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Unfortunately, the media player landscape is confusing. Which media player you need often differs based on what media you're playing.
I am confused about media players. I looked at your other answers on them and I am still confused. I used to have a Real Player and QuickTime. I deleted them because Windows Media Player seems to play all videos and audio that I have. I noticed that there is a Windows 7 codec and I am still confused as to what this has to do with anything. Why should I need any player other than Windows?
You have every right to be confused: it's a confusing mess.
It pretty much boils down to the fact that there are many different ways to encode video and audio and not all of the players play all of the formats. Some play more than others, but by and large, it's rare that you'll find a single player that will play them all.
When we look at the major formats, one reason why things are the way that they are becomes clear.
It's all about competition.
When I refer to "the major players" what I mean are the three that you mention, Windows Media, Real Player, and QuickTime, and then, a fourth: Flash.
Now, here's where it gets confusing. First, we have to look at formats or the encoding used to actually produce a digital audio or video file:
Windows Media formats, including .wmv and .wma video and audio files.
Real Player audio and video formats, most commonly including .ra, .rm, .rv and .ram.
QuickTime format, typically .mov.
Flash format, usually .flv.
Almost all of these formats or variations may be used for both downloaded media files and streaming media.
Next, we need to look at media players or the programs that you might run to play one or more of those media files.
Windows Media Player, which comes with Windows or as a free download from Microsoft.
Real Player, from the folks at Real.
QuickTime, from Apple.
Flash player, from Adobe.
These programs all have two things in common:
They can each play their associated format very well.
They're in competition with the others.
The net result is that none of the four players listed will actually play media in all four formats. Each is optimized to do the best job of playing its own format - which is usually proprietary - meaning that they are positioned so that they want you to install their player to play their format.
If you want to play any of the four formats, the worst-case scenario is that you would potentially need to install all four players.
Each company wants this so that they can then attempt to up-sell you to additional products, present you with advertising, or attempt to promote their technology over all of the others.
Naturally, the various incompatibilities between the players as well as the dissatisfaction with the different user interfaces have lead to a number of third-party media players that often do play most of the different formats.
I happen to use VLC media player. It's free and plays almost all of the formats listed above and many more. It also happens to be cross-platform, which means that you can use the same software on different operating systems.
There are a wide variety of media players that will support a variety of combinations of media formats ... many more than I can count.
Many, if not most, media players use a plug-in architecture that allows support for different formats to be added by simply installing what's called a "codec" - short for encoder/decoder. A codec is the software that knows how to encode audio and/or video into a specific format and how to decode that specific format into its original unencoded usable form.
Some players will actually prompt you to install codecs should you attempt to play a format that your installation doesn't currently support. This can be convenient, as you'll only end up with additional codecs installed on your machine for formats that you actually need or use.
Unfortunately, there's a dark side.
Codecs, or rather those prompts to install additional codecs, are an extremely common way that malware spreads. You might download a media file (which may or may not actually exist) and then be prompted to download and install a codec in order to be able to play the media. Doing so then installs malware in the form of a virus of spyware.
As a result, my recommendation for the average user is to always say no when prompted to download and install an additional codec. Use the players that you have or download a player like VLC, which plays darned near everything. If you still can't play the media because of a missing codec, then don't. At least not until you can verify that it's a legitimate codec (not easy) or you can have someone more familiar with the technology guide you.
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