When iTunes isn’t enough: Our five favorite free media players for PC and Mac

Audio and video formats are a dime a dozen (and then some). However, despite the sheer amount of available formats currently littering the Web and your computer, finding a quality media player to launch into that recently-pirated copy of Gravity you just picked up is not always easy, especially if you’re looking for feature-rich software loaded with all the bells and whistles without the expensive price tag to match. An all-in-one media hub, regardless if it’s merely barebones or brimming with features, is still a necessary staple in today’s digital world of files and folders.

Fortunately, there are several free media players that gleam among the rest, whether you’re looking for a media player boasting an impressive catalog of compatible formats, one with an industrious processing tools, or one clad with simple play and pause buttons for utilizing your favorite MP3 or MP4. Also note, though the once-beloved Winamp was previously in our running as one of the best, the 15-year-old program and associated Web services will be closing its doors on Dec. 20, 2013, halting downloads and ceasing stability updates for the time being. Le sigh.

Here are our top picks for the best free media players for PC and Mac so you can spend less time hunting down the right program and more time, well, playing media. Also, check out our top picks for the best free antivirus software and our side-by-side comparison of Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark for a closer look at the competing audio-streaming landscape. Hint: Spotify wins.

Updated on 12-13-2013: This article has been updated since it was originally published to reflect recent software changes.

VLC Media Player (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)

VLC has held the media player crown for years, even before graduating from its beta phase in 2009. The free, open-source software is capable of playing just about any media format you can imagine, including Internet radio and other various streaming protocols. Although the default interface is plain and sleek, stuffed with various playback icons wrapped in a gun-gray design, the software also features an assortment of customization options for quickly swapping viewing modes and tweaking the toolbar with additional controls. The playback quality is top-notch regardless of viewing mode — as are the intuitive video effects for interactive zooming, video capturing, blurring, and mirroring images, among others – but you’ll have to look elsewhere if you’re looking to play HD Blu-ray discs since the program is currently incompatible with them sans a somewhat complicated workaround.

The navigation and organization options aren’t the most intuitive aspect of the program either, but they are relatively straightforward and require little effort once you familiarize yourself with the software. VLC Media Player will also let you bookmark and save playlist files, storing all your local media, podcast subscriptions, and assorted Internet radio stations for later consumption. Aside from just streaming and playing content, the media player even gives users options for broadcasting their own streams, offering clunky, yet full IP6 support that can channel both local media files and live inputs from connected devices such as webcams.

VLC Media Player is the way to go when looking for a program offering robust file compatibility, versatile playback and frequent stability updates. The robust community of active users and programmers, known collectively as the VideoLAN Organization, is an added plus, along with the diverse network for extensions and available skins for Windows.

VLC Screenshot Update

Media Player Classic Home Cinema (Windows)

Media Player Classic is just what the name implies: a classic media player, yet with modern functionality that cannot be ignored. The free, barebones application works with old-school operating systems going back to Windows XP, yet it’s still compatible with DVDs and a vast multitude of file formats once you download the proper codecs. It is isn’t jam-packed with features and customizable options either — something that gives the program its comparably light footprint — but it does provide enough functionality if you’re looking for a program to go to for simple audio and video playback with no strings attached. Options to remove tearing and adjust video scaling are present, as is playback and TV recording if a compatible tuner is installed, and the software even offers remote control support for select Android devices if you can figure out the complicated pairing process.

The customizable keyboard shortcuts and a few other features grant users more control within the application, but Media Player Classic Home Cinema is pretty minimalistic in its approach and often gives you the runaround when you’re looking for help. It’s essentially an active fork of its similarly-equipped predecessor, Windows Media Player, albeit one maintained and bolstered by the programmers of the Doom9 forum community opposed to original developer Gabest. It’s a great open-source media player either way, but that’s all it does. Nothing more, nothing less.

Windows Media Player Classic Screenshot Update

GOM Media Player (Windows)

South Korea isn’t particularly known for its intuitive media streaming software — its notoriety is more attuned to the production of tablets and flatscreen TVs from the likes of Samsung and LG — but GOM Media Player is still one of the best and most utilized freemium software programs to ever hit the Web. Featuring an attractive UI and laundry list industrious utilities, the fully-featured media player tackles most audio and video formats with relative ease, handling everything from AAC to FLV and offering a codec finder service that will locate and supply additional information on those not automatically supported by default. The software comes equipped with all the standard features, from high-quality video playback and hot keys to AV capturing tools and advance codec functionality, in addition to other tools for adding EQ effects and controlling playback via iOS and Android devices over Wi-Fi. It even features options for adjusting the audio mode, subtitle size and playback presets.

The media player has three viewing modes (Normal, High-Quality, and TV Output), all of which cater to your machine’s capabilities and your desired viewing mode. Although the slick interface cannot be customized as much as other programs on our roundup, you can still toggle various settings and choose from a good deal of custom skins to suit your style. The software is even highly adept at playing damaged, incomplete, locked, or partially downloaded files, giving it an astounding edge over some of its free, open-source competitors. Most importantly, the playback is rich and superbly accurate, showcasing audio and video as it was intended to be received while slinging a hodgepodge of simple picture and sound tweaks directly available during playaback.

Don’t let the default Halloween-esque exterior fool you, GOM Media Player is a solid all-in-one media hub that is attractive, feature-rich, and laden with customization options for both the newbie as well as the more advanced user. It can seem buggy from time to time, particularly when operating the software over Wi-FI, but the software’s reliability and sheer functionality are only getting better with each passing build.

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KMPlayer (Windows)

KMPlayer is a great, light alternative to the many unnecessarily feature-bloated media players available. Once set up properly (we admit there’s a bit of a learning curve), the gorgeous interface is a snap to navigate, providing a highly customizable media center for most audio and video formats. The coupled processing tools, such as the miscellaneous video filters and screen capture utility, place KMPlayer among the best media players on the list despite its sometimes clumsy execution of basic functions. The media player doesn’t offer much in the way of help to get you started, but the active forums and user community provide more than enough information and answers to any questions you might have about the software.

Video settings can be tweaked and altered to your liking, as well as the default skin, adding to the player’s already expansive customization options. Like the aforementioned GOM Media Player, the utility can also play incomplete and damaged files, along with locked media files and compressed audio albums. On top of that, it’s bundled with live URL broadcasting support and remains completely devoid of adds urging users to upgrade to the premium version of the service.

KMPlayer is your go-to if you’re looking for a media player that is light on resources without skimping on quality features. Though it often runs slower that similarly-equipped programs on our list, it’s still worthwhile given its slick, jet-black UI and capable tools. Just be sure to opt out of the bundled Pandora TV search toolbar during installation process unless you have a thing for running pesky malware in your browser … which no one should.

KMPlayer Screenshot Update

DivX (Windows/Mac OS X)

There is a reason Digital Trends has been following DivX’s progress for more than a decade. The software isn’t merely a laborious media converter, but a fully-formed, universal media player awash with user-friendly controls and a feature set well beyond the scope of programs such as Windows Media Player Home Cinema. The nearly all-encompassing software is quick and refined, designed with the interface to beat on our roundup, while touting impressive compatibility capable of handling most formats you throw at it — whether it be the software’s native DIVX format or more-accessible options like MP4 and AVI. Though it’s stable and produces excellent playback when watching video or listening audio, its tool set is by no means overwhelming.

The player offers quick options for selecting a viewing size and burning media to discs, with additional options on hand for streaming videos, music and photos to DLNA-compatible home devices such as your PS3 or Samsung Galaxy Note II. Video filters and audio adjustments are limited, but the software boasts three processing modes and multiple sound enhancements for adjusting fidelity, ambient volume and several other common audio facets found in most media players.

Likewise, DivX is accompanied by a basic set of keyboard commands for navigating the interface and quickly performing various playback actions. A few of the codecs such as MPEG are only available in the premium version, but the free incarnation of the software should suffice for most users given the girth of codecs it does support and its straightforward, reassuring functionality.

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Other options

Five of the best is often never enough. Below are several other great, freemium media players available on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux systems. Each offering, whether handpicked by us or previously suggested by our readers, offers a wide selection of features in addition to stellar audio and video playback. They’ll obviously never achieve the level of comprehensiveness paid services provide, but you can’t argue with the nonexistent price tag and sheer convenience of having an all-in-one media player at your fingertips. Give them a once over — you have nothing to lose.

Pot Player (Windows) UMPlayer (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux)
SMPlayer (Windows/Linux) Plex (Windows/Mac OS X)

What do you think of our picks for the best free media players? Do you use a different one to meet all of your playback needs? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was originally published on July 4, 2013.

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