Software is the heart and soul of video players designed for computers. There is a major hardware component for the software to even begin to work, but it’s the variations in the features and capabilities of the video player software that distinguishes each product.
The range can be vast. Going from simple playback of a single, specific format, with a bare-bones user interface, through much more complex players that handle virtually any format. Most include an assortment of features to keep track of your media and manipulate preferences of the interface and content to your liking. That’s the beauty of software video players. They are flexible, and typically, frequently updated to accommodate new technologies.
FEATURES TO LOOK FOR IN A FREE VIDEO PLAYER
Given the large number and complexity of video player software available, here are some key features to compare:
- Formats and media types that you can play
- Video and Audio quality (can be subjective)
- Media management (playlists and library)
- Preferences (ability to customize playback parameters)
- Conversion capabilities
- Special features such as social linking
- Extendability (able to add plug-ins or codec packs)
- User Interface
Looking for a video player that can play multiple file formats? The free version of RealPlayer does that and can also convert videos into different file formats with ease.
Another thing to remember is the difference between free video players and their more advanced versions. Free players may offer all you need to start, but as you progress, you may find the extra features available in the usually inexpensive upgraded version useful.
FORMATS FOR VIDEO PLAYER
You want the most flexibility in being able to play back any type of video you run across. MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC (H.264), WMV, Flash and AVI are a good basic set to start with, as they give you a mix of old and new standards.
VIDEO AND AUDIO QUALITY
This will depend upon several technical factors such as the speed of your computer and whether the player supports acceleration by the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), the resolution of the original content and what you are displaying it at, the type of display, and without a doubt, your subjective opinion about the quality.
PLAYLISTS AND LIBRARIES
Most players have some form of library and playlist system where you can easily access content. Some players do a better job, typically because of GUI design. Usually the library is attached to the main viewing screen, or a prominent button easily calls it up in a separate window.
VIDEO PLAYER SETTINGS
This is where you’ll find the most diversity, and the most confusion because the settings are so extensive. Everyone has their own way of presenting the choices to set automatic window sizing, show the controller, dim the desktop when playing, set cache size, enable media types, activate and position subtitles, buffer playback, download album art, adjust hue, contrast, saturation and on and on. For the sake of sanity, just start out with the defaults, and then make your own tweaks slowly to see what changes improve results.
This is a valuable feature that not all free video player software has. With mobile devices becoming more a part of everyone’s lives, having the ability to convert video to MP3 and other formats on your computer and move to a smartphone or tablet is an obvious plus.
SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES
This is available in some versions now, but primarily with the extra cost versions. For the small price most of these upgrades are, it’s a great feature to have for nearly instant connection to upload and download videos to Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and other social networking sites.
If your software player is already doing what you need, it’s less critical. But some players do require an extra boost for codecs or plug-ins. There are many codec packs available, but check first with the manufacturer of your player. They may offer their own, with the likelihood of compatibility being much higher.
A good deal of the above does indeed deal with or depend upon the user interface. The basic video viewing box and controllers are generally similar across the board, but some definitely have a more sophisticated and professional look and feel to them. The ease of use factor also varies. There’s a lot of personal preference here. Do you want several separate windows scattered around the screen, or do you like a tighter look, where different functions are integrated into more of a unified interface?
CHOOSING VIDEO PLAYER SOFTWARE
Regardless of your preferred style of interface, it’s important to keep in mind that the more you use a tool the more proficient you’ll become. Many of them are quite complex under the hood so don’t expect to be an expert right away. It takes time to get used to the workflow and idiosyncrasies of any software product, and video player software is no different. The more you use it, the more valuable the tool becomes.