by Tony Gamble
Today’s tip hops over the hardware to bring you a software solution to an all-too common problem. Have you ever received a video file from someone, only to discover that when you double-click it, you’re presented with a dismally blank window while the audio pours merrily from your speakers? Or perhaps you are treated to neither. It may even be the case that you simply see a message informing you that the application “cannot play back the video stream: no suitable decompressor could be found”. Typically, the reason for this frustrating roadblock is due to a missing CODEC on your computer.
A CODEC (which stands for COmpressor/DECompressor) is a tiny program that assists the media player application by translating the video file from its compressed state into a viewable stream. Uncompressed video can be huge in file size. For example, one hour of Standard Definition video can soak up 70 Gigabytes of drive space! To put this in perspective, a single DVD can hold only 4.5 Gigabytes. So how are we able to watch a 2-hour movie on a single DVD?
In order to cut this file size down dramatically, one must use software to perform what’s referred to as “lossy compression”. Videos burned to DVDs are most commonly converted to the MPEG2 file format, which has become a common enough compression format that most devices can readily play it. But what if the video file that’s just been handed was compressed in a different “language”, such as MOV, MP4 or AVI? Chances are, the majority of these will play just fine on any current and updated operating system. However, every once in a while you’ll stumble across one that was converted using a “dialect” not native to your computer’s library of CODECs. What can you do?
One solution is to bump up your computer’s comprehension by installing the missing CODEC, and the best way to do this is through a trusted package that can be downloaded and installed quickly and (relatively) easily. On the Mac OS X side of things, you have the self-proclaimed “swiss-army knife of QuickTime Components”, Perian. Windows users can benefit from installing the K-lite CODEC Pack. But Perian is soon to become abandoned by its developers, and K-Lite comes in three confusing flavours and the installer threatens to pimple your system with various other unrelated programs if you’re not careful.
The simplest solution? VLC media player. VLC (VideoLAN Client) can play just about any video or audio file format you can throw at it. It can also play DVDs, Audio CDs and VCDs, as well as many streaming formats. And it does so gracefully. Choppy video in Windows Media Player? Throw it over to VLC and see smooth, fullscreen playback. Audio out of sync? Once again, VLC to the rescue with its Track Synchronization tool.
The next time someone says to you, “I can’t play this”, ask them “Did you try VLC?” They’ll thank you for it.