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RealONE: All For One

When RealNetworks unveiled its Real Entertainment Center in May 2000, it was more of a patch job than a tightly integrated package. It combined separate applications (RealJukebox, RealPlayer and RealDownload) as a slapped together bundle. Despite the name, it was clear that the Center was just a collection of disparate components, requiring separate downloads and installation procedures.

This week, RealNetworks unveiled its new all-in-one player, RealONE, combining the RealPlayer, RealJukebox, a media browser and a subscription service. Here's a firsthand look at the developer preview release of RealONE, available for download right now. ( www.real.com/player/preview.html)

Brand New Look

First, it's important to note that RealONE is essentially replacing RealJukebox and RealPlayer, both the free and Plus versions. RealONE player will be free for everyone but paying for a GoldPass/RealOne subscription will unlock enhanced features in the player. Currently, RealONE works with Windows 98, ME, 2000, NT or XP. RealNetworks said that a Mac version would be available in 2002. It remains to be seen, however, if RealONE will be ported to other operating systems. Until the full consumer launch of RealONE in about two months, RealNetworks will still push its RealJukebox and RealPlayer, however.

During installation, RealONE finds the existing RealJukebox and RealPlayer software and uninstalls them, while keeping all your old settings and preferences. Once you start the program, RealONE prompts you to log-in to the player for the first time. If cookies are enabled and you choose the option, you can save your username and password in RealONE, so you don't have to sign in every time you start the player. But the sign-on feature is one of the biggest differences of RealONE. New users will get a free 14-day trial of the RealONE subscription service, and you'll be reminded when the trial runs out. You can also manage your RealONE account from within the media browser. Unfortunately many of these features weren't turned on for the pre-release version.

But the most dramatic change is the user interface, with its three-pane look. The video window is in the top left corner, next to it is a synchronized window; the media browser takes up the bottom portion of the player, essentially a customized Internet Explorer browser. The entire interface changes as you switch between applications. For example, you can open a "now playing" window, or display the visualization of album art, or close the media browser completely for a more compact look.

Among some of the premium software features is Toolbar mode, which docks a long, thin, player just above the toolbar menu (along with a smaller video window) and Theater mode, which is full screen, plus the toolbar controls. There is also regular Full-screen mode, without the toolbar. Toggling between Normal, Toolbar and Theater modes is as easy as learning shortcut keys. Other premium features include a graphic equalizer, higher bit rate encoding, CD jewel case printing, transcoding and advanced video controls.

Overall, RealONE suffers from a too-busy look. There are too many buttons, too many options and it lacks something that's sorely needed: a menu bar. Unlike its predecessors and most Windows applications, RealONE doesn't have a menu bar, just a drop down button called "Menu." From there, you can open files, change preferences, change views, and pretty much control anything else on the player. But it's much too counter-intuitive for most users.

The button-crazy look continues as you move from application to application, clicking on large buttons running along the bottom of the player. You can choose from Web, My Library, CD, My Devices, Radio and Channels, which each come with their own inconsistent sub menus and buttons. The My Library view sports browser buttons, such as Home, Up, Forward and Back, giving you yet another way to navigate around your files. Learning the intricacies of each button, each menu, each icon and each tab within every application will probably take a long time. I've spent close to a week playing with RealONE and am constantly surprised by new buttons or options that I've never noticed before.

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