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VLC Media Player: The Cone Knows Its Formats

By Jack M. Germain
Aug 18, 2010 5:00 AM PT

The world of open source software has ample choices for editing and manipulating audio and video media files. But when you just want put your feet up and relax, fewer really ideal options are available. One solid choice is the Gxine is a media player (See my review here). But an even better pick is the VLC Media Player.

VLC Media Player: The Cone Knows Its Formats

VLC Media Player
VLC Media Player

The VLC Media Player is a cross-platform media player that runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, BeOS, BSD, Solaris, QNX and PocketPC.

One of its coolest features is the built-in streaming server. VLC Media Player streams in unicast and multicast in IPv4 or IPv6 on a high-bandwidth network. You will not find this combination in most other media apps.

The VLC package comes with some hefty listening and viewing features. It handles a large variety of audio and video formats as well as DVDs and VCDs. It includes support for DVB formats, so satellite, digital TV and cable TV files play just fine.

If you cannot find a particular audio or video feature in the latest version (1.1.2), chances are pretty good that the feature is not available anywhere else. There is one limitation, though: Blu-ray titles do not play in the VLC Media Player -- or any other open source app that I know.

Name Change No Bother

Originally the VLC software was a French creation. Students of the Ecole Centrale Paris school worked with developers elsewhere to produce a complete software solution for video streaming and playback. They released VideoLAN under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

VideoLAN was first designed to stream MPEG videos on high bandwidth networks as the VideoLAN Client. The product became so popular that its main component, VLC media player, evolved into today's full-featured media player.

Unlike most Linux audio and video tools, you set it up and forget it. You do not get surprises when you click on a file. No error messages occur about unknown file types.

Unconditional Codecs

VLC does not need external codec packs installed. Everything is also standard fare. This alone makes it invaluable.

Playing video and audio files along with Internet radio and podcasts in this hassle-free app is what Linux computing should be all about.

Drill down through the Media menu items to the Services Discovery option. There you will find a dozen choices. These range from Podcasts and Shoutcast radio listing to Freebox TV and radio stations (French, of course).

Other features let you record from both audio and video sources to media files stored on your local PC. The Open Media menu option opens a panel to set up file, disc, network and capture device locations. This level of point and select could not be any simpler.

Simple Setup

The VLC Media Player is packaged in application repositories for several leading Linux distros. With the software choice built into the package manager, the download and installation process is as simple as clicking the file name.

If, however, your distro does not provide this convenience, you can find specific download and installation instructions here.

Also see here for how to embed video in Web pages using VLC media player.

Tracking Toolset

The initial setup only requires a choice for permissions to retrieve track info over the Internet. The three choices are: manual download only, when track starts playing, or as soon as track starts loading.

These are very safe options. I applaud the developers for being up front with their privacy announcement. This is an area that more users consider very important.

But don't fret over the initial selection here. You can go to the Tools/Preferences panel's Interface Settings to change your decision on the album art download policy.

Non-Critical Settings

Considering how much VLC does, the amount of real setup is remarkably light. Linux has long had a bad rap from nay-sayers complaining that it's too tough to configure. While once at least partially true, that is not the case now.

And it is not what you will find in using the VLC Media Player. The Preferences panel offers options for the interface, audio and video, subtitles and OSD (on-screen display), input and codecs, and hotkeys. None of these choices will break the app.

I have this player installed on four of my desktop or laptop computers. I have never had to fiddle with any of the default settings to hear or view any file. From my experience, the different settings simply change the look and feel of the interface. You can further configure VLC's appearance with downloadable themes or skins.

Vanishing Point

The VLC package is simple, powerful and fast. These three performance factors result from the software's modular structure. The modules consist of input, demultiplexers, decoders and video output.

The application's core handles communication between modules. They do all the multimedia processing.

When the VLC media player starts, an application appears on the screen. A small icon Image also appears in the taskbar. Clicking once on this icon hides the VLC media player. Clicking on it again returns it.

Hiding the icon does not close the application. The same hide/unhide function occurs if you use a desktop docking system. In my case, the VLC icon appears on the Avant Window Navigator (AWN) docking bar.

Using It

The taskbar icon is very useful. I do not always like to take up desktop real estate by keeping the player interface exposed. Minimizing the app just gets in the way when I have numerous programs opened.

Double-clicking the title bar in Ubuntu and other LInux distros rolls up the interface so that just the title bar is visible. But that at times also gets in the way. So clicking on the icon is a handy way to keep the app running in background and always ready for use.

Right-clicking on this icon brings up a list of common player tasks. For instance, regardless of the hide/unhide state of the interface, the right-click VLC menu gives access to Play/Stop, Previous/Next, Fast/Faster, Normal speed, Slow/Slower, JUmp Forsward/Back, Jump to specific time, Open Media and Quit.

Another option is to use the QtHotkeys. This bypasses the interface and icon menu entirely. Qt is VCL's default graphical interface.

'Nuff Niceties

Running the app in hide mode does not detract from keeping up with the show. You can see the artist and the current song title in the window title bar and in a tooltip from the icon. I'm not big on watching visualizations, so I do not care that the available selection is sparse in the VLC player.

Although this is a playback app, its rich feature set does allow some editing liberties. For instance, you can add effects to DVDs.

You can enhance, rotate, crop or add text to the video as it plays. If you have multiple displays, try the really cool effect you get by splitting the video into sections for a video wall.

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