Ever since media went digital, a plethora of formats have assailed and confused consumers and users. Each software developer dealing with digital media has built its own method of compressing, coding and decoding audio and video data. RealAudio is one such format for audio files. It is proprietary and developed by RealNetworks.
- Identify a RealAudio file. RealAudio files are easily identified by the file name extension ‘.ra' (RealAudio). This extension applies to files that are exclusively audio. RealNetworks also deals with video data and such files which may or may not contain audio, have the ‘.rv' (RealVideo) extension. Video files can be compressed through a variable bit-rate (VBR) method and those that were done through RealNetworks' media applications will have the ‘.rmvb' extension. If the audio file is accessible through a link on a web page then it could have the ‘.ram' (RealAudio Metadata) extension instead.
- Download and install the RealPlayer media player. RealAudio can be played in RealNetworks' media player called RealPlayer. This software can be downloaded from its official website. The latest version is called RealPlayer SP and there is a 14-day free trial download option, which involves registration. The promoted feature of this version is that it can be easily used in mobile devices or in conjunction with your personal social network site. For it to work on your PC, your system must at least have: 1.4 GHz processor speed, 512 MB of RAM for Windows XP Service Pack 2, 300 MB of hard disk space, a 16-bit bit sound card, a display resolution of 1024x600 and 65k color, and finally Adobe's Flash Player 9 for playing Flash media. Installation is easy enough and just a matter of following the step-by-step instructions on the website.
- Try alternative media players. RealAudio is proprietary and RealNetworks used to discourage development of alternative media players by not disclosing any technical details about its media format. Eventually they had to swim with the open-source current and started the collaborative open-source project known as the Helix Community. The RealPlayer for Mac OS X is one of the fruits of such a move. It uses the Helix playback engine and is free to download from third-party websites. RealNetworks however has not completely exposed its technical secrets to the public, so Helix players may not be able to play certain versions of RealAudio files. During the time when RealNetworks was still keeping its technology under wraps, independent programmers were able to discover similarities between RealAudio's codecs and those used in mobile phones and digital TV. As a result some unofficial media players emerged such as Mplayer, JetAudio and Real Alternative. This last one still made use of RealPlayer's data link library (.dll) files and so needed a previous installation of RealPlayer for it to function. Instead of full applications, some programmers built codecs which can be added to Windows Media Player and make it capable of playing certain versions of RealAudio. These unofficial alternatives are available for download in third party websites.
RealAudio is a fairly popular digital audio format and mostly used for streaming audio. The British Broadcasting Corporation uses it extensively in their websites. Some Internet radio sites also still use this format.