Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Stop paying for software:
Free video player finally grows up

August 2, 2009

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, The Post-Standard
The best way to save money is to stop spending it. That's the idea behind my new series on the best free software for Windows and Macs. This week I'm writing about the outstanding VLC video and DVD playback software.
    There's something tacky about beta software -- software that isn't quite finished, that's being given away because it needs to be tested by real users. Most of us would much rather install software that's fully baked.
   And that day has finally arrived for VLC, the video-and-DVD-playing software that's earned a reputation as the best video player on the market. And not only is VLC good, it's totally free, and available for Windows, Macs, Linux, BeOS and other platforms. You can download it from www.videolan.org.
   VLC started out as a student project at the Ecole Centrale in Paris nine years ago, but has grown to a worldwide project with hundreds of contributing software engineers. It is an Open Source project, meaning that anyone can help program and debug it or even change it without needing permission, but that no one can claim the software as his or her own.
   VLC is ideal for Windows and Mac users who can't play videos found on the Web or that are sent to them in e-mails. VLC can play practically anything. (Generally, if you find that VLC can't play a file, you can assume that the file is bad.)
   But there's a cloak-and-dagger aspect to VLC also. Because it comes from beyond the U.S. borders, VLC is not bound by U.S. contract agreements regarding video playback methods. This enables VLC to play movies and videos even on computers equipped with free operating systems -- in other words, on PCs with versions of Linux that have not paid U.S. contract fees for the rights to use various playback methods.
   This ordinarily has little effect on Windows and Mac users -- their computer makers have already paid the fees -- but it does have a side effect of great importance: By engineering their own way to play these proprietary videos, VLC software engineers are able to add features that the original programmers left out.
   This is very important, and means that VLC usually surpasses Windows Media Player and the Mac's QuickTime player in features and performance.
   But don't take my word. Download VLC, install it and see for yourself. One thing's for sure: You can't beat the price.