A great media player will help you enjoy music, movies, and TV shows like never before. Whether you prefer streaming, downloading, or playing media from a hard drive or disc, there's a free player out there that will knock spots off Windows' built-in tools.
The best free media players can handle a huge variety of audio and video formats, without the need to download additional codecs for the more esoteric file types you sometimes encounter online. They also let you convert files to a format that you can play on a console or mobile device (like MP3 or MP4), striking the best balance between quality and file size.
A great media player will also organize your media library for you, tagging songs and movies automatically, adding album art, and letting you edit metadata manually if necessary.
Plugins are a great advantage too, adding extra features and offering integration with online streaming services.
With so many factors to consider, choosing the best player is no mean feat, so we've rounded up the very best options available – and they're all free.
1. VLC Media Player
Flexible, customizable and entirely free, VLC is the best 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.
Review and where to download: VLC Media Player
Organize your 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
A capable media player with advanced file management and streaming
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
4. GOM Player
An excellent media player that will stand you in good stead for the future
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.
GOM Player supports 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.
Review and where to download: GOM Player
5. Media Player Classic Home Cinema
A lightweight 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