The best free media players
After 25 years of development, you might think Windows Media Player should have the power to handle all your video and audio needs. And yet, as you've probably noticed, it's still extremely limited, and won't even play some common file types without downloading extra components.
Downloading an alternative media player can put an end to file compatibility woes; the best packages support just about every format, and some can even convert them to something more widely used.
Problems with the video or audio file itself? Good media players can help there too, offering equalizers, compressors, color adjustments, video sharpening and a host of other tricks to improve playback.
If you like to customise every element of a program then you'll love a tool like VLC - our top pick - which supports multiple interfaces and allows you to configure all of them, right down to the finest detail, without becoming cumbersome to use.
1. VLC Media Player
Flexible, customizable and entirely free - the best media player around
VLC Media Player is a classic media player that plays from every source (files, discs, stream, webcams and other devices) and is entirely free. No ads, no spyware, no catches at all.
It's all very easy to use. Double-click just about any file and it'll play immediately, with all the core controls where you'd expect them to be.
Browsing the menus reveals all kinds of additional goodies that you won't find in Microsoft's player: special effects that enhance your audio and video files, custom bookmarks to save and recall your favorite playback moments, and even a module to batch convert media files into a more convenient format.
VLC Media Player is supremely configurable, too. The interface can be entirely redesigned with a host of optional skins (iPhone, PSP, OS X, Nintendo, QuickTime, Winamp, even Star Trek's fictional operating system LCARS), and experts can dig into low level details like video processing options, or customising any of the 100+ hotkeys.
VLC Media Player is also a available as a portable app to run from a USB stick.
There really is something here for everyone, which makes VLC our favorite free alternative to Windows Media Player. Read on to discover four more of the best media players, and why they're worth your consideration. What's your player of choice? Let us know in the comments below.
A dedicated audio player for managing and controlling your music
All the top media players have a capable set of audio features, but opt for a specialist music player like AIMP and you'll get much, much more.
With support for over 30 audio formats and a host of internet radio streams, you'll be able to play just about anything, and the 32-bit audio processing and output support delivers the best possible quality for your system.
AIMP's configurable sound engine gives you great audio control. There's an 18-band equalizer, an array of effects (including reverb, flanger, chorus, pitch, tempo, echo, speed, bass, enhancer and voice remover), normalization, and support for DSP plug-ins (a format originally designed for Winamp). With so many features, it's closer to an audio editor than a simple media player.
AIMP's powerful media management tools also make it easy to keep your songs in order, with smart playlist tools and a tag editor that's better than some stand-alone equivalents.
Throw in a pile of extras including internet stream capture, audio conversion and a scheduler that enables you to use the program as an alarm clock, and you've got a truly remarkable player. All this functionality might seem intimidating, but spend an hour exploring and you'll begin to feel at home.
An intuitive audio player with plug-in support for extra features
Free and feature-packed, foobar2000 is a likeable audio player - simpler and more straightforward than AIMP, but still with plenty of music-playing power.
The configurable interface is a major plus. Launch the program and it presents you with a range of layouts, colors and playlist formats. Click an option and the interface updates immediately to show you the results.
Basic operations are straightforward, with just about everything working as you would expect. Point the program at your music folder and it'll build your library automatically. Then you can drag and drop files to play them, open individual files or folders, view tags and audio information, manage playlists and more.
Right-clicking various objects in foobar2000 reveals many more advanced features, including an 18-band equalizer, DSP plug-in support, automatic freedb-based file tagging, a file format converter, possible fixes for broken MP3s, and lots of low-level configurability for those who need it.
4. GOM Player
A very capable media player, but watch out for the adware
GOM Player might not make a the best first impression. You need to watch for adware during setup (clear the relevant checkboxes to avoid it), and more ads are displayed in the player window when you open the program.
Explore the interface, though, and GOM Player begins to get interesting. As well as the usual playback buttons, there are quick controls to apply video and audio effects, change playback speed, tweak subtitles, take screenshots, create and manage playlists, make the player window transparent, keep it always on top, and more.
More unusual (but very welcome) features include the ability to open YouTube URLs and play 360-degree VR videos. A well-designed interface walks you through most of this. Click buttons, explore, and you'll be familiar with the basics in a few minutes.
A great player that sadly hides some of its impressive features
After a quick, easy and adware-free installation, PotPlayer opens with a simple, stripped-back interface. Drag and drop a file in just almost any format (there's even 3D video support) and playback starts immediately.
It's just as easy to play entire folders, DVDs or Blu-rays (discs or files), FTP/ WebDAV/ HTTP links, and input from webcams and other devices.
You can save whatever you're viewing as a Favorite and bookmark the best scenes, making it simple to recall them later.
Potplayer gives you remarkably granular control over your media. The Video menu alone has options to sharpen, de-noise, rotate or tweak picture levels, resize, rotate or crop, adjust brightness, contrast, hue and saturation, configure 3D playback, capture and record video, and much, much more.
This power does bring some complexity, but most of the advanced features are kept out of the way. Learn the bits you need, like pressing [W] or [E] to increase/ decrease brightness, and you can forget about everything else.
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