Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Why RealPlayer sucks

My parents’ desktop computer has RealPlayer installed, which, for the record, I didn’t put there. I decided to update it to the latest version today, and it reminded me of why I usually steer well clear of it.

We’re going to pretend we’re Joe User for one moment. Joe is a UK citizen, who pays his TV License fee, and wants to listen to one of the BBC’s audio streams. He has a relatively new computer running Windows XP SP2. This computer ships with Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, which is a good all-round media player, but it is incompatible with RealMedia streams.

We’ll assume that Joe asks a slightly more knowledgable friend why the audio doesn’t work and his friend tells him he needs to download a program called ‘RealPlayer’. He goes to Google, types in ‘realplayer’ and clicks on the first result – real.com, the RealNetworks homepage.

The home page isn’t exactly helpful. The obvious links in the middle of the page are trying to sell Joe Real’s premium service – all Joe wants to do is play some BBC audio streams that he has already paid for through his license fee and doesn’t want any of this premium nonsense. It turns out that he has to click on the ‘RealPlayer’ link in the top left, which takes him to this page.

Again, this tries to sell him a premium product, though at least the free version is still reasonably prominent on the right-hand side. He downloads the player, and chooses to install it.

During the install, he’s asked all sorts of questions – does he want desktop and quick launch icons? He’s also asked if he wants to make RealPlayer his default player, or whether he wants to set options manually, with the first option selected by default. Joe has never used RealPlayer before, so although the installer is recommending this, he isn’t sure whether to trust it because he has had no experience with using it – what if it’s awful? He’s already had problems navigating Real’s web site – is the software going to be equally as awkward? Of course, selecting the second option leads to bewildering array of options, so Joe just skips this screen. This isn’t good because Joe has no idea what he’s agreeing to in doing so.

Joe’s then asked for a username and password, or asked to register with real.com. Joe doesn’t really understand why this is needed – all he wanted to do is play an episode of The News Quiz. He didn’t expect to have to give his personal details over to some third party that he knew nothing about until a few minutes ago. So he clicks Cancel, and the program loads.

The main screen appears, and Joe is once again asked for a username and password. Again he clicks cancel. The main screen is mostly occupied by what seems to be a web page – but surely this is a media player, not a web browser? Joe already has one of those. Joe already has a fully-functional media player, yet he seems to have downloaded another one. He also finds the fact that the menu bar is on the right of the screen confusing – normally it’s on the left.

I could go on, but this should show that there are some major failings in the user experience. I would bet money that the majority of people who download RealPlayer do so because they want to view some multimedia content and a compatible player isn’t already installed for them to use. They don’t want to sign up for some premium service, or have some all-singing, all-dancing media library software installed – they already have one after all.

I’m not saying that RealPlayer is unnecessary in its current form – I’m sure some people like it – but that it’s not fit for most users. They should be able to download some kind of add-in for Windows Media Player that let them play back media in a familiar environment, and not have to learn a new and confusing interface, have to answer lots of questions and pay money for something they probably don’t want. Sure, keep the normal RealPlayer, but also have some kind of RealPlayer Lite for everyone else, and make it prominent.

Thankfully it isn’t all doom and gloom. The BBC offer a slightly less intrusive version of RealPlayer from their web site, and Real Alternative lets you avoid installing RealPlayer altogether and bundles a nice light player too. But these aren’t so well known solutions.

Update: About four years after this was written, I got rid of RealPlayer completely and haven’t looked back.

11 Comments

  1. I stay far away from RealPlayer. They came out with a version that popped up a little window near the system tray that told you all kinds of useless crap that I never asked for and didn’t want. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find anyway to disable this “feature”. So I disabled it the only way I knew, I uninstalled the software.
    I use RealAlternative now.
    As for the BBC… Is this feature of watching their content online the one that they were boasting they would have that would allow folks to view all their content digitally for free?
    When I first heard that, my mind raced. The thought of watching old Doctor Who or East Enders episodes on my computer was tantalizing. It’s been ages since that news was aired.
    I would really like to watch the newer episodes of Doctor Who legally, but thanks to the lack of intelligence from the SciFi channel, I have to resort to bittorrent to get my fill of Doctor Who. :(
    I also want to get/watch better quality versions of StarCops. I have seen a DVD for StarCops, but it’s Region2, and I don’t have a DVD player (other than my computer) that plays Region2 DVD’s. I supposed I could rip the content and burn new DVD’s that are regionless. I just don’t have the experience doing that and don’t really know if it’s even possible.
    Ah well…

  2. I’ve always hated Real player for all the reasons you have given. It is particularly difficult to cope with if you have a computer bought in 1998 running Win 98, which I had until a few months ago.
    You are correct as far as I can see. I only wanted it to view BBC content, and I only view stuff in the other format that the BBC provide, for “Media Player”.
    I also used to hate how much bandwidth it took on my old dial up connection – slowing everything down horribly, and checking for updates every few minutes. Terrible thing.
    I will now try your Alternative – thanks.

  3. Completely agree. Everytime I need to install RealPlayer I have trouble finding the free version and I don’t like the fact that it looks like a browser. I try to stay away from RealPlayer if possible. I wish all media files were available in a format known to Media Player.

  4. I’ve never ever known anyone to use realplayer as their primary media software, let alone pay for it. We really need to get some agreed standards for media distribution, most streaming formats are proprietary and its difficult for a site to choose a system without seeming to support a big greedy corporations player. Certainly doesn’t fit into the BBC’s remit very well.
    A while ago the beeb trialed broadcasting their live radio feeds via ogg vorbis and this worked great. It was clear, stable and you could use lighter players such as winamp. But they never carried it on after the trial.
    Also, didn’t the bbc announce their intention to develop a new opensource solution? Whatever happened to that?

  5. OK, if the BBC is “streaming” it’s content instead of allowing valid users to “download” content to a portable device, why not use a Flash based player? I’ve seen some great examples all over the web. Google’s video content has a nice Flash interface.
    They can then use one of the formats that Flash supports and everyone will be able to watch them without having to worry about getting a codec from a questionable source (Real).

  6. Dave: I was actually referring to the BBC’s Online Radio Player. This lets you listen to audio broadcasts up to a week after transmission date, and has been around for a year or two now. What the BBC are trialling is a similar service, but for TV programmes instead of just radio shows. Last time I heard, the trial had been widened to take on more people.
    MRK: The BBC are working on Dirac, an open-source video codec, but it’s not ready to roll yet. I did see a technical demonstration of it at Open Tech 2005 though.
    As for using formats known to Windows Media Player, unless MS ships more formats out of the box, they’re essentially stuck with MP3. Using WMA/WMV isn’t wise because only Mac and Windows users can use them – at least RealMedia is cross-platform, in the form of Helix which has players for Linux and Solaris. QuickTime is also Mac and Windows only.
    Unless, of course, they can use Flash Video… Update: It appears Dave posted a second before me, yet we both had the Flash idea. Hmmm…

  7. oh no – please don’t go the flash route – thats almost worse than realplayer!

  8. I’ve seen a number of problems with RealPlayer. The format is almost dead anyway.

  9. Andy, why do you say flash is worse? Have you seen the interface that the Podsafe Music Network uses? (http://music.podshow.com/)
    It’s very unobtrusive, it’s easy to use and it should work across all platforms.
    I guess if it’s the ads that are flash based that will all of a sudden start working, I suppose I can see your point. However, Firefox is doing a much better job of stopping the flash ads from popping up windows and Adblock does a great job of killing the other ads.
    In my mind, Flash is really the way to go with putting video and audio content on the web.

  10. Real Player is a POS. I’ve clean installed Windows recently so had to re-install Real Player to listen to online content on the BBC – and it’s worse than it’s ever been. You used to be able to search around for the free version buried on it’s website – now it can’t be found.
    The only free version I could find tried to install vast amounts of some kind of gaming crap on my PC – I stopped it in it’s tracks and scrubbed it from my PC. I tried using an older free version I found in my archives – after it contacted Real.com’s servers it insists on an email address and password! Since I never gave a real one before I couldn’t remember what false one I gave before so I uninstalled that.
    Then I found the BBC’s version and installed it only to find the Plugin for playing online content doesn’t work for some reason! And neither does the Enterprise version either! And it even keeps trying to popup messages telling me to go and look at some useless crap they want me to listen to that I didn’t even ask for!
    So I dumped that and installed instead Real Alternative instead – and the plugin works perfectly! No bloatware, no useless crap installing itself or any nosey intrusions into my privacy.
    So f**k you Real.com and your useless bloatware. You suck.

  11. Have you heard of “Real Alternative”? That should allow you to view/listen to the BBC content and avoid all the Real.com bullcrap.
    You can find it here:
    http://www.free-codecs.com/download/Real_Alternative.htm