In many ways, RealNetworks seems like a company from another era. And it was, with technology that was once so pervasive Microsoft even bundled it, briefly, in Windows. But while the wider digital media market has seemingly parted ways with Real, the company's latest freely download digital media player, RealPlayer SP, has a lot to offer.

As a standalone media player, RealPlayer SP isn't really a compelling alternative to iTunes, Zune, or Windows Media Player, because each of these offers some important bit of functionality that isn't provided by Real. Too, RealPlayer still offers vestiges of the annoying bundling practices of previous RealPlayer versions, and comes up playing an unwanted video--and displaying a web-style banner ad--when launched.

OK, so why bother? Actually, RealPlayer SP offers two very important and related features that you simply can't find in other players. This functionality, too, explains the RealPlayer SP name. According to Real, SP stands for "Social and Portable," and, oddly enough, one of these features makes the devices you typically use with iTunes, Zune, and WMP, work even better. Let's take a look.

RealPlayer SP
RealPlayer SP is free, but busy with unwanted web-style advertising.

Download web video

The first key RealPlayer SP feature is a browser plug-in that lets you easily download web-based video from sites such as YouTube to your computer. This feature debuted in the previous version, RealPlayer 11, and works similarly in SP: A simple and clear "Download this Video" button appears in the upper-right of the video and you're good to go.

RealPlayer SP
RealPlayer SP lets you download videos from YouTube and other online video sources.

As with RealPlayer 11, video you've downloaded is added to your media library, and because the software can handle Flash, you can play it back locally.

Convert web video so it works on your portable device

The ability to download web video, especially Flash video, and then view it offline is useful enough. But in RealPlayer SP, Real has improved things yet again. Now, the software can also convert web video into more compatible formats. This lets you view the video in more mainstream PC software--like the aforementioned iTunes, Zune, or WMP--and, even more usefully, on a wide variety of devices, including portable devices like MP3 players, smart phones, and cell phones, as well as video game consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

RealPlayer SP
RealPlayer SP also lets you convert downloaded videos so they work well with various devices.

The key to this conversion compatibility is that RealPlayer SP uses the ubiquitous and high quality H.264 video format--now the de facto standard for online movie and TV show delivery--as well as some other device-specific formats like Windows Media, 3GP H.263 (for cell phones), and RealVideo.

There are many video converters out there, some free, some paid. But they all seem to play to the least common denominator, and you see silly mistakes like iPod presets that still utilize low-ball resolutions like 320 x 240. Not RealPlayer SP: It shoots right up to 640 x 480, and even retains the aspect ratio of the original video. That's nicely done, and the fact that the software also automatically copies converted video right into iTunes--thus making it easier to then sync it with an iPod or iPhone--is also hugely appreciated.

RealPlayer SP
Converted video looks great and retains the original aspect ratio.

Note: While the free RealPlayer's video conversion functionality is suitable for portable devices, you'll need to upgrade to RealPlayer SP Plus to get unlimited, high-resolution video conversion features that are suitable for archival purposes (and more).

Other features

RealPlayer SP includes other potentially useful functionality, such as the dubious ability to share video you appropriated elsewhere on social networking sites like Facebook and integrated (but basic) DVD burning. And of course, Real is still pushing its stalled subscription service. These aren't reasons to consider RealPlayer SP, per se, but they do sweeten the deal.

Final thoughts

While RealPlayer SP isn't likely to replace your current media player of choice, it is the perfect supplement, especially if you want to enjoy web video on the go, or download it for offline use. For this reason, RealPlayer SP is highly recommended: It offers unsurpassed web video downloading, archiving, and conversion capabilities, allowing you to bridge the gap between YouTube and your PC and devices.