If you were to use the words "software", "audio player" and "bloated" in the same sentence amidst a crowd of audio-aficionados, nine of out then of them would assume that you’re referring to RealPlayer. Real Media hasn’t had the best of press over the years and most of this is its own doing.

A persistence in polluting products with annoying third-party add-ons, continual reminders of how to spend more money in associated online stores and the symbiotic way at which it attaches itself to all facets of your operating system stands in stark contrast to the streamlined nature of some rivals, and has undoubtedly cost Real Media a good deal of business.

With the release of RealPlayer SP it attempts to win back some customers by offering genuinely useful features that will appeal to the modern media generation. The free version of the software headlines with the ability to download and convert non copy-protected video from sites such as YouTube and quickly convert them to a range of formats for viewing on handhelds, games consoles and other devices.

A full subscription adds H.264 support, more detailed control over video conversion and the ability to burn DVDs. Other additions here include crossfade mixing effects, CD burning up to 320kbps and advanced audio controls for converting from vinyl and tape, though in truth it’s the video downloading that should hold the biggest appeal.

The new features actually work pretty well and provided the particular content you want to convert is not copy-protected, a "Download this video" link will appear above a window either through RealPlayer’s built-in web browser or a standalone application. Files can be converted right away or by selecting content from the library, at which point a choice of formats (e.g., Apple iPod, Xbox 360, BlackBerry) are available with pre-built profiles, along with the option to customise the conversion with your own settings. A nice touch here is the ability to convert for multiple devices at the same time, though you are fairly limited in selectable formats and sadly Real enforces its RealVideo standard or Windows Media (rather than AVI, DivX or a more generic format) as the only options for playback on a PC.

Conversion is quick and easy and we have no complaints about the structure taken to offering this service, but with free resources available online to do much the same, it may not hold enough appeal in itself.

Those willing to upgrade to the full version will benefit from H.264 conversion, DVD burning and the other features listed above, and again we were pleased at how well this integrates and at the tidy way in which the package offers what are a wide range of features in an approachable fashion. The software generally seems more streamlined and less hassle than in previous years, which will be good news to anyone who is already a fan of Real Media.

Unfortunately this is also where we think the package falls down. The insistence in forcing a proprietary format and the omission of many convenient, commonly used alternatives could be Real’s undoing here, and for this reason it is unlikely to offer enough to reel in new users or those who have turned their nose up at the company in the past.

Price when reviewed:

RealPlayer SP is very nice to use and integrates the various components available beautifully, but while these do work very well, savvy users will argue that free alternatives that don’t tie them to RealMedia formats are available elsewhere.

However, even though the free version does omit H.264, novices may appreciate the ability to download and convert video for use on handhelds and loyal followers will undoubtedly be pleased with the benefits available on this new version.