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What is MP3?
MP3 is a compression format that sounds almost as good as a CD. MP3 exists because uncompressed audio is way to big to send over the internet, even over a high-bandwidth connection, hence the relatively tiny MP3 files. If you want some numbers, uncompressed audio is 10 megabytes per stereo minute, whereas MP3 is about 1 megabyte for the same amount of audio. Or as my friend Red put it, "sending uncompressed audio over the web is like trying to stuff a whole dozen donuts in your mouth at once when really, there's only room for one to go down at a time." So in the Red Analogy, MP3 is a donut masher that lets you eat those dozen donuts without affecting the taste very much.
You've probably heard about the battle the music industry is fighting over MP3. The record industry is nervous because MP3 sounds great and is easily distributed over the web by the proverbial Moms and Pops such as myself, so we don't need some corporate overlord record company anymore, at least not as much. Thus you're able to buy our music and telephone terrorism online, without a middleman. And thus the record industry is a little nervous.
How Do I Hear MP3s?
You'll need an MP3 player, which is a program for your computer that plays MP3s. It's a free program. As of my writing this (November 1999), the best player for the PC is Winamp. But AOL just bought the program, so it shouldn't be long before they commercialize it and ruin it. I'm not sure what the standard is for the Mac, someone please let me know.
Some of our MP3s are "zipped" together for easier downloading. That means multiple files are temporarily combined into a single file, called a "zip archive". If the file name ends in ".zip", that means they're zipped. To "unzip" them you'll need a special program. The program is free, and you'll need it eventually anyway, since almost all internet downloads are zipped. For PCs I recommend Winzip, for Macs I recommend Stuffit. Both programs are free.
What is RealAudio?
As of my writing this in humble November 1999, RealAudio is still the best format for streaming audio and video over the web. By "streaming" I mean that there's almost no delay between when you click the link and when the audio starts playing. It does this by downloading the file as you listen to it.
RealAudio is run by a company called RealNetworks, a company of very dubious quality. They keep releasing increasingly inferior "upgrades" to the RealPlayer, and their new RealJukebox is an obnoxious abomination. But fear not, RealAudio works, is simple to use, and sounds pretty good (but not as good as MP3).
How Do I Hear RealAudio?
Just go to real.com and download the free RealPlayer program. There's a version that costs money, and they try to hide the free version so you'll think you need to buy it. But don't be fooled, there's no reason to buy the full version, look around the margins for the obscured icon that takes you to the free version.
Did You Say RealAudio Can Play Videos?
Part of RealAudio is RealVideo, and the same player plays both types of files. RealVideo looks halfway decent, a bit better than those videos they send back from spacestations.
Want To Read My Old RealAudio Help File?
It goes a little more in depth, but is also a little more outdated, but if you want it, here it is.