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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.

The major players

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.

"The net result is that none of the four players listed will actually play media in all four formats."

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:

  1. They can each play their associated format very well.

  2. 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.

Third-party media players

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.

A word about codecs

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.

Article C4813 - May 8, 2011 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

May 9, 2011 1:13 AM

I have used VLC a lot, over the last few years.
If VLC can't play it, there is something seriously wrong.
VLC also conveniently gets around the 'region' coding of DVD's (something I discovered almost by accident one nght).

May 10, 2011 8:31 AM

Can I use VLC on Windows CE? If not, what can I use?

May 10, 2011 8:35 AM

I use Media Player Classic, which comes along with K-Lite Codec Pack. A lot of people don't like codec packs but I've had no trouble with K-Lite.

Since I use a lot of different formats I use the Mega version. Theres several other ones as well.

I also use VLC too. One good thing to use it for is to tell if the video or codec is corrupted. It doesn't rely on external codecs, I think.

May 10, 2011 10:51 AM

See "CODEC" in Wikipedia for more definition. Links a bottom of page take you to audio and video codecs and who/what supports them.

May 10, 2011 11:14 AM

I'M a big VLC fan also..never failed me

May 10, 2011 11:24 AM

I, too, use VLC for many media formats, and have never been disappointed.

Ironically, the page on which I read this article has a link to Ace Media Player. I've never heard of it, and Leo doesn't mention it in the article, but I assume only reputable companies would be allowed to advertise on this site. But you'd better keep your sponsors happy, Leo!

Actually I have only limitted control over what gets advertised - they're selected by Google. More here.

Jim H
May 10, 2011 11:46 AM

there's a player called VLC media player that by default plays a wider range of video than WMP. that is, you don't have to download and install additional codecs, etc. i have found some video formats i could never get to work on WMP at all.

with audio listening there IS a difference between various players in sound quality. listened to side by side playing the same track, especially one you are familiar with, can reveal some pretty awful sounding players.

i have always used Creative Sound Blaster sound cards and have found their media player to be my favorite for audio. i did notice the most recent version does not let me burn WAV files to CD directly. it rips to the hard drive and then i burn a disc if that's what i want to do. i use/recommend Slysoft's CloneCD for making backup copies easily. they make the best media backup software of anybody because it's easy to use and they simply work.

i also use WMP for clips and that kind of thing where high quality isn't the point of the content. I use Applian's media player occasionally since it's bundled with the other software of theirs i use. i avoid real-player as much as possible and use a utility to convert real player files into something else if it's a file i want to keep.

for watching movies and other video where quality is important and to have the widest range of formats i love Cyberlink Power DVD. i have version 10. it's pricey but it really kicks butt!

May 10, 2011 11:59 AM

I like and use VLC, Media Player Classic, which is included with K-Lite Codec Pack, and The KM Player. I utterly detest Adobe's flash player- it allows companies to put flash-cookies on your machine. I use Firefox as my browser and have Better Privacy as an add-on. Since I added Better Privacy last August it has deleted 4745 of the flash-cookies. See if you want to read about flash-cookies.

May 10, 2011 1:21 PM

I have found that out of all the players out there, VLC is the best. Its cross-platform, so it does a LOT of formats on a lot of systems.

May 10, 2011 2:48 PM

Most people I know are using either VLC or Media Player Classic (MPC). This tells us something. My Opinion:
I've tried both. I've elected MPC as my sole media player (3 yrs) and it has never failed. In contrast, Windows Media Player crashed all he time. Many times unable to read it's own format. I mean Geez, come on! I experienced some difficulty with VLC (perhaps configuration), requiring me to stop and make some change or adjustment. Since this never happened with MPC...I've stuck with it. Also, the MPC homesite has added a supurb tutorial.

May 10, 2011 3:37 PM

yeah , I too use VLC media player and its great , just have to pay attention when you download or it will install all kind of unwanted junk you probably don`t want or need ...

Bob Autridge
May 10, 2011 4:58 PM

I have for many years used Windows Media Player with K-lite codec pack and have no trouble playing anything I have come accross. I have tried VLC Nero and Real and did not like some of there intrusions. I do play mainly stored music but also have several hundred dvd's and clips stored, Should I wish to dvds I use dvd fab which has improved greatly over the years and seems to keep up to date with the latest encryptiions in the paid version anyway and is also blue ray compatable.

May 10, 2011 5:34 PM

I really dislike Quicktime and find WMP awkward and limited. Too slick in some way. Real Player? I haven't even seen anything in it's format for a while...

I use:

1) PowerDVD for DVDs and especially for DVD files ripped to hard disk. Very nice interface and it cuts the confusion when playing those Video_TS etc files. Players like VLC work, but confusing.

2) GOM player (free) for all other video files. It's light, quick, and comprehensive. It is my go-to player that's associated with all visual media files. It's very simple to use, clean clean interface.

"Supported formats include DAT, MPEG, DivX, XviD, WMV, ASF, AVI, and MOV, as are common codecs like FLV1, AC3, OGG, MP4, and H263"

3) Once in a while, GOM player won't work with something, and yes, VLC will take care of it. So, I keep it installed as a problem solver player, but really, it's interface is not so user-friendly.

4) Finally, with certain problematic HD videos and pesky MKV files on older pcs, you need a player that can efficiently manage the codecs and a whole bunch of filters and processing details that I don't understand. I've found that Media Player Classic, the "HOME CINEMA" version (important) has the best default setup for tricky HD videos on older machines. It can play stuff nicely that VLC will stutter on - on my machine. The interface is pretty good, but don't even think about getting under the hood unless you really know your stuff.

In summary, if you don't care as much about the interface then just choose either VLC or MPC-Home Cinema as your player. But if user interface is important to you, then Power DVD and GOM player are mainstays for 98% of what we watch. Both very easy pleasing to use. As a backup, get the VLC and MPC-HC for problem videos.

Black Dahlia
May 10, 2011 6:58 PM

I fit doesn't play on VLC or Media Player Classic it has no place on my PC.

What do I miss out on? Movie trailers at and a few DRM-managed videos which I would not want to play anyway. And a few unnecessary startup programs, some foistware, and a significant loss of privacy.

If only VLC would release an update to permanently fix the Windows 7 Taskbar from showing up in full-screen mode I might use it as my sole media player. But as it stands I use it as the default program for music files and coupled (trebled?) with MPC for video and Irfanview for pictures I get superior results.

P.S. Irfanview please add some brushes so I can use you for 95% of my photo editing needs much as I did Microsoft Photo Editor back in the day.

May 10, 2011 7:23 PM

No one has mentioned the formidable Media Monkey - I use the free version and it's able to play ALL FLAC files (even 96K high bit rate files) catalog, search, and tag rename several thousand music files without a hiccup. And I hear it will soon be released as an Apple/Driod App...can't wait!

For Video my choice is PowerDVD by CyberLink and it is a winner as I have many DTS DVD's and BluRays that it plays easily.

Jimmy Gunawan
May 10, 2011 7:48 PM

These days, if it is for playing video of anytype, I will use VLC Player or KMPlayer. Those 2 players should have most of the codecs and can play almost everything. Real Media is one of the media I like to avoid.

One thing to remember: YouTube. It changes things and somewhat standardize MP4 for most of clips. It gets better compared to 10-15 years ago.

If you have iPad, of course, Air Video app plays all kind of media.

May 10, 2011 8:50 PM

I've found that between Windows Media Player and VLC I've got every format pretty much covered. I can't remember the last time I used any of the other players, including DivX, QT and Real which are all installed on my computer eating up space in case the need arises to use any. Frankly, I haven't needed to use these in over 2 years. I guess that's all the proof I need. (PS: I watch a lot of content on my pc)

Richard L
May 11, 2011 5:37 AM

For music I use and love Winamp. It reads even codes I never heard about. It plays video too, but it is not so comfortable. It is free, you can add a lot of plug-ins and and beautiful skins. Its performance is akin to a very expensive sound player - preamp, 10 channels equalizer, surround sound, and so on. You only need a good loudspeaker or earphone.

For video, I'm rather jetAudio (paid, but oh, so convenient). It also reads codes I never heard about, it comes with a internal video and music converter, a music ripper, a recorder, a burner and broadcast and more.

A great converter is Freemake Video Converter. The name is deceiving, as it converts music too. Easy to use and does all the work.

May 11, 2011 9:37 AM

I'm using VCL with K-Lite Codec 7.1 (full) and I'm as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree.
But Windows Media Player is still there taking up HD space, JIC. It might be getting rusty from disuse.

May 11, 2011 10:04 AM

Leo, thanks for stating clearly that the video/codec situation is a mess. I thought there was something wrong with ME.

James M
May 11, 2011 9:57 PM

Put me on the VLC bandwagon as well! It plays so many formats that I figure any video file it won't play is better left alone!

Don Casebier
May 13, 2011 5:39 AM

ffdshow is free and provides most all the codecs anyone ever needs for any and all players and formats.

May 16, 2011 8:53 AM

I use VLC for most of my video needs and WMP for my audio files. The one thing that really bugs me though is that every time they release a new version of WMP they change it making it more difficult to use. I use it to stream videos to my Playstation and every new release forces you to hunt and search for the right tools. Drives me crazy!

May 17, 2011 12:20 PM

in downloading some news media it says real player but I want it converted to WM player....real player will say to convert but it only shows up as an audio not the audio and video. There is no way to select audio and video I've noticed. Does real player converter not convert audio and video to wm player?

May 17, 2011 7:34 PM

If VLC can't play it, you don't want it! It's the only player worth recommending.

VLC has played files for me that every other player said was corrupt or unplayable.

May 22, 2011 12:49 PM

I use GOM, it plays pretty much anything and is free.
The arrow keys can be used to fast forward which I find useful.

david hidy
June 3, 2011 4:08 PM

using xp pro WMP and get prompted for mpeg2 to play any dvd. I d/l various mpeg2 and still cannot play dvd. So confused.

James Ferris
September 22, 2011 4:24 PM

I use vlc also. When I hit upon a file it can't play, I then use a codec analysis tool (eg gspot) to tell me just what format the data file is, and then research that codec on the 'net. Then if a plugin is available for vlc, I can find and install it based on knowledge... not FUD.
I also use "sherlock-codec-detective" to test my system and find all codecs installed, and status of each.

January 29, 2012 3:40 PM

What this doesn't answer is why video "links" often will not play. Since I got W7 I often find that a link from a particular site - and I'm not talking porn ( they always play) - more like Fox or WSJ or BBC. will not play.

What do these sites use to play their videos?

BTW I use VLC as my default player.

I obviously don't understand what exactly happens when you click on a video as I don't get to choose what plays it. Flash etc. is all up to date.

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