How to convert RealMedia video to MP4

Real Media conversionAs you may have noticed, I generally refrain from posting technical how-to information here, for two primary reasons:
1. My colleagues and I already create and distribute a lot of that information on our multimedia guide and tutorials page at Jones Media Center, and
2. I do not want this space to become an archive of outdated technology tips. But it is surprising when you try to perform what should be a simple task and run into a wall of misleading information.

This week I had an unusual request from a colleague in Computing. He wanted to both clarify ownership of a large cache of RealMedia files on one of the aging servers that will soon be decommissioned, and also wanted to know how to convert the existing files to a more modern, non-proprietary format. He had spent some time searching but was confused and frustrated with the conflicting information he found, and further baffled because some of the files wouldn’t even play in RealPlayer.

Although it has been a couple of years since I worked with the RealMedia video format, I assumed that one of our many converting utilities could handle the files, but to my surprise, neither VLC, Handbrake, iSkysoft, nor Quicktime had any documented support of the format. Rather than spending time to test each of these tools, I was hopeful that I could sift through the internet to find a solution.

Unfortunately, I too was sucked down a rabbit hole of conflicting tips, unverified hints, and frustrated forum posts with no sign of a lead. Then I came across a 2010 post on the Walker Art Center blog. The process sounded convoluted, but at least the steps were outlined in detail, and the writer had managed some results. I left the office yesterday ready to try the process this morning.

Fortunately for me, one of my colleagues had tested a couple of the programs mentioned above, and found that the current version of Handbrake for Mac OSX will convert the files without a problem. (I don’t have access to a Windows box but assume it would work on that platform also). Voila! (Why didn’t I attempt to try this in the first place?)

Just for fun, I decided to try the other programs to see if any of them could handle the .rm files. Neither Quicktime, Quicktime 7 Pro, nor VLC player could open them, and while iSkysoft could open and convert the video file it was unable to retain the audio, rather pointless in our particular application of converting recorded lectures.

Admittedly there are some caveats to using Handbrake to convert RealMedia video files. For some reason, the program increases the file size, approximately doubling it, even if the bit-rate is the same for input and output. Also, in our case, the original media was recorded at a very low encode setting. In part this bears out the nature of the streaming video technology at the time (around 2000-2002) – bandwidth was scarce and video streaming was rare, so files had to be heavily compressed. The resulting video is poor quality, and there is no way to improve it during the conversion process. Ultimately the efforts to preserve these videos may be moot given the quality – it will depend on the importance of the information and the value to the academic departments whether we continue to provide hosting.

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