Ask LH: Should I Use Codec Packs?

Dear Lifehacker, I've heard of (and even sometimes used) video players like VLC when Windows Media Play prompts me to download "new codecs", but I've also heard people talk about codec packs like K-Lite, Shark007 and CCCP. What exactly are these codec packs and what do they do? Are they better than just using something like VLC, and if so, which one should I use? Sincerely, Confused About Codecs

Image remixed from originals by Alex Kosev (Shutterstock) and Oleksiy Mark (Shutterstock).

Dear Confused,

You've stumbled on a somewhat divisive issue, and while it the subject can be confusing, there are only a few things you need to know to deal with codec issues. Here's a simple rundown of what codec packs are and when you should use them.

What Are Codec Packs?

A codec is a computer program that can encode or decode video. Different codecs work for different types of video. Some codecs ship with your computer (for example, your computer can play DivX-encoded files -- which you'll often see with an AVI extension -- out of the box), while others may not (for example, your operating system will often have problems playing H.264 video, often with the MKV file extension, without some extra effort on your part). If you download a video your computer can't play, it will often ask you to download and install the correct codec, so your default media player can play it.

Codec packs are pieces of software that attempt to make the process easier by installing a number of different codecs at once, so you don't have to deal with finding each one individually. Sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately, they tend to cause more problems than they solve, conflicting with other programs, not to mention sometimes being hotbeds for adware and/or spyware. For the majority of people, we don't recommend using them.

And before you write in the comments "I use K-Lite/Shark007/whatever and never had any problems! N00bs!" I'll say: That's fine. Just because you haven't doesn't mean nobody has, though. In fact, a lot of people have. You're lucky, and that's fine, but that doesn't change the fact that we, and many others, do not recommend installing codec packs (except for some fringe cases, noted below).

So What Should I Use?

Luckily, most of the best video players out there -- like the popular VLC or our personal favourite, PotPlayer -- have their own self-contained sets of codecs, that won't conflict with anything on your system, nor do they require any kind of separate management or updating on your part. Generally, they'll play any video file you run into, and are by far the easiest way to get full video compatibility on your machine.

That said, there are a few exceptions where codec packs might be necessary:

  • If you use Windows Media Player or have a home theatre PC that uses Windows Media Center, your codec support is limited, and you'll want a codec pack to beef it up. Alternatively, you could use a media centre like XBMC, which doesn't require any codec packs and will play almost any video.
  • If you use Media Player Classic Home Cinema (MPCHC), which is a popular customisable video player that works well on older machines. We still prefer other players, but some people are huge MPCHC fans, so if you fall into that category, you'll want a codec pack.
  • If you rely on subtitles. Most fansubbed anime fans find that the combination of MPCHC and a codec pack make for the best subtitle support around. We still recommend trying something like PotPlayer first, but if it causes you a lot of subtitle-related grief, MPCHC coupled with a codec pack is worth a shot.

That leaves one last question: Which one to use? If you have to use a codec pack, we recommend using a minimal one like Community Combined Codec Pack (CCCP). It's simple, only installs a few codecs, and it's less likely to interfere with anything on your system (nor will it install any crapware). Hopefully, it should work out of the box and won't cause you any problems.

As you can see, it isn't as black-and-white as a lot of people make it out to be. We don't love the idea of codec packs, and as we said before, we don't recommend them to most users. But, we understand that there are a few situations in which you'll need them if you're unwilling to visit the alternatives. Hopefully this clears up some confusion.

Cheers, Lifehacker

P.S. We know this is a somewhat controversial issue, so if you have anything else to add -- in agreement or disagreement (once you've read the entire article, of course) -- share your thoughts with us in the comments.


Comments

    Totally agree! Codec packs (even CCCP) have caused me no end of trouble in the past. Just use MPlayer, VLC or other 'proper' media players.

      Hrmm really? Never had a single issue with CCCP or K-Lite.. never.

      You are doing something wrong, codes are a simple install and go. Not to mention VLC player and most common ones have terrible performance issues when compared to MPCHC.

    ooh I remember the dark days of codec. you never know where they install and how to completely remove one if it misbehaves. Just use VLC and dont worry about codecs.. installing codec is an outdated thing from before y2k

    great article. explanation plus recommendation, brilliant.

    I use media and do need codecs. I use ffdshow and have never had a problem. It's quite minimalistic, works well with subs, and is set and forget. You can even get it in either 32 or 64 bit.

    MPCHC + K-Lite or CCCP.. no problems.. I stick with what works for me across all my devices. VLC installs codec packs, the last time I installed it at least, automatically.. so while it is all done for you.. it's still doing it.

      I think the real key here is decide what you want and stick to it. Conflicts come about when you start installing various similar codecs to different locations for different programs.

      As I mentioned before, I like K-Lite myself, but I use it with Windows Media Player as my sole installed player. Adding other players or codecs after the fact is usually where things start to come unstuck.

    To each their own, but in recently memory I've never had an issue using codec packs - nor have others that I've installed them to.

    In the case of when I have installed a codec pack to others' machines, they preferred being able to use the stock Windows Media Player for familiarity, but still be able to play pretty much any video type commonly used.

    Typically I used K-Lite Mega when I used to encode, but generally use K-Lite Basic for general decoding purposes. In either case, I did find it important to make sure I ran through any advanced options during the set up process, and make sure everything was read properly.

    I've never known K-Lite to include any form of grey/malware, nor can remember ever having suffered from a conflict as a result.

    I can definitely understand Whitson's reasoning for the advice, but I think it really comes down to if you're going to use them, make sure you're not ignorant to what they're capable of.

    Number One cause of codecs not working properly and all sorts of trouble is having too many old conflicting codecs installed.
    Run CCCP Insurgent to clean all codecs off your system. Then install CCCP with MPC.

    K-Lite pack full is simply the best codec pack ever. Don't hate me, but I use WMP to watch my videos and all the codecs work perfectly with it, not to mention if I find one that isn't compatable, I have MPCHC to fill the gaps.

    K-Lite totally destroyed the installation of DirectX on a PC I had some time ago, and I've never used a codec pack since. It was so screwed up that nothing myself (IT professional), or direct intervention from Microsoft could do to fix the computer.

    To this day I still cant figure out exactly how it managed to make such a mess of my PC, but that's Ok because you really don't need to use them 99% of the time.

    I use Klite and the only problem I have is that .mkv files always play choppy.. I've updated it and tried VLC and other media players and I just can't get it to play smoothly!

      VLC is a cpu hog. Use potplayer instead. It shunts processing to your GPU.

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