Everyone has something on their PC worth watching — that funny video you just shot on holidays, some movie you downloaded that you probably shouldn’t have, a highlight from your favourite concert, et cetera. And while you can probably just pull it up in your operating system’s default player, there’s no reason why you should limit yourself to the boring ol’ Windows Media Player or Quicktime.
There are plenty of awesome third-party media players that offer a host of benefits you can’t get in your operating system’s default app. They might be easier to use or prettier to look at; they could be more compatible with all kinds of obscure codecs you want to play; and they might even offer killer features, such as a built-in video converter or even bookmarks for jumping around to your favourite parts in a movie.
There are a lot these apps can do that your regular apps cannot. There are also a lot of media-player apps, so we recently reached out to get your thoughts on the media player apps you love using. Here’s what you told us.
This one’s a no-brainer, right? If you’ve been around a computer for the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard of VLC. And if you haven’t, your tech-savvy friends have probably mentioned it. And if they haven’t, you’re all about to get a crash course in all things VLC. There are two huge reasons why you’d want to install this on your system: it’s a regularly updated, open-source app that’s free to use and, more importantly, it can handle just about any file you throw at it.
As Lifehacker reader J’son Cox wrote:
“...VLC is the video monolith. Nothing comes close. It has literally NEVER failed me. Like, not even once.”
“For video, it’s VLC. I even use it on my Android devices. Nothing else comes close to customizability and consistency, not to mention it plays pretty much everything.”
WingcommanderIV, who gets bonus points for that Kinja name, echoed similar thoughts. And, no, I don’t think anybody is spying on you:
“The only correct answer to this is VLC. Though I have a problem with VLC on Xbox where it keeps blacking out my screen randomly. I’ve wondered if it’s someone like spying on me blacking me out for watching pirated videos. Does VLC on Xbox allow people to monitor that?”
Getting the drift? As one reader wrote — and I’ll paraphrase this one — if there’s a problem playing a video in VLC, that’s a good indication that the video has an issue, because VLC plays everything. Audio. Video. You name it. Want to convert video or audio? It can do that too. Make a video your Windows desktop background? Go crazy. Tweak your viewing experience with all kinds of crazy filters and effects? Sure. The power of this cross-platform app (including Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android) can’t be beat.
MPC (and its many variants)
A long, long time ago, there used to be a great open-source media player called Media Player Classic. Unfortunately, active development for the app ceased more than a decade ago. But then, the open-source community lept to its feet and forged onward! A forked project, MPC-HC, was born. And that went well for quite some time, until this project fell by the wayside in mid-2017.
Not to be deterred, yet another variant of Media Player Classic exists, and it’s being actively developed as of when we wrote this article. MPC-BE—a fork of both MPC and MPC-HC—is a strong, lightweight player with a sleek, seekbar preview (just like what you’d find on, say, YouTube.)
As Lifehacker reader Shuffy writes:
“I use MPC-HC using madVR as the renderer. MPC-HC because of its simplicity and wide support of what it can play. madVR because it can “downsample” HDR videos correctly* to my SDR monitor, which I guess is handy if I ever build a collection.”
Lifehacker reader DeadDuck123, who admittedly “hates VLC,” but “can’t say exactly why,” has a great setup for MPC:
“I use MPC-BE with LAV filter configured as primary handler. Never had any issues handling almost any format whatsoever. It also has support for directly playing youtube URLs, so I’ve configured browser handler to open all youtube links from any apps to open in MPC-BE and I can watch youtube videos without opening different browser on second monitor or use browser add-on that open youtube in pop-up window."
It’s lightweight, performance is fantastic with GPU acceleration support and overall just love the minimal interface.”
The open-source media player MPV is easy on the eyes—at least, that’s the first thing I think about when I pull it up to play a video. In fact, if all you want to do is watch something, you won’t see a user interface at all. The player immediately launches without any buttons, timelines, or anything to look at. All you see is your video, which is a lovely design. And if, or when, you want to access the app’s UI, you just have to move your mouse cursor. That’s it. The options you see are the options you get, too: There are no menus in MPV whatsoever.
As Lifehacker reader Daniel writes:
“VLC is too complicated. MPV does everything I need, and I don’t need a GUI. Videos start playing immediately in an uncluttered window. Full screen with F, scrub with arrow keys, pause with space. For music, it can shuffle play the directory.”
My favourite part of the app? You don’t even have to install MPV. It’ll run out of any folder on your desktop (or on a flash drive, for that matter, if you’re going portable).
I confess, I’ve never used PotPlayer, but I’ve heard a ton about it. This free, Windows-only media player supports hardware acceleration for your videos and comes with a pretty clean UI that shouldn’t distract you from what you’re trying to watch. A built-in video editor allows you to tweak your movies in a similar way to VLC—messing with their levels, using software tricks reducing noise, and warping the picture in quirky ways—and you can simply CTRL+V a URL into the open window to play videos from around the web (like YouTube).
PotPlayer is packed with settings to play with: great for those who want to tinker, but potentially eye-opening for newbies. I especially like everything PotPlayer lets you do with subtitles when you’re watching a movie.
As Lifehacker reader Abhimanyu Ghoshal writes:
“I believe VLC is most people’s weapon of choice for good reason, but I stumbled upon PotPlayer many years ago in my search for a video player with a nice UI. It’s still solid, highly customisable and flexible, looks better than most other tools, and is free. If you’re fan of apps with ‘skins,’ this one’s worth a try.”
Lifehacker reader Mordant Fare also prefers PotPlayer’s interface to VLC:
“Also, there’s one weird problem I have with VLC and that’s playing back movies with 7.1 or greater audio. For some reason those audio tracks cut out all over the place. PotPlayer works without issue. Haven’t checked to see what type of track (Dolby Digital vs. AC3 vs Atmos) which may be at issue, but it’s annoying when it happens and it kind of pushed me to PotPlayer which I like a lot.
Stupid human tricks, though. I was irritated with PotPlayer because it wouldn’t play back HDR media correctly - everything looked washed out. I’d have to use VLC for anything HDR. Until I found the HDR toggle on the bottom of the PotPLayer playback progress bar. Duh me.”
This one’s a little bit of a cop-out, because Plex—at least, the Windows app I’m using—doesn’t let you play media by default. You have to install the Plex server on your system and set up your media folders if you then want to use the Plex app to play anything. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever heard of (or used) Plex before, though; this app is really more geared for playing media that’s streaming from a centralised location.
In my case, I have the server running on my NAS box and use various Plex apps to watch movies and listen to music around my house, but you could also just install the Plex server on your primary computer and stream your media from there. If you’re running the Plex app from your computer or a smartphone, it’ll cost you $US5 ($7) to unlock the full streaming capabilities—and I definitely feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth over the years. If you’re using the Plex app on a gaming console, smart TV, or streaming box/stick, Plex is free to download and use.
There isn’t another app I’d use to stream media from device to device; Plex is just that good. That said, I would absolutely use a different app (VLC, MPV, or whatever) to watch videos locally on my desktop or laptop. Yes, you can have two media player apps. You’ll be fine, and Plex is an incredibly elegant solution compared to, say, running VLC on your Apple TV.
Lifehacker reader fallenshell seems to agree:
“Plex works really well for getting all the content to the smart TVs in the house and streaming live TV, etc., throughout the house, but I don’t think it it is better stand alone media player than VLC however.”
What about music?
Obviously, a number of the apps we’ve featured are just as good for rocking out as they are for movie night. Lifehacker readers also suggested some apps that they love to use only for playing music. They include:
“I simply like the interface and find it easy to navigate. I have a huge music collection (~70,000 tracks) and like to shuffle everything. Clementine has a nice dynamic random playlist feature out of the box, and pretty decent media management tools.” — Lars Vargas only operates on reflexes and endocrine
“I’m rebuilding my personal music collection to contain only lossless files and the tagging and organisation features MusicBee offers are unmatched. It’s pretty lightweight and customisable too.” — TheRuralJuror
(Still whippin’ llama arse, a full decade-plus later.)
“For music, I use WinAmp 5.8...uses almost no resources, and it takes up a tiny amount screen real-estate, even with the playlist open. I also pair it with Equaliser APO with the Peace GUI front-end. — Alcoholic Synonymous
“As I have an old-fashioned *offline* *file* music collection, I’m using Dopamine, an open-source player using ffmpeg by a developer called Digimezzo, who’s always updating the software. Has lots of features, and it looks really good too, following design conventions for the platform!” — Embøl