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
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.
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.