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Streaming video is a sequence of "moving images" that are sent in compressed form over the Internet and displayed by the viewer as they arrive. Streaming media is streaming video with sound. With streaming video or streaming media, a Web user does not have to wait to download a large file before seeing the video or hearing the sound. Instead, the media is sent in a continuous stream and is played as it arrives. The user needs a player, which is a special program that uncompresses and sends video data to the display and audio data to speakers. A player can be either an integral part of a browser or downloaded from the software maker's Web site.

Major streaming video and streaming media technologies include RealSystem G2 from RealNetwork, Microsoft Windows Media Technologies (including its NetShow Services and Theater Server), and VDO. Microsoft's approach uses the standard MPEG compression algorithm for video. The other approaches use proprietary algorithms. (The program that does the compression and decompression is sometimes called the codec.) Microsoft's technology offers streaming audio at up to 96 Kbps and streaming video at up to 8 Mbps (for the NetShow Theater Server). However, for most Web users, the streaming video will be limited to the data rates of the connection (for example, up to 128 Kbps with an ISDN connection). Microsoft's streaming media files are in its Advanced Streaming Format (ASF).

Streaming video is usually sent from prerecorded video files, but can be distributed as part of a live broadcast "feed." In a live broadcast, the video signal is converted into a compressed digital signal and transmitted from a special Web server that is able to do multicast, sending the same file to multiple users at the same time.

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Enjoying Audio and Video

Half the fun of using the Internet today is enjoying its rich multi-media content. Whether you are watching video clips or listening to audio messages, radio stations and music, the Internet has plenty to offer.

In order to listen to audio and watch video over the Internet, you need several things. Obviously, you need a computer with an Internet connection. Your computer must also be equipped with a sound card and speakers, and you will need an Internet browser like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, which you are probably using right now. While Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator do a great job of helping you browse the Internet, they do not have any audio or video capabilities. That's why you need one other thing. You need audio/video software. Fortunately, the two most popular software programs of this type, Real Networks RealAudio player and Microsoft's Window's Media Player are both free. The current version of the Real player is called RealOne. The current version of Microsoft's player is version 9.

RealOne by RealNetworks is one of the premier programs for streaming audio and video. When you download Real player, you actually get three plug-ins, one for audio, one for video, and one for animation. The player is free, and it's also quick and easy to download. Once you have downloaded the player, you can go to any Web page that has a RealAudio file, click your mouse on the icon, and listen to the streaming audio and/or watch the video.

Microsoft Windows Media Player is also a very popular audio/video player. Besides differences in look, feel, and certain enhancements, Windows Media Player performs the exact same functions as the RealOne player. Many audio and video files on the Internet are media specific. That means the audio/video files at some of the Web sites that you visit, like this AARP Web site will use the RealNetworks files. Others will use Microsoft's files. You can download both the Media Player and RealPlayer. They will both happily reside on your computer together.

Downloading and installing an audio/video player such as RealOne or Windows Media Player is like downloading any piece of software. If you are unfamiliar with downloading software, read the How To on Downloading Files.

To download RealOne, go to the RealAudio site. You will immediately see an offer to purchase the RealOne Super Pass and links to a "Free Download" and "Fourteen Day Free Trial". These are players that you must pay for. You want to download the "Free RealOne Player". As I write this, the link to this free player is at the top right hand side of the page. However RealNetworks seems to constantly change their pages and move the links. They actually make it difficult to find the link to the free player, in hopes that you will opt to pay them for the Super Pass version. My advice here is to download the free player first. After installation, if you find that you use the player a lot, you might want to upgrade to the pay version, but the free player will give you everything that you need.

You can download the free Microsoft Media Player at the Microsoft Web site. You can also order the Media Player on a CD for $9.95. Since the Media Player is a large download, if you have a slow Internet connection you might want to order the CD.

Downloading either of these two players is a one-time occurrence. Once they are on your computer you will be able to play the audio and video from most Web sites.

One extremely nice part about the audio player is that you can leave the site where you started the audio, and the audio will continue to play until you turn it off. This gives you great flexibility. For instance, I can go to the WGN Web page (one of my favorite talk radio stations in Chicago) and start playing the current on-air radio show. I can then continue to surf the Web or go back to my word processing program while listening to the "radio" in the background.

Listen and Watch

Once you have the RealOne player installed, a good place to start is AARP Radio, where you can listen to weekly interview programs and daily news features. You may want to visit a Web site like Web-Radio where you can get links to radio stations from around the world you can listen to online. And don't forget, these players will also allow you to view videos. Try some movie studios like Paramount or news Web sites like CNN to try out the video.

Get comfortable and perk up your eyes and ears. Listening to audio and watching video over the Internet can be a great experience.