How to download and save streaming videos

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

How many times have you wanted to download and store an online streaming video so you could play it back at a different time or on a different machine?

While the basics of downloading YouTube and other videos have been around for a long time, there are tricks to getting the video you want into a format you can use.

The tricks aren’t limited to YouTube. If you get the right software, you can download almost any streaming video and store it in many different formats. You can even download Flash games and play them when you’re offline.

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Each video (and online game) site has different restrictions, so make sure your activities don’t violate any laws or user agreements. The YouTube terms of service (TOS), for example, are quite succinct:

“You agree not to distribute in any medium any part of the Service or the Content without YouTube’s prior written authorization. … You agree not to access Content through any technology or means other than the video playback pages of the Service itself, the Embeddable Player, or other explicitly authorized means YouTube may designate.”

As far as I can tell, YouTube’s TOS doesn’t cover cases where a product (such as an iPad) is incapable of playing a video because of format restrictions. More about that in a moment.

What the YouTube TOS says you can do might not coincide with local laws. Is it illegal to record something playing on your computer, so you can view it at a later time? If so, why does YouTube have hooks that allow programs to download files? (Netflix, for example, is almost impervious to similar approaches because of the technology it uses.) The legal situation is murky at best. Caveat downloader.

Why you might want to rip streaming video

I’ve bumped into the download problem twice in the past six weeks.

First, when Microsoft’s Julie Larson-Green and Steve Sinofsky gave the Windows 8 demo at the All Things D conference. I had to download the video so I could watch it repeatedly on a flight. I caught a lot of nuances at 30,000 feet — without the complications of a video-stuttering Internet connection or exorbitant in-flight connection fees.

I accomplished the download, but it took some serious mojo.

Second — and more importantly — before heading out on vacation. I wanted to grab a handful of YouTube videos that my son could watch later. Believe me, a fussy toddler in the back of a stuffy taxi responds marvelously to a YouTube lullaby or a familiar sing-along on the ol’ iPad. Some of the places we go just don’t have Internet connections — and I’ll be skinned and steeped in cactus juice before I’ll spend $25 a day for a hotel’s connection to the World Wide Web.

Also, my friends have asked for tips on downloading videos — from YouTube and other sites with streaming content — for a multitude of reasons. Some of them have good Internet connections just at home, or only in a coffee shop, or when at the office, but tortuously slow speeds elsewhere. Downloading a video where there’s a fast connection and replaying it at leisure avoids the glips and glops of a bad line. Some have YouTube blocked by their corporate admins, so they have to smuggle videos of the Evian babies into work. One friend likes to record things so he can view them while camping on the weekend.

I like to record videos for all those reasons plus one more that stands out: I hate it when I can’t view a Flash video on my iPad. (As you will quickly discover, if you haven’t already, Apple’s iPads and iPhones don’t do Flash — at least, not without Herculean effort.) Fortunately for the users of those devices, most popular YouTube videos are available in Flash and H.264/MP4 formats; YouTube senses when your computer can’t play Flash and usually dishes up an MP4 instead. But some of the more obscure videos on YouTube — including many kids’ videos in a hundred languages — don’t get the dual-format treatment. Try to play them on your iPad or iPhone, and you might get an obscure, bogus error message about a server malfunction.

Server malfunction, my foot. YouTube just hasn’t taken the time or care to convert formats. So I have to do it myself.

That said, there’s one occasion where you don’t want to download a video. It makes no sense at all to rip a video off a major site such as YouTube and e-mail that video file to someone else. Save yourself a ton of bother, and save your correspondents megabytes of useless bits. E-mail a link to the YouTube site, not the video itself. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many e-mails I get with attached files that were scraped off YouTube.

Video download sites — the old-fashioned way

I think there are hundreds of websites that help you download YouTube videos. Some of them are almost as old as YouTube itself. The most popular ones work in several different modes.

One of the oldest and best-known sites, KEEPVID (see Figure 1), lets you capture a streaming video in three different ways:

First, you can copy the URL of the page containing the video you want to download and paste it into the top box on the KEEPVID page. KEEPVID scans the page and sees what videos are available. In Figure 1, you can see that KEEPVID found six different video formats and one audio format for a popular music video. These are all native YouTube formats — YouTube stores the video in all six formats. Click on the link for the format you want, and KEEPVID downloads the chosen file in the usual way.

KEEPVID has three different ways to download youtube videos
Figure 1. KEEPVID supports three different download modes.

Second, you can drag the button near the top of the page to your browser’s bookmark toolbar. With the bookmark toolbar showing, navigate to the page containing the video you want to download and click the KEEPVID icon on the bookmark toolbar. You get similar choices. (One problem, however: I had trouble getting the bookmarklet to work on several newer browsers.)

Third, you can pay for a standalone KEEPVID program that will do the downloading. Since there are many free alternatives, it’s hard to recommend shelling out cash for the standalone program.

KEEPVID works with YouTube, Dailymotion, eHow, Facebook, Vimeo, and others. It didn’t work for me on the Windows 8 demo page at All Things D.

If you want a Web-based downloader and KEEPVID doesn’t work for you, try one or more of these sites: (caution: site contains pornographic material), Vixy, or Download YouTube Videos.

And if you find that you’ve downloaded Flash video (.flv) files and can’t play them, get a copy of the free VLC Media Player (download page).

An easier way — using browser plugins

Several products will hook into your browser and make it easy to download YouTube videos. RealPlayer (info page), for example, pops up a simple dropbox when you mouse over a YouTube video.

If you’re primarily interested in YouTube videos and Chrome is your browser of choice, check out the Chrome YouTube Downloader (download page), which puts a download button under each YouTube video.

When it comes to downloading streaming video, though, you can’t beat Firefox. My favorite is an add-on called Video DownloadHelper (page), which grabs a wide array of streaming video files and can translate and save those files to many different formats. When you install DownloadHelper, it appears as a small icon on your Firefox navigation bar, to the left of the address box (see Figure 2).

Video downloadhelper
Figure 2. The Firefox add-in Video DownloadHelper works with hundreds of websites.

On video-content sites that support Video DownloadHelper (right-click the icon for a list), the icon starts whirling; click the down arrow to the right of the icon, and you see a list of available file formats. Choose the format you want, and Firefox downloads it. DownloadHelper will let you download a single file or all the files on a page. You can also change settings, such as the default download folder, by right-clicking on the icon and choosing Preferences.

There are dozens of download add-ons for Firefox, if DownloadHelper doesn’t do what you want. I’ve also had some luck with FlashGot (page), a ripper with a slightly different slant: it’s designed to be used with a standalone download manager — to optimize downloading all media on a page in one fell swoop.

What to do if none of the downloaders works

Sometimes downloading video just isn’t easy. Often you have to find a downloader that works best with specific sites. Pulling a video off YouTube is easy; Video DownloadHelper probably has you covered for less-common sites. But some streaming videos defy even the best downloader.

That’s what happened to me with the Windows 8 demo on the All Things D site. None of the rippers I tried could touch the video. I could not find any copies of the video on YouTube or other major sites, so even Video DownloadHelper couldn’t snag it.

Fortunately, there’s another way to skin this cat. Instead of trying to download the video, I recorded the video as it was being played, using a screen-recording utility that scraped the interview and turned it into a .wmv file suitable for playing on VLC Media Player or even Windows Media Player. If you’re stuck in a similar bind, try My Screen Recorder (download page) from DeskShare software.

This program isn’t free; there’s a free 30-day trial version, but it produces videos with a box at the bottom with text stating: “My Screen Recorder Trial Version / Please Purchase.” The registered version will set you back U.S. $49.95. In my experience it works well, in a last-resort kind of way. Take a few minutes and step through the setup — to get the audio working correctly, you might have to unhide a disabled audio source (using the included instructions) so My Screen Recorder can record sounds properly. Once it’s set up, the app works easily: F8 starts recording, F9 stops — piece o’ cake.

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His books on Windows and Office include the award-winning Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies. His many writings cast a critical eye on the latest industry shenanigans.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2011-07-21:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.