If we strip away everything else, your choice of car doesn't matter so long as it gets you from Point A to Point B. However, there are all kinds of factors that separate a hot rod from jalopy on wheels, including price, performance, amenities, maintenance, and more. So it goes with media players, which are vehicles for your music and movies.
Like cars, not all media players are created equal. Some are big and bulky, others are lightweight and nimble. If all you care about is the ability to play your favorite song over and over, just about any media player will do, but why short change yourself? Of course, going through the process of testing them all is a daunting task, so it's understandable if you want to roll the dice with a random selection.
Better yet, get your click (or tap) finger ready and digest our evaluation of some the most popular (and not so popular) media players around. As we go from one selection to the next, we'll tell you what we like and despise about each one, and then pick a winner.
One of the oldest media players around is Windows Media Player (WMP). For about the past 300 years, it's come bundled with Windows. Not to be confused with Windows Media Center, WMP was and remains a free a program. The latest version is WMP 12.
Microsoft was able to trim some of the fat off of WMP 12 compared to previous versions. Streaming a song from a networked PC while browsing Xbox Music through WMP consumes about 100MB of RAM and barely registers a blip on the CPU (0.3 percent to 0.9 percent useage). It shows that Microsoft is thinking about performance.
We also like the fairly robust CODEC support. By and large the biggest issue with playing back media is that you're bound to run into a situation where you're missing the proper CODEC(s). It's almost unavoidable, though Microsoft made a concerted effort to minimize such situations. The usual suspects are supported -- MP3, WMV, and so forth, but WMP 12 also supports H.264 video, XviD, AAC audio, 3GP, AVCHD, DivX, and several others.
Due to its integration with Windows, WMP is adept at snaking through your home network to play shared files. This is a big deal if you don't keep all your media on the PC you're using.
What we don't like is WMP is only supported on Windows -- sorry, Linux fans! And in Microsoft's attempt to streamline WMP, navigation takes some getting used to.
Final Word: Though it comes attached to Windows at the hip, WMP is one of better and more flexible media players available, and it's free!
In stark contrast to Windows Media Player, which comes bundled with Windows, Winamp (and all the rest we'll be looking at) is a third-party media player, but also an example of what can go wrong venturing out of Redmond. Winamp was a pretty popular program when it was released in 1997, and by the year 2000, it had amassed over 25 million registered users.
A year prior to that, AOL had acquired Nullsoft, which owned Winamp. That made Winamp an AOL property, and whether by coincidence or not, later versions weren't received as well. Earlier this year AOL announced it was pulling the plug on Winamp, seemingly leaving its remaining users high and dry.
Radionomy stepped in and purchased Nullsoft, and as of now, Winamp has a future under its new ownership. As it stands, Winamp is fairly robust -- you can customize the software with skins, tweak the equalizer, connect and manage devices over Wi-Fi, and more.
Final Word: This once popular media player is stuck in limbo until its new owners can pump out a new version with promised upgrades.
Click the next page to read about VLC and more.
VLC is easily one of the most popular and well-liked media players around. It's an open source program with cross platform compatibility and an incredibly robust catalog of supported file formats. There's very little that can't be played in VLC.
The interface appears a bit dated at this point, but if you take the time to dig beneath the surface, you'll find there's a fair amount you can do with it. Plugins and extensions increase the functionality even further. That said, novice users are likely to either feel overwhelmed, or never be able to take full advantage of all VLC has to offer. This is part because the interface needs a redesign in a big way.
We like that you can configure a boatload of hotkeys in VLC. These can be a big time saver if you're a media enthusiast, which is definitely something VLC encourages. It's also nice having a "Reset Preferences" button in case you muck things up playing with the myriad settings.
Where you decide to stop with your tweaking is up to you. There are tweaks to make increase the volume of dialog without having it washed out by louder sound effects, and vice versa. In fact, there's not much you can't do with VLC.
Final Word: VLC may need a facelift, but its true beauty lies beneath the surface.
Though GOM is another free media player (aren't they all?), be warned that it will try and install Conduit Search (i.e., adware) during installation if you're not paying attention. It's easy enough to tell it, "Hell no!," but only if you don't rapid fire the "Next" button during installation. (Related story: How to Download Software Without Installing Malware)
When you first launch GOM, it will bombard you with questions about how you want it configured. Most users will be fine to use the default options, though you'll want to pay attention to the selections to see if there's anything you want to change, including a more advanced mode for higher quality displays.
GOM's strength is in its simplicity. Navigating the UI is rather easy. It's also nice that GOM makes it easy to take screen captures of video -- there's a basic screen capture and an advanced screen capture that allows you to customize various settings, including whether you want to take a single snapshot or burst capture.
While not immediately obvious, there are a lot of options underneath the surface. You'll find them by right-clicking the main window or by clicking on the tiny gear icon in the upper left corner.
Unfortunately, GOM isn't an audio player. That functionality comes through a separate download -- GOM Audio. If the two programs came baked as one, GOM would make a strong choice for our top pick. As it stands, it's a solid entry for video.
Final Word: GOM has the interface we wish VLC had, though unlike VLC, playing audio files requires a separate program download.
GOM Audio is to music/audio what GOM Player is to video. While we'd prefer if thet two were integrated into a single application, if you're just looking for piece of software for your music catalog, this is a great option.
You can use the equalizer to fine tune your music to your tastes and/or speakers. If you'd rather not tinker but still prefer a customized audio experience, you can choose between 18 different pre-sets. Curiously missing, however, is a preset for Country -- that's a big omission considering how popular the genre is.
GOM Audio allows you to open up multiple playlists, export playlists, control the tempo of songs, stream radio from the web, and more. One particularly nice feature is the ability to set a shutdown timer -- this is handy if you want to fall asleep to music, but not wake up in the middle of the night to continued tunes.
You won't have to worry about system resources with GOM Audio -- streaming from a radio station on the web only consumed around 43MB of RAM and used less than 1 percent of the Core i7 4770 in our test system.
Final Word: A great media player for audio, but you can't watch video with it.
Click the next page to read about Apple iTunes and more.
If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, you don't necessarily need to have iTunes installed, but it can make life easier. At the same time, it can make things more difficult as well. Say what?
Here's the deal -- if you take the time to really learn iTunes and all its nuances, then you can do most things you'd want to do with your mobile devices. The problem is iTunes is cumbersome and clunky, especially if you've never used it before. It's also a resource hog. Just firing up iTunes consumes about 170MB of RAM, and that's before you do anything with it. To be fair, it's not as heavy on the CPU as it is RAM (and hard drive space).
Apple affords end-users a bit of control on the backend, though not much. For example, you can turn on the Sound Enhancer, but you won't find an equalizer. It wouldn't be hard for Apple to add one, but the company is much more focused on making iTunes a content consumption portal -- while manipulating your library can be a bit tricky, it's remarkably easy to spend money on new songs, movies, and TV shows.
While you're encouraged to spend money in iTunes, it's also easy to look up free content. We also have to give props to iTunes for its massive catalog of content. iTunes Radio is another bonus. You can listen to music for free with ads, or subscribe to iTunes Match for $25/year for ad-free music.
Final Word: It's the media player with the biggest catalog, but not the best for managing your content.
Sometimes you just want to kick it old school, and that's precisely what Media Player Classic (MPC) does. Well, sort of. The beauty of MPC is that is looks and feels like the Windows Media Player 6.4, an ancient release by today's standards but one that was lightweight and super simple to use. MPC brings back those elements and injects modern features into the mix.
Though nimble in appearance, MPC supports a pretty wide range of file formats. It can play VCD, SVCD, and DVD, as well as process AC3 and DTS audio, among many others. MPC also boasts native playback of OGM and Matroska container formats.
Another reason you might want to consider MPC is if you own an older computer. You can watch movies on any SSE processor, which means your 10-year-old PC can become a dedicated media player, if you want it to be.
Final Word: A no-nonsense media player with an old-school design and some new-school tricks.
We've featured XBMC on Maximum PC on a few different occasions, including a guide on using XBMC as your media hub and another showing how to organize your music, movies, and ROMs. Unlike traditional media players, however, XBMC isn't designed to work within Windows as one of several programs to manipulate, but as its own OS. It's not really an operating system, but once you fire it up, it looks and feels like one, sort of like Steam's Big Picture mode.
As such, XBMC is best suited for a home theater PC (HTPC). It supports a bunch of different OSes, and once it's up and running, you'll find it also supports lots of different file formats. We're equally impressed with how easy it is to navigate the interface to add and manipulate media, including files found on network-attached devices. It's also capable of streaming over the Internet so you can watch your content when away from home.
Being an open source project with support for plug-ins, XBMC can be as robust as you want it to be. It's definitely overkill if you're not looking to run an HTPC, but otherwise it's one of the best all-around media players on the web.
Final Word: If you're building an HTPC, XBMC is definitely worth a look. Otherwise, look elsewhere.
Several years ago, we couldn't uninstall RealPlayer fast enough. It was slow, resource heavy, and at one point it even served up annoying adware. People who wanted to use RealPlayer for one reason or another were advised to download Real Alternative, which allowed the playback of RealMedia files without the obnoxious footprint and adware.
Fast forward to today and RealPlayer is now RealPlayer Cloud with a different focus. It's dubbed as being "Dropbox for video," and that's not an inaccurate descripton. RealPlayer Cloud takes a different approach to media. Any time you upload a file to your personal folder in the cloud, RealPlayer Cloud will transcode it into different formats that your mobile devices can understand. This eliminates the need to transcode files on your own for various mobile gadgets, but it also means you'll chew through storage space.
RealPlayer Cloud offers 2GB of cloud storage for free, plus 1GB of additional storage for you and a friend each time you refer someone. Adding devices nets you an additional 250MB, as does both adding and sharing a video. If that's still not enough, you can sign up for a Silver plan (25GB for $4.99/month), Gold plan (100GB for $9.99/month), or Pro plan (300GB for $29.99/month).
You don't need to tap into the cloud to use RealPlayer Cloud, it will happily serve up your local audio and video files, too. And if you want to hide certain videos that might not be appropriate for little Johnny to see (or whoever else might use your PC), you can initiate Private Mode. This will put videos in a hidden folder that's unlockable with a PIN code, as well as clear your clip history when you're finished.
Final Word: Forget what you remember about RealPlayer and give RealPlayer Cloud a look.
The latest version of KMPlayer is a beta release that works in tandem with your mobile devices. You input a PIN code and password on, say, your mobile phone and you can access your media.
On the desktop, KMPlayer supports almost everything under the sun, even damaged AVI files. There's also a 3D mode. Behind the scenes are a lot of dials and knobs to play with, and while they're pretty straightforward, less savvy and/or casual users might feel overwhelmed. That said, power users will delight in all the options, including some unexpected ones, like Intel WiDi support.
This is a big program along the lines of iTunes or Windows Media Player. It also tries to bring some friends along for the ride during installation -- pay attention to those checkboxes or you'll end up with unrelated third-party software.
Final Word: A full featured media player best suited for power users.
There were quite a few contenders here -- more than we expected, actually -- but when the dust settled, we had to give the nod to VLC as the overall best media player. That doesn't mean you should ignore the other options if there's one you like better. However, we chose VLC in what turned out to be a close race because of its lightweight and no-nonsense approach combined with its wide range of CODEC support.
We also have to give a shout out to RealPlayer Cloud. It's not anything like the RealPlayer of yesteryear, and we really like its cloud approach to media. We're all pushing smartphones and tablets these days, and RealPlayer Cloud makes it easy to access all our content on-the-go, albeit you're only allotted 2GB of storage space for free.