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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

RealNetworks claims it has optimized the buffering feature of its streaming media system, so that streams can launch up to 800% faster than in previous versions of its software. While the feature is first to market, it suffers some limitations compared to what rivals are currently beta testing.

The feature, named TurboPlay, is new with the final "gold" version of the subscription-based RealOne player/service, released this week. By nearly eliminating buffering, streams launch faster and the fast-forward and rewind features on prerecorded material may actually become usable.

General manager of RealNetworks consumer division Leslie Grandy said buffering will be 800% faster on a LAN. On the Internet, buffering will be up to 600% faster over DSL connections, she said. The system will have no noticeable effect on narrowband dialup connections, where the majority of consumer use is, a spokesperson later added.

While RealNetworks claims the feature is "groundbreaking", its main competitor,
Microsoft Corp, announced a similar upgrade to Windows Media System in early December last year. Microsoft's FastStream, part of the unreleased "Corona" media platform, cuts buffering to one or two seconds by eliminating a lot of handshake information when a stream is set up.

Grandy said TurboPlay is "conceptually similar" to FastStream. She said that in previous versions of RealPlayer, the client would not use the full bandwidth available for requesting data packets from the server, but with TurboPlay it does. As the upgrade is for the client software only, no upgrades or code modifications are required at the server.

But the system does have its limitations. It is only available on paid-for premium versions of the software, and is, curiously, turned off by default. And because no server side upgrade complements the client, some features Microsoft will make available for its own system "later this year" are not available from RealNetworks.

Most importantly, TurboPlay does not work with streams that have been encoded using RealNetworks' SureStream multiple bit-rate encoding system. SureStream, which has been around since 1998 and is used extensively, allows one streaming server to handle requests from viewers on different bandwidth connections.

Michael Aldridge, product manager at Microsoft, said Windows Media's FastStream buffer upgrade will support multiple bit-rate encoding. "MBR adds to the complexity at the server," he said, meaning upgrades at both sides are necessary

When compared to Microsoft's forthcoming Corona, the new RealOne feature does not provide the same kind of server-side bandwidth-harvesting features.

According to Microsoft, Corona will "take advantage of the full network bandwidth you have available".

Instead of insisting a 100Kbps stream is delivered at 100Kbps over, say, a 1.5Mbps connection, which could cause blocking and jumping due to network congestion, the system will deliver and locally cache as much data as will fit down the pipe, making for a smoother picture.

Microsoft's Aldridge accused RealNetworks of desperately trying to catch up with Microsoft's "faster pace of innovation" but making an "incomplete attempt" with TurboPlay. Though, to be fair to RealNetworks, they have a product, however restricted, on the market and available to consumers, and Microsoft doesn't.

© ComputerWire.com. All rights reserved.

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