ESSENTIALS: Software to improve your life - VLC

Downloading a video, only to find out that you can't support that particular codec, is not fun. Even less so is having a handful of players bloating up your desktop to make sure that it won't happen again. So, for those who haven't already discovered it, there is a one size fits all solution that you can entrust your digital media to. Meet VLC.


Media player, encoder & streamer

VideoLAN project

Windows, Mac, Linux, BeOS, Syllable, BSD, MorphOS, Solaris & Sharp Zaurus


What started as an academic project to stream video from a server on one side of a campus across a network to a client on another, in 1996, has turned into one of the most popular pieces of open source software out there. It's currently had more than 300 million downloads to date. Despite VLC's success though, there's plenty of computer users out there still getting bugged by unwanted Real Player news and QuickTime launching when they're sure they asked it not to load at start up. So, for those people, here's what you're missing.

VLC works on more operating systems than most people have heard of and it's almost completely universal as a media player. We could type out all the file extension inputs it can handle but it'd be even more boring to read than it would be to type. The highlights include AVI, AVCHD, H.264, MPEG-4, MOV, ASF, 3GP, Ogg, FLV and WMV on the video side and AAC, MP3, FLAC, MOD, RealAudio, WMA and Vorbis on the audio. Take a look at the full list to check it has what you're after.

That alone makes VLC worth while. You can now ditch all your proprietory players and tick all the boxes that ask if you would like for VLC to be your default software for x, y and z file types.


Being both free and open source, there's no annoying ads with VLC, no newsletter offers and one of the least intrusive interfaces you could possibly imagine. There are a whole bunch of skins for it, if you'd like to jazz it up a bit, but the only adaptation that the software adds built-in is an Easter egg where the VLC cone emblem dons a little Santa hat over the Christmas period.

On top of the straight downloaded files, VLC will also support VCDs, it'll playback media files on .iso images even if the disks that they're on are not supported by your OS and it can even play multi-region DVDs wherever you are, so long as your optical drive runs on RPC-1 firmware which most older ones do. (Newer drives are starting to come with RPC-2 but you might still be able to alter the firmware if you want to be buying DVDs in North America and playing them in Europe, for example.)

What's more, the files don't even have to be complete for VLC to be able to play them. If they're damaged or only partially downloaded, you'll still be able to watch or listen to the parts you do have.

Beyond working as a player, VLC can transcode media for you to get your files in a better format to send or use. It will stream media over networks and even from your TV's cable or satellite boxes over to your computer monitor - provided there's a suitable connector port.

It can play video as your desktop wallpaper, it'll distort, rotate, de-interlace, split, mirror and add a logo to any playback as well, and you can even use it to share screens or record a screencast too. If you really want to go to town, there's also a plug-in for your browser that'll allow you to play any embedded media on the Web without having to deal with other additional products too. Or, of course, you can just stick using VLC to watch your videos and listen to music. Give it a try.

As always, this is just one of the excellent alternative pieces of software out there. If you know of any other crackers in the media player department, then do tell us in the comments. And, if you're not interested in VLC, at least you now know what that traffic cone on people's desktops is all about.