VLC: One App to Play Them All

VLC has had a turbulent history on iOS, having already been released before being removed due to a disagreement on the compatibility of VLC’s open-source development with the licensing and DRM that Apple places upon all apps listed on the App Store.

After an absence of a couple of years, VLC is now back in the App Store but this time, it’s here to stay. Let’s take a look at one of the most popular cross-platform media playback apps, now available on iOS.

Importing Media

If you’ve never used VLC on a Mac or PC before, it’s an open-source media playback app that can play almost any format under the sun — from DivX to Xvid, MPEG to QuickTime. It’s a must-have app for anyone’s computer and VideoLAN hope that this popularity will transfer to iOS.

VLC's interface is uncluttered and keeps the focus solely on your content.

VLC’s interface is uncluttered and keeps the focus solely on your content.

As we all know, transferring files to and from iOS can be a tedious process but VLC provide a number of different methods of loading media into the app. For lots of video, you can use iTunes’ File Sharing to load videos straight from your Mac or PC via USB.

iTunes can be used to import media content into VLC.

iTunes can be used to import media content into VLC.

VLC also includes a built-in web server that you can activate, allowing for uploads through a browser. It works surprisingly well and is effortless to set up, but I wouldn’t recommend using it to load up a few gigabytes of video as it’s likely your browser will choke before the transfer is finished. For music, however, it’s an ideal way to avoid the horror of iTunes.

VLC also features a built-in web server to upload media without needing iTunes.

VLC also features a built-in web server to upload media without needing iTunes.

Interestingly, VLC also includes Dropbox support with full folder access, letting you browse through any folder you may have in Dropbox. VLC can’t play files directly from Dropbox, though — instead it has to download them first. Once you start a download from Dropbox, there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it, certainly none that I could find after searching high and low throughout the app. If you download the wrong file, be prepared to wait or force quit the app.

There's full Dropbox support with the ability to navigate through folders, useful for any online content you have stored.

There’s full Dropbox support with the ability to navigate through folders, useful for any online content you have stored.

Speaking of Dropbox, you can unlink from it at anytime using the option within VLC‘s settings. Annoyingly, there’s absolutely no feedback or message when doing so and the button remains labelled as “Unlink from Dropbox”. It’s a small annoyance but still one nonetheless.

Streaming Content

VLC can detect a number of UPnP devices, such as media servers, as well as FTP servers that advertise their services using Bonjour. Each device will show up when discovered, allowing you to navigate through and find the video you are looking for.

You can also connect to a local network stream, such as one created by VLC on your Mac or PC or a file located directly on a web or FTP server.

Video Playback

I loaded my iPad mini with a trailer for the upcoming movie Gravity. There were six versions in total that covered three different resolutions, 480p, 720p and 1080p in both H.264 MPEG-4 Quicktime MOV format and Theora MKV format. All of the video files were uploaded via iTunes.

VLC's media player is a simple interface but with the ability to change playback speed, AirPlay and alter the colour balance.

VLC’s media player is a simple interface but with the ability to change playback speed, AirPlay and alter the colour balance.

Unfortunately, VLC is extremely prone to crashing and I’d often find myself thrown back to the home screen either navigating through the menu or attempting to watch a video. I managed to watch just two of the trailers I had copied to my iPad without a hitch — the rest would either crash as I attempted to play them or after they had finished.

Out of the two formats, the MPEG-4 videos were the most watchable. The MKVs I loaded would stutter and skip frames or pause for a few seconds then speed up to catch up with itself. As the iPad is able to natively play MPEG-4 files then any other formats that are unsupported are dependent on the app and, in my experience, it just didn’t work as well as I wanted it to.

Additionally, 1080p content of any format will result in a message from VLC stating that your device is too slow so play it back. Considering the iPad mini is capable of playing back 1080p content, which I tested with a 1080p video played via Safari, it’s a shame the app is unable to do this.

A rather odd message I received if I attempted to play back HD 1080p video, yet the same video plays through Safari with no problem.

A rather odd message I received if I attempted to play back HD 1080p video, yet the same video plays through Safari with no problem.

There are so many different formats of video as well as file containers that they’re wrapped in that your mileage will certainly vary. I then loaded a number of Xvid-encoded AVI files that were 480p which played without incident, proving that VLC can at least play certain files without issue.

Conclusion

Despite VLC being an app I use regularly on my Mac, I find it difficult to recommend this app. It struggled to play most of the video files I attempted watch and wasn’t even able to reliably play back HD video that the iPad itself could natively do without breaking a sweat. Add to this the almost constant crashing and it all makes for a rather sour experience.

It certainly has features that the native Movies app isn’t able to do and opens up your iPad to a lot more video formats that can be played back. If you have a lot of video in formats that iOS can’t normally play then VLC might come in handy, but if the experience is going to be mixed at best then I’d recommendy simply converting your existing video to a format that doesn’t require a 3rd-party app.


Summary

A difficult to recommend app due to its frequent instability and playback issues. Everyone will have a different experience but be prepared to take the rough with the smooth, especially if you're dealing with an array of different formats.

5

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