Free technical help for digital creators - music, video, art, photography, graphic & web design

Media player software by Matt Ottewill

When a computing system encounters a media file (image, video, audio etc) there are a number of ways it might handle it ...
  1. Play it in an application (such as iTunes, Flash player or Acrobat/Adobe reader)
  2. Play it natively in a browser (.gif's and .jpg's are handled natively by Internet Explorer for eg)
  3. Play it with a plug-in in a browser window (Real Audio, Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime etc)
  4. Play it with Media player software (Windows Media Player, Real Player, Flash Player, QuickTime Player etc)
  5. Auto-run it as an application (eg Director projectors)
  6. Report an error and ask the user what they want to do

It will decide which of the above to do depending on ...

  • What software is installed on the computer.
  • How that computer has been configured to handle media. For example, you could have Windows Media Player, QuickTime and iTunes software installed and choose Windows Media Player to handle MP1 video, QuickTime to play h364 video and iTunes to play MP3 audio.

Computer media file formats

Because there are so many different video, audio, animation, 3D and still picture etc file formats (as you read this, somewhere, someone is inventing a new superior one!), software developers have created media player software "packages" to handle them. Examples include ...

If you download QuickTime (for example) it will install 3 components on your system ...

  • QuickTime Player (utility)
  • Web browser plug-ins tom play media files in a browser window
  • System codecs (compression / decompression software) installed in your system file which can be utilised by any application to play media

Creating media player files

Windows Media Player , Flash Player, Real Audio Player, DivX Convertor and QuickTime Pro allow you to create files in their respective file formats. Click these links to find out more about them.

What's the difference between Codec & File format?

If you don't know the answer to this question read our article on codecs, formats and optimising concepts now.

The dominant audio/video player technologies

As of August 2010 there are 3 primary methods by which devices (computers, mobiles, games consoles etc) can replay audio and video ...

  1. Native HTML 5 web browser support
  2. Web browser, or system level, plug-in (QuickTime, Flash, Windows Media etc)
  3. Stand alone application or mobile app (iTunes, DivX player, Windows Media Player, Flash player, YouTube mobile etc)

1. HTML 5

Discussed here

2 & 3. Web browser plug-in and stand alone application media player comparisons

Media player software allows computers to replay video, animation and audio in stand alone player applications or by employing a plug-in within a wide range of file formats (web pages, pdf, Director files, Flash files etc).

View in Landscape mode or Swipe to scroll
Media player comparisions
HTML5 QuickTime Windows Media Player Flash DivX
Player utility Browser native Yes Yes Yes Yes
Browser plug-in Browser native Yes Yes Yes Yes
Installed base Click here All Macs most PCs All PCs some Macs Most Macs & PCs Some PCs, few Macs
x-platform Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Choice of codecs Yes/no! More here Excellent Poor OK n/a
MPEG-1 codec No Yes Yes ? Yes?
MPEG-4 format Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes?
Ogg Therona Yes ? ? Yes No
Sorenson codec No Yes ? Yes No
WebM Yes No No No No
H.264 codec Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Good for CD/DVDROM? Yes Yes OK Yes No
Good for web? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Web video player comparisons

In order to play video, web browsers must employ a player application or browser plug-in. Unlike MP3 audio (which will play in virtually any audio or video playback software), video data must usually be presented in a player application or browser plug-in file format. The following chart presents the current (2008) primary video playback technologies.

View in Landscape mode or Swipe to scroll
Web video player comparisions (browser plug-ins)
File format User base x-platform Flexibility Video/audio quality
Flash player Discontinued format Mac and PC Good quality, Flash has the On2 VP6 and Sorenson Spark codecs but control over compression quality is not the best. You can design your own playback controls or choose from a number of skins. Good
QuickTime All Macs, majority of PCs Mac and PC Good choice of codecs, optimising parameters and file formats. Excellent
Windows Media Player All PCs, only some Macs Mac and PC Poor. You'll reach all PC users but control over optimising quality is poor. Average
Real Video Declining Mac and PC Too expensive and inflexible, perhaps a viable option only for real time server streaming (broadcast). Average / poor
DivX Some PCs and Macs Mac and PC Great quality but inflexible optimising and playback tools. Very good
YouTube All - web browser and mobile app Mac and PC Previously a Flash technology. Publish once to YouTube then insert code into your web page so the video appears there in the YouTube player. Good but you're stuck with their player/branding. Has been poor but the new HD (H264) option is good

Flash video format

Flash video has become the most popular for web based video. Flash video files can be created with the Flash Video Encoder app and either be embedded into or linked to a Flash movie file, or linked directly to a web page with a choice of preset playback control "skins". More on this process is here.

Flash video files can be encoded with the Sorenson Spark or On2 VP6 (an H.264/MP4 codec variant?) video codecs and MP3 audio codec. On2 VP6 is preferably but requires the latest (version 9) plug-in/player. According to Adobe 96% of internet users have at least the Flash 7 plug-in/player installed but this version only handles inferior Sorenson encoded files. As of 2008 only 63% have the Flash 9 plug-in/player which delivers superior video quality. However, the plug-in is a small download so persuading users to upgrade shouldn't be too difficult providing they are not at school or work where they will be unlikely to have administrator access.


QuickTime is a x-platform (Mac & PC) media player and codec application. QuickTime is installed on all Macs, most PCs and is available as a free download. Read more here

QuickTime includes a wide range of the excellent codecs, and arguably provides the most flexible and powerful optimising controls, and has been the web video file format of choice for film and video professionals. Significantly, QuickTime includes the best current audio and video codecs including H.264 (MP4). Once you have used this codec you will become dissatisfied with alternatives! QuickTime is no longer the market leader, having lost market share to the Flash player in recent years.

Windows Media Player

On Macs and PCs, Windows Media Player can play video and audio files created in the proprietary Windows Media Player format as well as some non-media player file formats such as MPEG-1 and MPEG-4. The proprietary file formats utilise a number of video and audio codecs but Microsoft seem a little cagey about exactly what they all are! Find out more here.

Real video

Real video is losing ground in the media player formats war because it offers relatively poor quality and requires special and expensive server software.


The DivX video format is good. There are excellent free Mac & PC player and conversion/encoder programs. The problem is, although its basically another file wrapper for an a number of codecs (one of which is an MPEG4 variant), it's another non-standard format


Although the YouTube player is not strictly another player format (it uses Flash), it has become so popular that it presents a very effective and easy way of being able to publish to one location (, but present in many other locations, by pasting the YouTube link/player code into your web pages. Recently YouTube has been re optimising all the "raw" uploaded video stored on its servers to HD (probably Flash/On2 VP6 format) so users can choose the best quality for their connection.