When it comes to video playback, there are way too many choices available – even if you look at only the FREE options. Within that selection, some players are fantastic and others are sorely lagging behind their competitors, and the most popular ones aren’t always the best ones. The difficulty is taking the time to separate the wheat from the chaff. That’s what I’m here to do so you don’t have to settle for less than best.
Comparing Windows media players is actually a pretty difficult task. Yes, some players are more feature-packed while others are barebones. Yes, some players are easier to use out-of-the-box thanks to off-the-bat codec support and such. Yes, some players are uglier or prettier. But ultimately the choice comes down to your own preferences – I use a few different ones from this list, personally.
Here are five of the best media players you can use on Windows for free. Take this list with a grain of salt. Try them for yourself and see which ones you like!
Back in the day, VLC used to be the king of free Windows media players. I’m not sure when I first discovered it, but it was a long while ago and the only viable alternatives were Windows Media Player or Winamp. Since then, VLC has become a little too bloated for me and I run into issues with playback from time to time, so it no longer has a home on my computer.
It’s still good for playback, though, and remains extremely popular to this day thanks to its large feature set:
- Plays most media codecs without needing to install any codec packs. MPEG-2, DivX, H.264, MKV, WebM, WMV and MP3 are supported out of the box (among others).
- Cross-platform availability: Windows, Mac, Linux, and even Unix.
- Can play media straight from files, discs, devices, and webcams.
- Can play media straight from a stream URL. Supports HTTP, MMSH, RTSP, and raw formats.
- Supports skins so you can customize the interface.
If you use VLC as your main player and you want to explore some of the more obscure features, check out Saikat’s overview of VLC’s secret features.
Despite the program’s name (which admittedly sounds outdated), Media Player Classic – Home Cinema is one of the best media players I’ve ever used. It’s designed to be a compact, no-frills sort of program, yet it does pretty much everything you’d expect from a media player. It works straight from installation without requiring any additional codec packs, except maybe for the most obscure formats.
- Simple, easy-to-use, and intuitive interface.
- Extremely lightweight and uses very few resources while playing.
- Out-of-the-box support for VCD, SVCD, and DVD file format playback.
- Using DirectShow, MPC-HC immediately supports a vast array of video format families including: AVI, MPEG, MKV, MP4, MOV, FLV, RM, WMV, MP3, AAC, FLAC, and a whole lot more.
Intrigued? Well, you should be. I’ve written an overview of Media Player Classic – Home Cinema so check it out to see if this is the right player for you.
I recently installed GOM for the first time (not only GOM media player, but GOM audio player as well) and I’ve fallen in love. It’s like they truly know what makes me tick as a person and then used those principles to design their media software. For those who don’t know, I am a big sucker for minimal and clean aesthetics when paired with strong functionality.
GOM player is the primary player for GOM-TV, a popular competitive gaming stream site in Korea, and it’s no secret why. Check out their features:
- Brilliantly designed UI with a powerful skinning system.
- Codec Finder for when you try to play a video and don’t have a matching codec. GOM automates the process and gets you viewing as quickly as possible.
- Control Panel that helps optimize your viewing controls with functions like in-clip repeating, subtitle controls, and a 10-band equalizer.
- Image and Audio Capture so you can isolate screencaps and audio tracks from videos.
Note: The program homepage for PotPlayer is in Korean, so I’ve linked to VideoHelp which maintains the most updated versions.
I know that I just mentioned above that I’m a sucker for minimal designs, but PotPlayer has sucked me in with its strange combination of interface-overload and ease-of-use. There are a lot of buttons and displays but it isn’t as complicated as you’d think. Lots of options and great features make PotPlayer definitely worth checking out.
- Detailed interface that manages to not be cluttered while delivering all of the important information and controls that you need.
- Playlist controls for ease of video watching sessions, plus playlists are carried over from session to session.
- In-clip repeating that lets you define a point A and a point B, between which the media file will constantly repeat.
If you’d like to learn more, check out Tina’s review of PotPlayer and how it’s the perfect player for those of you who want full control.
SMPlayer doesn’t have the prettiest of interfaces (it almost turned me away, actually) but it has some great functionality that may prove enough for you to overlook the lacking aesthetics. Fortunately, SMPlayer does have a skinning system that helps there. With built-in codecs, SMPlayer will handle almost anything you throw at it right away.
- Youtube Browser lets you search and browser Youtube straight from inside SMPlayer. I’m not going to lie – this feature is both fast AND awesome! You can also download a video by recording it as it plays.
- Remembers settings on a per-video basis, including track position, volume, subtitles, and more.
- Search and download subtitles easily with SMPlayer’s integration with OpenSubtitles.
- Take screenshots of the current video with a single button click.
- Open source and cross-platform: Windows and Linux.
Media Player Classic – Home Cinema is my default video player and it has been for a very long time. However, both PotPlayer and GOM Player come close with their polish and feature sets, and pretty soon one of them might overtake MPC-HC for first place. But like I said before, your personal choice will be based on your own tastes.
The five players above are probably the best free Windows media players you’ll find on Windows. Know of another player that deserves a mention? Share it with us in the comments!
Image Credit: Man Pressing Media Player Via Shutterstock