When it comes to media playback on the desktop, few media players enjoy the kind of ubiquitous love that VLC media player from VideoLan does. Over the last few years, VLC has become *the* app of choice for playing all kinds of video and audio files without the hassle of worrying about comapatibility and downloading codecs. The app has been available on a whole host of platforms including Mac, Windows and Linux, but has taken a while to arrive on mobile operating systems — barring a short unofficial stint on iOS before being pulled from the App Store.
All that is about to change now, with the release of the public beta of VLC Media Player for Android on the Play Store. Although it wasn’t the most full featured of apps when it was announced a few months back, the development team has been hard at work adding features at a steady pace along with UI and compatibility enhancements. We will take a look at the current version of the app to try and see how well it stacks up against the host of very capable alternatives that have already established themselves on Android.
All-In-One Media Playback
Just like its desktop counterparts, VLC for Android is an all-in-one media player that supports playback for all the common video and audio formats. One doesn’t need to worry about codecs, compatibility, etc. If it’s on your device, there’s a good chance VLC will play it. You can also launch streaming media directly from URLs that you can either type in or copy and paste from other apps. On compatible devices, the app can also make use of hardware acceleration for media playback, which should improve performance considerably, especially when playing higher resolution videos. This feature is not enabled by default, though. You need to manually check it from the preferences.
The first time you fire up the app, it will scan your phone for compatible files and list them all up for you, thumbnails and everything. Simply tap a thumbnail and the file will start playing instantly. One thing to note is that the app enables screen rotation by default – whether you have it set on or not. To keep a video from flipping between orientations every time you move your phone or tablet, hit the lock icon in the bottom-left corner. A slightly hidden feature is the ability to set brightness by swiping vertically on the left edge of the screen and the volume by swiping the right edge.
The user interface is not exactly in line with the typical Android Holo UI guidelines introduced in version 4, but is intuitive enough to not be a problem for most users.
Hitting the arrow in the top-left corner slides open the content menu from the left, which lets you switch between videos, audio files and folders on your device. Audio files can be listed by artists, albums, songs or genre.
Video playback is pretty minimalistic, yet feature-packed. Apart from the usual seek bar and play/pause buttons, you can us the forward/backward controls to quickly skip a portion of the video – a feature from the desktop versions that I absolutely adore. You can also cycle through video frame ratios like 4:3, 16:9 and auto fit by tapping the arrow icon in the bottom-right corner. Finally, tapping the 1.0x number just above the controls lets you set the playback speed for the video.
The audio playback interface is similar with the album art, playback controls and the shuffle and repeat toggles. The playback speed control is present as well, which should be articularly of interest to podcast listeners who want to be able to get through their queues quicker than the typical run times which can be pretty long in some cases. Songs can be launched from any of the lists, or from the folder navigation interface. Interestingly, I could not figure a way to play all songs in my library. It was either playing individual songs or albums, or appending them to the currently playing queue.
“This Is Beta Software”
The developers are quick to point out on the Play Store page for the app that this is beta software, and it shows. The load times are pretty high every time the app is launched – even if it has been launched just a few moments back. It seems to scan the device for new media every time, which is nice, but the fact that the list of already cached items is not even acessible during this period is a downer. I also experienced a couple of crashes during my testing, but it was rare enough to not be much of a deal breaker. I’m yet to find a media player on Android that hasn’t crashed at least once.
There’s also a clear lack of more advanced features that I’m sure will come with time. Things like the ability to resume a video where you left off should be a welcome addition as will be other features that are standard fare on most apps by now. The pace at which the app is improving leaves little doubt that all this and much more will be available soon enough.
All in all, the latest beta version of the best known media player in the world doesn’t disappoint. VLC Media Player isn’t yet stable and full-featured enough to replace MX Player on my devices, but that’s to be expected. I hope to get back to VLC once it comes out of beta to see how well it fares and hopefully, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. For now though, it is just one of the better options available – far from being the best of the lot.