After Hours

Five free desktop media players

If Windows Media Player falls short of your needs, you might prefer one of these free third-party alternatives.

Although Windows includes a general purpose media player, there are many third-party media players you might like better. This article lists five of the more popular desktop media players.

Note: This list is also available as a photo gallery.

1: VLC Media Player

I first discovered VLC Media Player (Figure A) several years ago when I had trouble getting Windows Media Player to play a particular file. Since then, I have found that VLC has been consistently able to play files that simply won't play on some of the other media players.

Figure A

VLC Media Player

The other thing I like about VLC Media Player is that you can easily adjust the playback speed. I use a lot of video based training products to keep my IT education current. Often times, the video classes tend to be really long, and I simply don't have the time to sit through a 20-hour class every time I want to learn something new. With VLC, I can set the playback speed to about 2.5X and breeze through the training classes.

2: GOM Media Player

GOM Media Player (Figure B) focuses on making your videos look as good as they possibly can. When you launch GOM Media player, it asks you whether you want to run the player in normal mode, high quality mode (which is optimized for high end computers with HD displays), or in TV output mode. The setup process also lets you indicate whether your computer is equipped with surround sound.

Figure B

GOM Media Player

GOM Media Player lets you adjust things like the aspect ratio, the hue, and saturation of video playback. There are a number of settings that allow you to optimize the video playback experience. Furthermore, GOM Media Player includes a number of audio and video codecs. (Yes, the player can also be used for audio).

3: Zune

I installed the Zune software (Figure C) on my PC for no other reason than that my Windows Phone 7 device and my Zune HD required it. Although I don't use the Zune software as my primary media player, there are a couple of things about it I really like.

Figure C

Zune

For starters, Zune makes it really easy to navigate your media collection. Music can be sorted by artist, album, genre, song, or playlist. Unfortunately, the software does a better job organizing music than organizing your videos. Videos can be sorted as movies, TV, personal, or other, but there is no way to divide movies into genres (Action, Comedy, etc.).

The other thing I really like is that when it comes to playing music, Zune produces noticeably better sound quality than Windows Media Player.

4: MediaMonkey

I discovered MediaMonkey (Figure D) a few years ago when I was having trouble getting my Sony Walkman X to display album art. At the time, MediaMonkey was the only application I could find that could copy music files and album art to my Walkman X in a format it liked.

Figure D

MediaMonkey

Aside from working well with Sony media players, MediaMonkey's real niche is that it works really well for managing large music collections. The software includes a number of auto tag features you can use to associate various attributes (including album art) with songs in your collection. To top it all off, MediaMonkey even offers CD / DVD burning capabilities.

5: Audacity

Audacity (Figure E) is more of a sound editor than a media player, but I just had to include it in the list because this is such a great application. I use Audacity all the time for recording podcasts and other audio. The software features multi-track recording and editing capabilities.

Figure E

Audacity

In addition to basic sound editing, Audacity allows you to generate various effects, align tracks, and even plot an audio spectrum. Audacity includes a mindboggling number of options, and when it comes to sound editing there is very little that this application can't do.

Your pick?

Do you have a favorite media player you think belongs on this list? Share your suggestions with fellow TechRepublic members.

About

Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

12 comments
Citsme
Citsme

My list is similar to the one above. I've tried to like Windows Media Player in different opperating systems but in a comparison test, it doesn't come near to sounding the best. VLC is always dependable; my go to when others fail but I also have a large music collection and need a player with some ability to manage it. I've tried to use WinAmp more than a couple of times and it is confusing to use. Sometimes, I think my patience with learning a program like that is the problem. My bottom line is how the player sounds but if I don't know how to adjust all of the settings then I don't know what I'm missing. Media Monkey has lasted the longest as the program I use on my desktop computer. Too much music and it is all over too many drives. I overloaded the C: drive and had to clear out some space and then there are duplicates . . . The one feature that I love of Media Monkey's is that you can empty the program of your music files and have the program research your computer for all music. I've used that numerous times but wouldn't emptying any other player and then having it do a search for music as if it were a new installation do the same thing? I just came across Jet Audio but haven't had a lot of time to work with that. And, thanks to all of you :) I have 5 more players to check out (one is Winamp again although this time I will put more time into learning more about its functions!) Thanks, all.

kpdriver
kpdriver

I like j.river music player, (audio only). A ton of options, incl. DSP, EQ, many display options, 3d surround etc. Version 14 is free, upgrades will cost you, but not necessary.

hmf1860
hmf1860

The KMPlayer is yet another robust media player available for windows users. It supports most video and audio formats and you can also make a library of 'em like what windows 7 does.

sh10453
sh10453

I have used VLC, foobar 2000, Audacity, and several others for many years. I also used Audacity extensively at work while doing Sound Quality Engineering work. VLC is my favorite player for video. WinAmp and foobar 2000 are my favorite players for audio. Foobar 2000 greatest feature is that it allows multiple play-lists to be loaded / open at the same time (in multiple tabs). You also have all the control over the player. VLC can have some problems playing certain WAV files (compressed WAV), and I don't use it heavily for audio due to its poor and lousy playlist interface. WinAmp (free version) is an excellent player, and has been around for a very long time. But some of the default skins, as well as the configuration of the preferences, can be confusing to the new user. I don't use the Library features of WinAmp or VLC (or any other player due to my HUGE music collection; I do mean HUGE). I just load the playlists that I want to listen to. WinAmp can handle only one playlist at a time, like most players. I tried MediaMonkey long time ago, and hated it, removed it very quickly. I tried the most recent version of MediaMonkey, but I did not like it or its behavior, either, so I removed it (or Revo Uninstalled it) the same day I installed it. Another powerful audio player is Music Bee. Lots of good features, but it will not replace foobar 2000 and WinAmp on my desktop. A few other audio players, with Portable versions are AIMP, CoolPlayer, Soundbase, and XMPlayer, to mention a few. An open-source video player that I also like is MPC HomeCinema (MPC = Media Player Classic). Small program and light weight. As for Windows Media Player, I think the last time I used it was in the days of Windows 95. It's the worst in its category, in my opinion, aside from its 25 MB size (just the download, before installation).

Good Old Dad
Good Old Dad

Just to chime in on Audacity - I recently started using it to make backups of my LP collection and it does a really terrific job. The tutorial is very helpful too; I'm not sure I could have navigated through the process otherwise. Sorry, a little off the media player topic.

xingyi
xingyi

And foobar 2000? Try it and compare with mediamonkey. And that's free, with a great community, just like VLC...

kelly.jacobson
kelly.jacobson

We've had real success with VLC Media Player, deployed across all our PCs. We are a higher ed institution, and have found that VLC is versatile and easy to use. Much better than Windows Media Player.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I like JRiver's Media Center. It's considerably more than just a media player; it does almost everything except walk the dog. They also have a free jukebox applications that does a great job with music files.

nerussor
nerussor

I know this is an article about media players but it is possible and sometimes easier to just enhance the capability of the existing media player through the use of free codec packs such as k-lite (http://www.codecguide.com/download_kl.htm). This is my preference.

Slayer_
Slayer_

It is still the best video player I have ever used. I have mine set up to use my second sound card so it outputs to the TV and surround sound system instead of to my desktop speakers.

bboyd
bboyd

I use VLC until something has problems, then I fall back on MPC. Or if its an older machine, I'll Just set up MPC as the default. HD video on an older laptop, no Problem.

nikunjbhatt84
nikunjbhatt84

I have similar thought about VLC, Winamp and Foober 2000 media players. I am also agree that developers should think about making a user friendly interfaces for VLC and Winamp players. And I have used Windows Media Player only when I don't have any other media player installed (just after re-installing OS). When I had just started learning computer I had a dozens of media players installed! Among them Real Player, JetAudio (2 different versions at a time), XING MPEG player, PowerDVD, WinDVD, QuickTime and Sonique are the few which I remember presently. I had to use appropriate player for different audio and video files for smooth playing. The XING MPEG player was favourite when it comes to watch movie from a scratchy CD. It was able to skip scratched part easily when other players would hang. Then I had also tried GOM player for some months before some years and before Media Player Classic attracted me. I used the Media Player Classic bundled with K-lite Mega Codec Pack for 2 years but I wasn't happy because of glitches in playing some video file; either audio don't work or video don't work. But still there wasn't any better alternative to it. I was also recommending it to all my friends. In between, I also tried iTunes and Windows XP's Media Center which didn't made me happy either. But VLC Media Player surely did it. And presently it's my favourite video player. Sometimes, I also use MPCStar video player. MPCStar don't have features/options how much VLC has but is it very easy to use. It's one of the best feature is resume playback. For audio playback, no player can take place of Winamp and foober2000. Conclusion: For me, best Audio players are Winamp and foober2000, and best Video players are VLC and MPCStar.