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 that digital copy of Mad Max you just picked up is not always easy, especially if you’re looking for easy-to-use software that touts rich features instead of an expensive price tag. An all-in-one media hub, whether it provides merely the bare essentials or all the bells and whistles, is a necessary staple in today’s digital world of files and folders.
Fortunately, there are several free media players that stand out, whether you need to play a variety of formats, tag and sort your libraries, or simply listen to your favorite MP3s without submitting yourself to the Apple-industrial-complex. 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.
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 (except for a complicated workaround).
Related: Chromecast update adds VLC streaming
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, providing 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.
Kodi (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)
Originating as XBMC (Xbox Media Center) — a homebrewed media player for Xbox consoles — Kodi is designed to be an all-in-one platform that allows you to view pictures, watch videos, and play music. In addition to physical media such as Blu-rays and DVDs, Kodi supports all of the common file formats in use today, both for music (MP3, FLAC, WAV, etc.) and video (MP4, MKV, AVI, etc.).
Adding media to Kodi’s library is straightforward; simply add a folder to the appropriate section and the software will automatically detect all media of that type in the folder, as well as monitor said folder for future additions. Kodi’s interface is pleasing to look at and easy to navigate, too, and videos generally open quickly and look good.
Kodi is much more than a simple media player, though, especially given the sheer amount of options it contains for customizing the user experience. Users can customize the appearance of the menus and visualizers, and support for add-ons is built into the player, allowing users to download custom-made skins, fonts, and sounds.
Moreover, there are optional add-ons that allow users to stream media from sources such as YouTube and Netflix, as well as Live TV. Kodi’s active community produces a constant stream of add-ons, and the depth of available customization means you can tailor the software to any user’s needs and wants. The only real downside? It uses more memory than than other media players on our roundup.
Plex (Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS)
Media consumption in the year 2015 can be a very involved process. Not only are there dozens of services to juggle — i.e. Netflix, iTunes, Hulu Plus — but many consumers have more than one device within their arsenal. Jumping back and forth between tablets, TVs, laptops, and every other piece of hardware can be a pain.
Plex aims to streamline consumption, bringing together all of your services and devices under a single, unified platform. Users can add folders and files they want to their Plex library, after which they can stream them to any device capable of running Plex. For example, a movie saved on a hard drive can be watched through Plex’s browser app, or streamed to the Plex app on a tablet.
Related: How to start using Plex on your PC
These days, most people do not simply use their own stock of movies and music, either. Streaming services have become one of the dominant ways of consuming media, and Plex recognizes this, incorporating apps for services like Netflix and Spotify into its framework. With the browser app, videos generally take a couple seconds to load, however, buffering allows them to play uninterrupted and the video quality is excellent.
Audio files also open quickly, with no noticeable problems. Derived from the same XBMC software as Kodi, Plex can play all of the common formats that the aforementioned programs can. A sparse, easily navigated interface makes Plex perfect for those who want all their media in one convenient place.