Why use a third-party media player?
The best free media players for Windows
There might be a perfectly serviceable media player included with Windows, but sometimes 'perfectly serviceable' just doesn’t cut it, and you've probably found that the offering from Microsoft over the years have let you down in one way or another. This could be down to an inability to play a particular file format, or the abandonment of one of your favorite features.
These limitations explain why there's such a huge array of alternative media players available. Indeed, the choice is so vast, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
That's why we've settled down on the sofa and put the world's best free media players through their paces. Whether you just want to play the occasional video, we've got the tool for you.
1. VLC Media Player
Flexible, customizable and entirely free, VLC is the best free media player around
A true stalwart of the media playing software world, VLC Media Player's reputation is unrivaled. Eschewing the fancy looks of more recent software, this is a program that focuses on getting the job done, and getting it done well.
Using the program can be as simple as loading up a music or video files, or you can use it to play discs, streams and more while taking advantage of options such as subtitles, audio and video syncing, and picture and sound filters.
If you like the idea of personalization, there's a range of skins available or – if you're feeling adventurous – you can create your own. There's also a host of plugins for extending its already impressive functionality, but even without those extras, VLC Media Player's amazing format support, incredible playback control, and amazing performance make it is a winner.
Download here: VLC Media Player
Kodi can organize your whole media collection and stream it across your home network
Kodi is less of a media player in the traditional sense of the word, and more of a home media hub – something given away by the fact that this used to be known as XBMC (Xbox Media Center). It's available for just about every platform out there, and it's even possible to buy dedicated Kodi boxes that can be plugged straight into a TV or monitor.
Kodi will play almost all local and network video and audio files, and can also stream content from the web. If you have a large video collection, Kodi will help you to organize it neatly, and will download posters, movie and show information in addition to the usual metadata.
Kodi functions as a PVR, supports a wide range of remote controls, and can be extended through the use of plugins. In short, it has everything you could want from a free media player, though newcomers might find the learning curve a bit steep.
Download here: Kodi
3. Media Player Classic Home Cinema
A lightweight and highly customizable free media player designed specifically for video
Media Player Classic Home Cinema is so called because it is based on the look of the original Media Player software that was bundled with Windows, but it's evolved far beyond its humble beginnings.
As the name implies, the focus here is on video, but it also handles music very well. With a massive range of built-in codecs, you'll be hard pressed to find a file it can't play.
Media Player Classic Home Cinema also works as a TV tuner provided you have a TV card installed, and you can adjust the appearance of your chosen movie or programme as it's playing.
If you're looking for software to manage your media collection, you're probably best looking elsewhere, but as a lightweight playback tool, Media Player Classic Home Cinema brilliant – and highly customizable to boot.
Download here: Media Player Classic Home Cinema
A very capable free media player with advanced file-management and streaming features
MediaMonkey is an advanced media management system that can take care of all of your local and network-stored music and video, while also catering for your web streaming needs.
In addition to basic playback modes, there's also a jukebox option and the ability to push media to UPnP and DLNA devices. If you're not very good at keeping your music collection properly tagged, MediaMonkey will help you to do this automatically, and you can synchronize content to your smartphone or portable media player for entertainment on the move.
The standard version of MediaMonkey is free, but there's also a paid-for Gold edition that includes extra features like faster disc burning, advanced searching, and automatic background media organization. Most people will be able to live without these, so do your wallet a favor and stick with the free version.
It's worth pointing out that MediaMonkey can also be used as a portable app, so you can take it with you on a USB drive.
Download here: MediaMonkey
5. GOM Player
An excellent free media player that will stand you in good stead for the future of video
The claim that GOM Player is the "only media player you need" may seem a little grand, it's probably not far off the mark. There's great support for a range of media formats out of the box, and if you stumble across a file that can’t be played, the player will try to track down the necessary codec for you.
There's support for 360-degree video, which might be a little niche, but is only going to gain popularity, and there are excellent control and tweaking options to ensure that you get the best possible entertainment experience.
Pay attention while installing GOM Player, because you'll be prompted to install a browser extension. Despite appearances, dismissing this option won't cancel the installation. You'll also have to learn to ignore the ads that appear in the program, or find an alternative if you can't.
Download here: GOM Player
What to look for in a media player
When you're choosing a free media player, there are several key features to watch out for that will make it easier to organize and enjoy music and videos.
The most important consideration is format support. You need a media player that can handle music and video in all the most popular formats, without the need to spend time downloading and installing additional codecs. If your free media player can encode files in different formats too, so much the better.
Tagging is also a key requirement. Ideally, when you add new media to your library, your media player should search online for metadata to make sure its title, genre, date of release and other information are all accurate. Different file types have different metadata formats, so your media player should be able to cope with that. If the player doesn't find cover art automatically, you should be able to simply paste it in yourself without having to spend time saving it in a particular folder in Windows Explorer.
As well as basic playback of media files, a great free media player will also be able to stream media from online radio stations, TV channels (provided your PC has a TV tuner card), and podcasts. There might also be plugins to make it compatible with other services, saving you the effort of switching between multiple programs.
Finally, the best free media players will play nicely with your TV, enabling you to use your PC as a PVR and enjoy all your media on the big screen.