Battle of the Digital Media Players

Davis Freeberg —  February 4, 2010 — 5 Comments


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While old school media types insist that content is king, when it comes to viewing said content, format and media player can make a big difference in the quality of the user experience. With new options seeming to crop up every day, let’s take a look at a few of the most popular software media players (and video destinations) to determine which one may be best for consumers. Individual results may vary, but here are the criteria I used to evaluate each:

Format Support
With so many different formats out there, it’s important that your top media player has robust support. Since consumers shouldn’t have to scour the web to add additional functionality, I didn’t include any plugins that consumers could use to expand support. Of all the players listed, the VLC clearly won this category. Whether you’re trying to watch Quicktime movies or play a VOB file, if VLC can’t handle the codec, you probably shouldn’t be trying to play it to begin with. The clear loser in this category was the Netflix Media player. While I have no complaints about the quality of their stream, the DRM restrictions and the requirement for downloading the Silverlight plugin, makes their web player pretty limited.

Ability to Stream Online
When digital movies first arrived, you’d have to wait a couple hours for the video  to download. With the introduction of streaming media, consumers rarely have to wait more than a few seconds in order to access to that content. While most video players are able to support this functionality, I feel that Netflix is the clear winner for this category. Not only do their video streams take into account your bandwidth to reduce buffering issues, but they also seem to have the highest video quality when streaming content. The clear loser in this category was the VLC player. While technically, there are ways to use it to stream torrent files while downloading, for the most part the VLC player is best suited for offline media.

Ability to Play Offline
Many don’t think that this feature is very important, but as someone who commutes an hour per day by train, being able to view my videos offline is just as important as being able to stream them. Once again, the VLC Player takes top honors due to its ability to handle high definition files and the robustness of offline support. While Netflix and YouTube don’t allow you to easily save files on your laptop, because they offer hardware support, they get a free pass on this one. Hulu on the other hand, ranks at the bottom as they don’t allow consumers to watch a movie unless it’s on an Internet-connected computer screen.

Auto-Dimmer
In order to create a more cinematic experience, a few media companies have started to incorporate dimmer technology into their players. While Hulu does allow users to black out distractions manually, they don’t do it automatically. DivX on the other hand, will slowly darken the screen outside of your video, to help better focus on what your watching. This really is neat technology and something that I hope will catch on. Since none of the other media players include this functionality, it’s a tie for last place on this one.

Disable Screen Saver
Few things are more annoying than being totally immersed in a film and then BAM, all of a sudden your viewing experience is interrupted by your screensaver popping up. While users can always disable this themselves, it’s easy to forget to do this and cumbersome for media companies to expect them to. DivX, Windows Media Player, Amazon and VLC all take top honors for ensuring a seamless experience. Netflix finishes in a close second place, in part because I’ve noticed that their software will sometimes cause the media toolbar to pop-up when the screensaver tries to activate. At the bottom of this list is Hulu, who actually has the gall to request that their users disable their screensavers themselves, instead of helping to automate this experience.

High Definition Support
While many advertise high definition support, not all HD is created equally. As broadband pipes continue to get fatter, the ability to support larger and/or more advance compression algorithms is becoming a critical differentiator between various media players. The top honors in this category goes to VLC and DivX for supporting the MKV/H.264 format. The worst player is Real Media who may have pioneered video on the web during dial-up days, but hasn’t aged very well.

One Click Full Screen
While all of the media players reviewed allow for full screen support, some players make it easier for consumers to jump in and out of this experience. Making someone hunt around for a tiny button to maximize their video, just isn’t as friendly as letting them double click on their screen and instantly be able to see the full picture. Amazon, CinemaNow, DivX and Windows Media all make it easy for you to do this. Quicktime on the other hand, actually used to make consumers pay money in order to get this functionality . . .

Hardware Support
Consumers used to have to burn their movies to DVD if they wanted to play it on the big screen, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of connected devices that will allow you to easily transfer content to your television. The winner in this category is clearly Netflix. Not only have their pioneered this particular field, but they’ve been able to strike agreements with a wide range of consumer electronic companies. Whether you own a DVR or a video game console, they’ve set the gold standard for watching internet video beyond the monitor. The worst offender is Hulu. Not only are they limited to the web, but they’ve actually fought attempts by innovators like Boxee, to bring their content to the TV set. While their studio owners may have good reasons for trying to keep consumers from cutting the cord, such an anti-consumer stance will only hurt them in the long run.

Subscription, Pay-Per-View or Free Content
With so many different services offering different forms of content, it’s made life pretty difficult for the modern digital consumer. If you want to view new releases, you have to visit Apple, CinemaNow or Amazon. If you want content that doesn’t charge you to experiment, then a subscription to Netflix is the best way to go. If you’re looking for free content, then you should consider Hulu or VLC. While no one seems to have figured out a perfect way to consolidate all three features at once, CinemaNow has done the best job of offering consumers flexibility when it comes to how you want to pay for content. While they don’t offer much in the way of free or ad supported content, they do allow you to rent, purchase or subscribe to various digital packages.

While it’s hard to say that any one media player is THE best, my recommendation for consumers would be a combination of Netflix and the VLC player. Both provide an excellent user experience, as well as high definition support and while your options may be limited on Netflix, they’ve done a good job of integrating their video streams beyond the computer and into a larger hardware eco-system.

Davis Freeberg is a technology enthusiast living in the Bay Area. He enjoys writing about movies, music, and the impact that digital technology is having on traditional media. Read more at Davis Freeberg’s Digital Connection.

5 responses to Battle of the Digital Media Players

  1. no vudu?? no slingcatcher?
    :-)

  2. Davis took a different approach by looking at service, followed by playback. And, if you read his cutting cable post you’ll note he watches a lot of video on his laptop.

    And do I need to reiterate how poor Slingcatcher is at handling a wide variety of modern, high bitrate codecs? The Popbox will kick it’s butt. WD already does. Of course, being a hardware Slingbox client is still the main selling point. By the way, my Best Buy has removed it from inventory – no shelf space at all.

  3. Oh, and ps3? I know these are services, but all of them essentially require a hardware component.

  4. QuickTime does **not** make you pay for Full Screen. That’s been a standard-issue feature for a couple of years now. It’s under the View menu –> Enter Full Screen.

  5. Good call, I missed that in my editing and just tweaked the post. Think Leopard resolved that (on OS X) and I can save now too without QT Pro, right?

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