Free software media players

Free software media players


Last year, while running Ubuntu, I decided I wanted to watch a video, so I opened it up in the built-in Totem player. What happened next took me back to the dark era of codecs and computing. The XviD video I was watching became pixelated, the video became out of sync; within a few minutes it was unwatchable. I dual booted back into Windows XP, opened up by trusty MPUI and watched the video with the free software XviD codecs without any issues. The experience had left a bad taste in my mouth.

What happened next took me back to the dark era of codecs and computing... The experience had left a bad taste in my mouth

Last month Tony put out a call for articles, and I suggested media players would be a good area to cover, and he jumped on it. This brings me to here; sitting in front of my word processor in Windows, with Ubuntu running in VirtualBox, and a list of free software media players ready to go! I wanted to choose a broad range of players, so I checked around looking for what other’s had felt were the best free software players. And the contestant’s are...

Totem

Figures 1: Screenshot of TotemFigures 1: Screenshot of Totem

The Totem video player that ships with GNOME has advanced a lot in version 7.04 of the Ubuntu OS. It will now search for codecs (both free software and restricted, including FFmpeg) for formats it can’t natively play. This feature alone would have fixed my issues from my last Totem experience!

Totem will now search for codecs (both free software and restricted, including FFmpeg) for formats it can’t natively play

Playing a video file with Totem (at least if you’re using a GNOME distro which has Totem configured or have installed and configured Totem manually on your distro) is as easy as double-clicking a video file assigned to Totem. Totem also has an easy to use “Play Disk” option under the file menu that lets you play Audio CDs, VCDs, DVDs and—here’s the part I like—data disks with files on them that Totem understands or can find codecs for. Totem was the only player in the round-up with a disk play feature this easy to use.

The bad news is that , although I found it very good for the audio and video I tested, Totem has a GUI that I didn’t find to be very user friendly. Hiding the sidebar helped somewhat, but it still feels like it has the controls of an audio player, and the display area of a video player—but without letting me hide just what I don’t need. A control to hide the video-play and controls would help to alleviate this feeling of rigidness a lot.

All in all, I like Totem the best out of all the players reviewed here, and I can’t help but think the GNOME guys are working hard to keep Totem ahead of the pack. If you’re running a GNOME distro that doesn’t have Totem installed, or you just haven’t tried Totem yet, I urge you to give it a go!

Name Totem
Maintainer(s) GNOME
License GPL
Platforms GNU/Linux, Solaris, BSD
MARKS (out of 10)
Installation 10
Vitality 10
Stability 10
Usability 7
Features 9
Overall 9

Totem

VLC

Figures 2: Screenshot of the VLC media playerFigures 2: Screenshot of the VLC media player

VLC is probably one of the more well known players for GNU/Linux. It uses FFmpeg natively (unlike Totem, which will need to download a custom version of the library the first time it requires it). FFmpeg is a free software library for reading MPEG4, AVI, WMV and FLV videos (among others).

Installation on my Ubuntu was as easy as entering “VLC” into the package manager. Depending on your distro you’ll need to get and install VLC differently. Overall, installation and setup was pretty painless.

I did, however, find VLC’s video to look “washed-out” compared to Totem, and finer details didn’t pick up as well. I liked VLC’s controls more then Totem’s, the smaller size didn’t seem to get in the way; although, I found its menus a bit less user-friendly than those of Totem. I really wish it were possible to hide all window components except the video, and the seek bar like you can with Media Player Classic (also free software under the GPL) on Windows.

I found VLC’s video to look “washed-out” compared to Totem, and finer details didn’t pick up as well

Overall, I found VLC more advanced than Totem, but still had a more user-friendly face than MPlayer.

Figures 3: Quality difference between VLC and Totem, VLC at leftFigures 3: Quality difference between VLC and Totem, VLC at left
Name VLC
Maintainer(s) VideoLAN
License GPL
Platforms Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux, BeOS, BSD
MARKS (out of 10)
Installation 10
Vitality 10
Stability 9
Usability 4
Features 7
Overall 7.5

VLC

MPlayer

Figures 4: Screenshot of MPlayerFigures 4: Screenshot of MPlayer

MPlayer was next on my list; once again, installation was painless as the Ubuntu package repositories already contained the MPlayer project.

MPlayer was by far the hardest of the programs I’ve tried to configure in quite some time. The website touts a “wide range of supported output drivers” as a main feature, but I found this to be the source of its weakness. It took a lot of trial and error to get the preferences set up correctly. After the correct video driver was set up, it produced an image quality with no noticeable difference from Totem, but it couldn’t maintain a good frame-rate.

To be fair, this is running on a virtual machine emulating a PIII class CPU, and with 512MB of RAM; so it might be able to produce a better frame rate on a better box.

I should insert a quick sidenote here and let you know that MPlayer and VLC are both available for Windows as well, so if you’re looking for a free software player for your Windows computer make sure and give them a try.

Name MPlayer
Maintainer(s) MPlayer Project
License GPL
Platforms GNU/Linux, Windows, Mac OS X,
MARKS (out of 10)
Installation 10
Vitality 9
Stability 7
Usability 4
Features 7
Overall 7

MPlayer

Conclusion

I had also tried out Democracy player (now Miro ), but it wouldn’t work in my Virtual Machine, so I was unable to review it here to my dismay.

Overall, there are some good choices to pick from when you’re looking for a good free software media player for your GNU/Linux box. And, these aren’t even counting the distributions dedicated just to being a home media center! If your interesting in picking up one of those look no further than LinuxMCE, MythTV and Mythbuntu!

What are you waiting for? Go watch some videos! See you next time.

Category: 
License: 

Comments

Lorian's picture
Submitted by Lorian on

I think you're not being fair with MPlayer. MPlayer is primarily a command line program, it was never meant to be a GUI program. The GUIs thare are put on top of MPlayer are often quite poor.

If you know how to use MPlayer it can be very powerful and works well without an unnecessary GUI getting in the way.

MPlayer is designed for the more advanced user. There are better alternatives for the average user, but if you know what you're doing nothing beats it.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

MPlayer has one great frontend - SMPlayer. And this article sucks :P

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I agree, this comparison is absolutely unfair.

mplayer is a command line program, meaning that it does not really have a GUI.

And this GUI sucks very badly, like Totem!

Nobody's picture
Submitted by Nobody (not verified) on

Amarok doesn't play video, but it's beautiful for music. Absolutely beautiful.

martin-s's picture
Submitted by martin-s (not verified) on

Codeine is *the* video player when it comes to ease-of-use. Install it and play. It's for KDE, but for me that's just a bonus.
It uses Xine as a back end, so it is configurable, but you really don't have to configure it, Xine has pretty sane defaults.
And just adjust your contrast, and stop whining about the washedoutness? (Press "v" in codeine to get video settings with brightness, contrast, etc.)

Tinku Sampath's picture

In the review, you really missed other important media players like Kaffeine, KMplayer etc.

For me, Kaffeine's interface is best comparing that of all other media players available for GNU/Linux. At the same time I expect more and more work from Kaffeine developers to make its interface more easy to use. Kaffeine in default is based on the popular Xine libraries. It gives an option in its menu to adjust the 'Xine Engine Parameters'. I think the area where the Kaffeine developers has to work is to simply these configuration options especially the 'media device' settings where they are representing the CD/DVD devices using the unix name (eg:/dev/hdb etc.). It would be better if they can represent these devices in detailed manner (eg: SONLY CD/RW etc.) like Totem. And other things which I would like to see is the placement of 'sound equalizer' and 'video controls' beside the play control tool bar since these options are not visible at a glance. KMplayer's strength is that it is based on the high quality Mplayer libraries. But its interface has to grow a lot.

I think after the arrival of different front ends (both Qt and GTK based) to both Xine and Mplayer liraries, the XineUI and GMplayer become less tried now a days.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

If you want a good MPlayer frontend try SMPlayer ( http://smplayer.sourceforge.net/en/index.php )- it's easy to use, rich featured and avaliable for Linux and Windows.
Oh, and it's my default player on my Kubuntu laptop :).

Eric Drake's picture
Submitted by Eric Drake on

It's difficult to take an article like this seriously at all. I mean what is the point if your are already running Windows as your native operating system and for which there is plenty of "free" / "open source" software for watching video, to watch a video in a virtual Ubuntu installation ? (Other than maybe pretending to write an article on video players for Linux). I can't really think of a reason why the average user (forget enterprise here) would ever need to run a virtual Linux box on Windows. Now running Linux natively with a virtual Windows machine I can understand because there might be some things one is doing for which there is no substitute in Linux, but the other way around simply makes no sense at all. Or am I missing something ? It's doubtful that setting up virtual Linux machines on Windows is hardly going to take the average Windows user world by storm as a somehow preferred way of watching a video. So who is this article for ? People who are running Linux as their native operating system don't need to know how it runs in Windows !

Eric Drake's picture
Submitted by Eric Drake on

It's difficult to take an article like this seriously at all. I mean what is the point if your are already running Windows as your native operating system and for which there is plenty of "free" / "open source" software for watching video, to watch a video in a virtual Ubuntu installation ? (Other than avoiding a reboot). I can't really think of a reason why the average user (forget enterprise here) would ever need to run a virtual Linux box on Windows. Now running Linux natively with a virtual Windows machine I can understand because there might be some things one is doing for which there is no substitute in Linux, but the other way around simply makes no sense at all. Or am I missing something ?
This article takes "kludge" to the application level.

Robin Monks's picture

Since my video card is so new no good Linux drivers are available (I'm waiting for the next release of Ubuntu, and hoping that will work with it) VM is the only way. That said, the video from the VM was just as good as native with no lag, so I don't think it biased the reviews.

Robin

Amy Rose's picture
Submitted by Amy Rose (not verified) on

Yeah, but testing video players in a VM seriously threatens your credibility.

CedricMC's picture
Submitted by CedricMC on

Even if my prefered player is Totem, I think it has been over rated. Totem really sucks with DVD playback, despite of it has a lot of minor user unfriendly bugs. But I trust Totem developers will correct them.

Kubuntenado's picture
Submitted by Kubuntenado (not verified) on

Of all I have tried: vlc, maplayer, kmplayer and a bit of totem. Kaffeine is by far the best: easy of use, good interface, and lot of possibilities.
Works best with videos, and Internet streams, as well as mplayer and vlc.
The digital DVB TV is integrated, supports channel scanning and works as a Personal Video Recording, you can schedule multiple recordings.

The truth is that I use several of them as follows:
- Kaffeine for the videos and DBV TV
- vlc for Internet video strams
- mplayer for streaming capturing and converting it to Xvid (mencoder)

That is the good thing about Linux, you can do almost everything, but you have to have to get the right tools.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Apart from the fact that the author of this piece is running Linux on a VM, he neglects to comment on what media types the different players can handle. [edited by admin, since it was left as anonymous]

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

mplayer is a command line application, read the 7954-lines manual and you'll find more features than totem or vlc.

Also, you should consider that not everyone uses Ubuntu (or gnome in particular). Totem would likely pull many gnome dependencies when one installs it along with KDE or XFCE. In this case, VLC or mplayer is far better in term of installation.

admin's picture
Submitted by admin on

Hi,

I just fixed it - thanks!

Admin,

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Figure 4 is "Screenshot of the VLC media player", should be "Screenshot of MPlayer"

irbis's picture
Submitted by irbis on

Totem is great but I think Mplayer would have deserved more feature points than just 7 compared to 9 given to Totem. Mplayer features may not be as readily available as in Totem, but there are lots of them. My experience has been that of all the media players for Linux, Mplayer has been the player that has played practically any media I've thrown at it, whatever the format. An example, with Mplayer it is possible to watch ISO files for video DVDs even before they are burnt on a CD/DVD. Try that with Totem.

what Mplayer, mainly a video player, achieves with its rather small GUI, is unobtrusive interface that doesn't fill the screen with unnecessary buttons and bloatf, but gives room for the actual video instead. However, all the options are still there, available via a right mouse buton menu, should you need them.

I used to have lots of problems with Totem, especially when used with Gstreamer 0.8, and that has been one reason why I have preferred Mplayer instead. However, this article did convince me to try Totem again with all sorts of media material - and, I was positively surprised. Totem has indeed developed a lot, and may also become my other favorite video player for Linux, so thans for the hint.

However, I don't quite agree that Totem would be so much more userfriendly than Mplayer or VLC. For example, it may be a bit too difficult and unintuitive to, for example, go to a fullscreen video mode in Totem. Ok, not that difficult to find that option though, but when I first time tried it, I remember to have tried several things in order to get the still visible and somewhat irritating big controls beside the full screen video to disappear to the background in order to see the video only - before I finally got it that there is just a time period of some seconds after which the controls hide themselves automatically (maybe too long, should be a bit shorter?). (Ok, not that difficult now when I think about it, but it wasn't obvious the first time, at leat for me...) However, it is quite nice from usability point of view that you get to see the controls beside the fullscreen video again simply by just moving your mouse, and don't have to remember some cryptic key codes (like ctrl+F or F) for it.

Chris Lees's picture
Submitted by Chris Lees (not verified) on

Any review of Linux media players is incomplete without Kaffeine.

You''ve reviewed the Gstreamer backend, VLC, and the Mplayer backend. The other major backend for video playback is Xine, which you didn't review. Kaffeine uses Xine.

AmyRose's picture
Submitted by AmyRose (not verified) on

Yeah, I'm with the rest of the people who claimed that this review was incomplete; the most glaring omission being Kaffeine.

You also neglected to mention that Totem can use either GStreamer or Xine, which really affects compatibility with certain file types. Also, as mentioned before, Totem isn't very good for people who don't use GNOME.

AmyRose's picture
Submitted by AmyRose (not verified) on

Oh, and... Who in their right mind would evaluate media players in a VM?!

clau85's picture
Submitted by clau85 on

This is a very brief, subjective, poorly written article. It is based on summary use of 3 players under Gnome. Really not worth reading, sorry...

Robin Monks's picture

I'm planning a revisit of this subject, since it was obvious that I didn't cover many other good free software media players; I want to right that wrong. As far as subjectivity goes, in the end rating video quality is very subjective, that's why I included the split-frame between the players so people could make their own judgments.

Robin

Author information

Robin Monks's picture

Biography

Robin Monks is a volunteer contributor to Mozilla, Drupal, GMKing and Free Software Magazine and has been helping free software development for over three years. He currently works as an independent contractor for CivicSpace LLC