VLC Media Player

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2851, 2010-12-17, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 6-10) and their website. It was my 241st and last article for ComputorEdge.

If you were to examine all of the programs installed on the typical personal computer, you would probably find a wide range of programs from several different categories: office productivity (such as a word processor and a spreadsheet program), system security (for spyware and virus detection), communication (such as an e-mail client and a VoIP application), and Web browsers. But the category that would probably claim the most members, is multimedia. This would include utilities for playing music files (perhaps separate programs to handle MP3, WAV, and Real files), Flash files, and video files (separate programs for AVIs and MPEGs). The total lineup could be half a dozen programs, and some people have far more than that.

Are there any downsides to having so many multimedia programs on one's computer? Firstly, combined they can consume a lot of space on your hard drive, as well as in your Windows Registry. Secondly, many of these programs stay resident even when you are not directly using them, so that means wasted system memory. Thirdly, the more programs you have, the greater the odds that one or more of them is out of date or fast approaching that point, at which time the program may start nagging you to download the latest version. Doing so can then cause system instability if you fail to wisely test any new version on a separate partition or second computer, in case it causes serious problems. (For anyone who questions the possibility of such a scenario, recall years ago when a new version of Nero was released, and installing it caused Windows computers to get the dreaded Blue Screen of Death — when booting up, which made it impossible for newbies to fix on their own.) Fourthly, most of these multimedia programs try to connect to their home servers, which increases the load on your firewall and also increases the odds that you will unwisely start allowing outbound connections when you don't recognize the programs.

The ideal solution would be a single program that handles every type of multimedia in common use, including DVDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols. It would be free to use, easy to install, open source, and actively maintained. Also, it would run on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. As an added bonus, you could use it for ripping DVDs. Fortunately, there is such an application, developed by VideoLAN, a volunteer-run project dedicated to developing open-source multimedia software. The application is VLC.

VLC homepage
Figure 1. VLC homepage

According to the site's statistics page, version 1.0 of VLC has been downloaded well over 100 million times. There must be a reason for such popularity (or possibly dozens of reasons, just glancing at the VLC feature list).

Multimedia, Not Multi-Mediocre

Most English-speaking people are familiar with the phrases "you can't be all things to all people" and "jack of all trades, master of none." The dangers of spreading oneself too thin applies equally well to the development with limited resources of computer programs. The end result is usually a program that tries to offer far too many capabilities, and fails to execute most or all of them adequately. More specifically, a program that attempts to be fluent in all the major types of multimedia formats, without sufficient development time, would likely fall into the same trap of mediocrity. But VideoLAN sidesteps this potential problem by distributing the workload, among a team of dedicated programmers, a nonprofit organization to back them up, and innumerable programmers worldwide examining the open-source code with their unique perspectives, and strengthening it through endless field testing.

Not only does VLC run on the aforementioned operating systems, but it can also be used — albeit with restricted functionality — on the BeOS operating system (or at least its open-source continuation, Haiku), FreeBSD, and mobile Linux (for handheld devices). But here we will focus on the Windows version. In terms of audio formats, VLC supports 28 of them, including MPEG Layer 1/2, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, FLAC, and Real Audio. (Who would have guessed that there are at least 28 audio formats in the wild? And the number is probably growing.) ID3 tags are terrific for properly labeling MP3 files and better organize a large music collection, which is one more reason to choose VLC. In terms of video formats, VLC supports 18 of them, including MPEG-1/2 and Quicktime. When watching foreign movies released in a language one does not understand, subtitles are a lifesaver. VLC displays most types, except closed captions for the Windows version, although the Linux and Mac OS X versions do handle closed captions. Lastly, VLC supports over a dozen A/V inputs and filters.

Even though the VLC user interface allows complete control over the playback of music and other content, if you spend much of your time within the Firefox Web browser, then you can take advantage of a Firefox extension called FoxyTunes, which recognizes VLC as one of its media players. As a result, once you have the two programs installed on your computer, you can control the VLC playback of audio by clicking on icons within Firefox.

Video Landing on a Computer

To find out if VLC is a strong candidate for becoming your favorite music and video player, it is best to install it — preferably on a test partition, if you have one — and give it a whirl using different types of media. To get started, on the VLC homepage (which confusingly is also the "download" page), click on the link for your favorite operating system. For those using Windows, the destination page divides the installation packages into two groups — one for the version that runs on Windows 2000 and later, and the other for a second version that runs on Windows 95, 98, and Me. Choose the appropriate group (our condolences to you if it is the latter), and save the installation file to some place in your Windows system where you can find it at any time.

Double-click the installation file's icon, and start working your way through the dialog screens. The first one will allow you to switch to one of over a dozen languages; English is the default. A rather important dialog is the one that gives you a chance to customize the list of components that will be installed. The Mozilla plug-in (i.e., Firefox) is disabled by default, and you may want to leave it that way, if you prefer that when you click on a multimedia link on a Web page, Firefox prompts you to save the file or open it using an application. If the Mozilla plug-in is installed, then clicking on any such link immediately leaves the page and starts playing the multimedia file in your browser window, which is not what most people would want or are expecting to happen.

Installation components
Figure 2. Installation components

Scroll down further within the dialog screen, to the section that reads "File type associations". Unless you change those values, VLC will be made the default program for just about every multimedia file type invented, so you may want to disable those until you are completely sure that you want to drop your old multimedia programs for VLC — especially if you don't have a test partition on which to try it out beforehand.

Those people who have spent a considerable amount of time trying out various multimedia applications, might notice something missing from the list of components — namely, codecs. Many of the multimedia players require you to manually download codecs, which can become quite annoying, and wastes time. VLC thankfully includes all of the primary codecs without forcing the end user to try to figure out what they are and how to install them.

When you run the program for the first time after installation, it will prompt you to specify if and when VLC should call out to an external server in order to download information on CD covers, or whether to notify you of available updates to VLC itself. After you have made your choices, you reach the VLC interface, which admittedly won't win any beauty contests, but is clean and straightforward.

User interface empty
Figure 3. User interface empty

Test it by playing at least one music file on your computer, and perhaps a video file and a DVD, if you have any available. If you want to play some MP3 files, for instance, located on your hard drive, then choose the menu item Media > Open File. But note that in the "Select one or more files to open" dialog that pops up, the file type is set to "Media Files", which is a list of file extensions, and does not include ".mp3". So change the list item to "Audio Files".

When you are using VLC, you aren't limited to controlling it using the mouse-click elements in the user interface. The program supports a number of keyboard shortcuts. The keyboard shortcuts can be customized, using the following menu path: Tools > Preferences > Hotkeys.

For eye candy much more attractive than the above figures, check out the VLC screenshots page, which offers a wide assortment of sample screenshots for different versions of VLC. But nothing is more convincing than seeing an application working smoothly on your own computer. So don't hesitate to give it a try. You may find yourself uninstalling a bunch of standalone multimedia programs and singing the praises of simplicity.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.