealPlayer10GOLD.bin (make it executable)
# ./RealPlayer10GOLD.bin (start install)
# specify directory: /usr/local/RealPlayer10 (typical Slack path)
# config system-wide symlinks in: /usr

# installation complete

I checked in /usr/local/RealPlayer10/ and found the usual collection of Real files and the ‘realplay’ executable. Gnome 2.6 even showed a menu listing for RealPlayer 10 (Figure 2). Found the nice new Real icon in the Slackware /usr/share/pixmaps directory. I made symlinks to my mozilla-1.7/plugins directory for the two Real plugins found in my /usr/local/RealPlayer10/mozilla : ‘nphelix.so’ and ‘nphelix.xpt’. I also found ‘libgtkhx.so’ in my /usr/lib/realplay directory so I linked it to mozilla’s plugin directory just in case (doubt if this one matters, but thought I should mention it in case it does help).

On first launch I was greeted by a nice clean new setup screen which stepped me through the Release Notes and License Agreement. The final screen presented two options with check boxes: ‘check for updates’ and ‘configure mozilla helpers’. Needless to say, I checked the mozilla box. Joy of joys, there it was, the new RealPlayer screen in Slackware’s plain theme. I believe it is suppose to adopt the user’s chosen desktop theme. I poked around in the RP10 menus and noticed that the Preferences options are much more complete now (Figure 3). Although, I miss the old RealPlayer8 option: “enable support for old OSS drivers (Linux only)”. Got me a little worried because my vsound app requires that. A major menu improvement is the ‘Open Location’ screen. It now has a large enough window to easily paste in urls (Figure 4) and is no longer limited to 10 items. The Help -> FAQ menu links to an excellent and very useful HelixPlayer / Realplayer FAQ webpage that explains numerous player details and project objectives.

Click for a larger view The plugins included in RealPlayer10 are absolutely awesome! There are the usual Real plugins, a full component of Helix plugins, plus tons of new useful things like AAC, Vorbis, Theora, PCM Audio, etc. (Figure 5) I counted 65 plugins total. Considering that these are mostly new code packages for the latest media formats this amounts to a really incredible collection!

I checked the plugins in Mozilla 1.7 and there was a strange new beast: Helix DNA Plugin: RealPlayer G2 Plug-In ver July 30, 2004 built with gcc 3.2.2. Best of all, it does the job very nicely. It opens and plays the BBC java screens when called and the external RealPlayer 10 started when needed. Things were working very snappy from Mozilla.

Well, I was finally ready for my test drive around the net. I visited dozens of websites to test both RealAudio and RealVideo capabilities. Overall, it was very successful. I gave the player lots of punishment jumping around and was amazed that it never choked and died. The best news for me was that all the BBC streams and archives worked perfect and sounded very good on the small stereo I have hooked to this machine. The NPR radio feeds also worked great. I did find sites like Amazon.com and NASA that were using older ‘nonsupported’ Real formats. The player always gave me descriptive error messages when it could not play a format. I am not too bothered about those broken formats, we constantly run into weird and broken media files all over the web.

Of course, I also went to the various RealNetworks audio, video, and musicstore sites where the player worked flawlessly. One pleasant surprise for me was RealVideo – very bright, crisp, and smooth playing. I watched movie trailers that were very impressive (discovered new Pixar ‘The Incredibles’ coming out in Nov). I have never bothered with RealVideo before since I have always kept Quicktime on all my linux (using Crossover), Mac, and Windows machines.

Click for a larger view My final test was to see if my poor old out-dated vsound 0.5 application would work with RealPlayer10, new Alsa, and kernel 2.6.7. Short answer is that it works beautifully! Tested some of my scripts and everything worked solid. The new kernel appears to handle the ‘OSS driver compatibility’ problem I had feared. I encoded a variety of ogg files from various RealAudio sources and they were every bit as good as my previous best. I listen to classical music and radio plays on my iRiver H120 portable ogg player and these new files are very clean – for streaming audio. I really can’t say I can ‘hear’ much difference between RP8 and RP10, after all it’s basically just extreme compression to trick the ear anyway. While the wav files I capture from BBC RealAudio sound pretty decent, a quiet background without hum or hiss is what I really strive for. RealPlayer10’s solid performance on my Slack 10 linux has definitely impressed me.

So, will I be updating my other machines with RealPlayer 10? Absolutely! I’m sure there are hidden problems I did not find, but what I did see was pretty impressive. I think RealNetworks has made a good effort to provide the linux community with a robust and useful media tool that I for one am glad to have. Boy, that was tough for me to say considering the nasty things I’ve said about RealNetworks in the past! Oh yes, I have absolutely no connection to RealNetworks!

About the Author:
Gary Routh is now retired after 35 years of data communication and computer work. He lived in England for 6 years and still drinks his cuppa tea every morning. Retirement + high-speed broadband means discovering new things each and every day.

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