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Head to Head: RealProducer Plus and Stream Anywhere

Whether you're a casual Web publisher who wants to show home videos on a personal site, or a professional content developer who needs to demonstrate a product or broadcast a speech via Internet or intranet, creating streaming video these days can be as easy as pizza.

Two of the most intuitive products for converting digital audio and video to Web-streaming formats are Microsoft's Windows Media On-Demand Producer, developed in conjunction with Sonic Foundry, and RealNetworks' RealProducer Basic, powered by RealSystem G2. Both of these applications feature simple interfaces--you see the input video clip on the left, the converted output clip on the right--and easy-to-use Wizards for converting your files and publishing them to a Web server. Both can process standard AVI and WAV files or live video from a video capture device. And best of all, both products are available to download for free.

But it doesn't take long to reach the limits of these basic tools, and serious Web developers will inevitably yearn for more advanced capabilities. Sonic Foundry's answer is Stream Anywhere 1.0, an enhanced version of On-Demand Producer, priced at $179; RealNetworks offers RealProducer Plus for $150. (We looked at RealProducer Plus 7.0; version 8.0 is now available, also for $150, or as a free upgrade for users of version 7.0.) Both of these products run on Microsoft Windows 95/98, NT 4.0 and 2000.

To see how well these one-stop streaming media creation products compared, I used each to convert a variety of digital audio and video clips into streaming media formats. Both performed well in our informal tests on different connection types: There was little, if any, difference in the quality of the final encoded files. And many of the features are similar. But there is still much to consider: Your particular authoring and delivery needs - considerations of streaming format and features -- will dictate your choice.

Stream Anywhere

Stream Anywhere uses the same basic interface as On-Demand Producer, including easy tabbed menus and an intuitive timeline with audio/video fade and play controls along the bottom of the window. Both versions allow input in AVI and WAV format, and can encode in Windows Media Technologies 4.1 format (ASF), but only the advanced version can also output in RealNetworks' RealMedia (RM) format, using either single-rate or multi-rate SureStream file type. You can even choose to save your streaming media in both formats at the same time.

Other enhanced features in Stream Anywhere include support for additional input formats (AIFF, MPEG, QuickTime, and Windows Media files), video cropping tools, and advanced audio/video processing features, such as audio equalization and normalization adjustments, and video contrast and de-interlacing controls. You can also personalize your streaming video by adding an image "watermark", such as a company logo--a great feature if you're concerned about maintaining copyright control over your work.

When you're ready to save your video as streaming media in Windows Media or RealMedia format, Stream Anywhere provides an Encoding Template Wizard that guides you through various options, such as the connection type you want to target for your users. You can also edit existing templates or create your own, and then just apply them from a drop-down list. Another wizard helps you publish your streaming video to your Web site by providing sample Web page layouts and creating the necessary files (HTML, SMIL, image, and redirector) based on your choices. You can then export the layout directly to Microsoft FrontPage Web, or specify settings for transferring the files with an FTP program.

RealProducer Plus

Not surprisingly, RealProducer Plus will only produce RM-encoded files - a major drawback if your audience includes users of the Windows Media Player, who will have to download the RealPlayer to view or hear your creations. However, RealProducer Plus beats Stream Anywhere in the features department.

The Basic and Plus versions of RealProducer use a similar interface that includes boxes for clip information (title, description, keywords, and so on), easy controls for bandwidth and quality settings, and recording controls on the bottom. Except for a lack of support for the Windows Media format, both RealProducer products support the same file formats as Stream Anywhere, though only the Plus edition can input MPEG formats. Both versions of RealProducer can encode RealMedia files, in either single-rate or multi-rate SureStream format, but only the Plus edition can create a SureStream file designed to serve seven different target audiences - with Internet connection bandwidths ranging from 28.8Kbps to 512Kbps (the Basic edition is limited to just two target audiences).

In addition to supporting more bandwidths, the Plus version offers more user-controllable options, including video filters (noise, resize, inverse-telecine, and de-interlace); video codecs (two-pass encoding, variable bit-rate encoding, loss protection); and other advanced settings. These controls also go beyond those found in Stream Anywhere, giving RealProducer Plus the edge as the more powerful tool for creating RealMedia, in any form.

RealProducer Plus also includes RealMedia Editor, which allows you to trim, cut, and paste your existing RealMedia files; and a bandwidth simulator to preview your material under different network conditions. RealProducer Plus, like Stream Anywhere, also provides excellent wizards to help you create and publish streaming video.

The Bottom Line

Stream Anywhere and RealProducer Plus are both relatively easy to use products for authoring streaming media. If you need to convert media files into both ASF and RM formats, pick Stream Anywhere. However, versatility of format is this program's main point of attraction over RealProducer Plus. If you only need to author in the RealMedia format, RealProducer Plus is the better choice: It provides more powerful, customizable features. In both cases, though, try the basic versions before buying - they'll provide a taste of their more advanced siblings, risk free.

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