This updated review was prepared by subscriber Joe Bennett.
It used to be that you needed one program to play MP3 files, another to play streaming media from Real, another to play Mpeg files, and yet another to play QuickTime movies. Then, with the advent of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, many different media types began to be played in one player, but WMP in XP and Vista has become bloated and doesn’t work with all of the types of files out there. Then came along WinAmp, which started out as an mp3 player and now does almost everything, but does use up a lot of system resources and can contain adware if you aren’t careful on the installation.
Recently, iTunes has become more prevalent on many people’s PCs, but it also takes up a lot of resources and is processor intensive. So I have done some major research for an alternative media player, and found some that not only replace the functionality of WMP, WinAmp and iTunes, but exceed them as well.
My personal favorite is Media Player Classic, available for Windows 95 through Vista. MPC looks like the old Windows Media Player v6.4, but that is where the similarity ends. Under the hood, this program packs a lot of features, including codecs for viewing DVD discs, MPEG1, MPEG2, and MPEG4 video files, MP3 and Ogg files. MPC can also use the QuickTime and the RealPlayer architectures (if installed on the computer) to play their native files. If you really want to extend MPC’s functionality while avoiding the installation of RealPlayer, WinAmp and QuickTime, download "ffdshow", "Real Alternative", "QuickTime Alternative" and "WinAmp Alternative" packages. They will make sure there will be almost nothing you won’t be able to play. MPC is the only product reviewed here that requires no installation on your PC. This means that it can be run from your USB flash drive as well as your hard drive. (Note: There is some dispute over the legality of "Real Alternative and "QuickTime Alternative" codec packs. ffdshow is open source, completely legal, and should cover almost all of your needs.)
Another good choice is VLC Media Player. VLC is available for multiple OSs, including all versions of Windows (98 to Vista), Mac OS X, and many varieties of Linux. Most versions will support playback of most video files and DVD discs without the need to download external codec packs, including flv files, which MPC cannot play. VLC player has another unique feature as well. There are 5 different DVD region codes and DVDs manufactured for one region will not play in players made for a different region. This applies to PC DVD Drives as well… until now. FLV Player plays them all. There is no need for any shady (and possibly illegal) DVD region spoofing programs. This is especially nice if you are an international traveler and want to watch a movie on your laptop outside your country.