February 22, 2010

The Five Best Linux Video Players

Have some downtime and want to watch a movie or two on your Linux laptop? Linux has plenty of options when it comes to video players. In fact, there might be a few too many to chhose from. So here, in no particular order, are the best video players you can find on Linux, and a few resources to help you get started.

Codecs and Other Silliness

Let's start with the obvious: Multimedia isn't quite as straightforward on Linux as it is on other platforms. This is not a technical deficiency, it's a legal one. Specifically, due to patent encumbrances, the DCMA, and other licensing silliness, it's either illegal or legally murky for vendors and open source projects to ship codecs to play DVDs or some video and audio codecs.

This is especially troublesome for vendors doing business out of the United States, because the patent laws and copyright law are so badly skewed in favor of the entertainment industry. Whereas Microsoft and Apple can license (or own outright) the technologies and bundle them as part of the overall cost of the operating system, the costs of licensing codecs and such for Linux are prohibitive for vendors giving away the OS for free.

However, you can find workarounds. The Fluendo folks have turned adversity into opportunity by offering free and paid sets of plugins. The MP3 decoder is provided free. A complete set of plugins to handle Windows Media format, H.264, MPEG, and AAC formats, which should take care of the gamut of streaming formats. These should work with players that use the Gstreamer format. Fluendo also sells a DVD player for nearly 20 Euros, which handles encrypted DVDs and DVDs from all regions.

Some distros bundle in support for multimedia, and leave it to the user to decide whether their local laws allow such things. Linux Mint, for instance, is an Ubuntu derivative that comes with multimedia support out of the box with its Main Edition. You'll also find a "Universal Edition" of Mint if you prefer its other enhancements but aren't sure that you're in a region that allows the bundled multimedia support.

Ubuntu users can find information on setting up Restricted Formats including MP3, DVD, Flash, Quicktime, and Windows Media. Fedora and openSUSE also provide a fair amount of instruction on how to get restricted formats enabled.

If you choose video that's in Theora format, you don't have to worry about any of this. It should just work out of the box on any Linux distro. Unfortunately, finding content that's in Theora is not as easy as one might hope. Most of the content you'll find online tends to be in a proprietary format like Windows Media, Quicktime, or Flash. And the last I checked, you won't find too many DVDs that are unencrypted with video in Theora, either. But if you have an opportunity to provide feedback to content providers, or have a choice — I strongly recommend choosing Theora and doing whatever you can to support it.

Now that all that's sorted out, let's look at the players.


For an all-around media player, you can't beat the free software answer to iTunes: Banshee. The Banshee Project provides a fantastic media player that handles video and music, manages podcasts, and integrates with Last.fm.

Banshee is a well-designed media player that syncs with a number of popular media players (including some models of iPods, though Apple has not played well with the FLOSS community on this front), can search the Internet Archive for media, and integrates particularly well in the GNOME desktop. Of course, it also runs on KDE and other popular desktop environments / window managers.

In addition to looking good and having an easy to use interface, Banshee is also (befitting its name) screamingly fast at importing media. It can slurp in a MP3 audio collection with more than 60GB of music in just a few minutes on a reasonably new laptop.

Banshee uses the Gstreamer backend for media playback, so any formats that Gstreamer can handle should work fine with Banshee. Some distros, like openSUSE, include Banshee by default in the GNOME desktop. If it's not included by default, Banshee packages should be available in the repos.


If you want a powerful multiplatform video player, check out VLC from VideoLAN. VLC is is a player and "framework" that can handle most audio and video formats you'd want to use, and it also works with DVDs, audio CDs, and much more. When they say "multiplatform," they mean it too: VLC runs on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD and OpenBSD, and even BeOS.

The video support for VLC on Linux is outstanding. If you can't watch it in VLC, odds are you can't watch it. Note that VLC also boasts support for quite a few subtitle and captioning formats, so it may be the best option for users who need or want subtitles with their video for accessibility reasons or just because they want to be able to watch their dialog.

What's more, you can also use VLC to stream content from video files, DVDs, hardware encoding cards, and even satellite and digital TV. So you can have one system that's serving media all over your house to any VLC client whether it's on Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows.

VLC is a bit more complex to get started with, but very worth the effort for any video fiend. To get packages for your favorite distro, see The VideoLAN VLC download page, which has packages or links to packages for Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, openSUSE, Ubuntu, and others.


As the initial K would suggest, Kaffeine is a KDE media player that lets you play DVDs, video and audio CDs, and it has support for DVB devices as well. Whether you want to watch a movie on DVD, play a few songs, or tune into a show on digital TV, Kaffeine is a good choice for KDE users (and other desktops as well).

Kaffeine is also available with most Linux distros, or you can browse the download page on the Kaffeine Website. Kaffeine depends on Xine for video playback, and some distros (notably openSUSE) ship Xine without some formats, like MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, enabled. The Kaffeine Web site gives instructions on how to enable those plugins if you need them.


Another winner for Linux is Miro, though calling it a video player is sort of like calling Paul McCartney a bass player. Well, yes, Sir Paul does play bass, but he does so much more on top of that.

Likewise, Miro does a lot more than just play video. Miro plays video, but also has a slew of content right at your fingertips. The Miro Guide hosts all kinds of channels with content ranging from broadcast and cable TV via Hulu. Get the Colbert Report, Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and more. You won't find everything off of broadcast and cable, but there's quite a bit of free content that's easy to dial up using Hulu.

Miro also sports podcasts, can manage your video and audio library, and has built-in BitTorrent to grab content from sites like LegalTorrents. LegalTorrents is more than video: It also hosts some audiobooks, comics, audio, and a bunch of other content — though a bit limited. You can add your own site to Miro, too. Any site that exports its information as RSS feed, you can add as a channel in Miro. In short, Miro puts a ton of entertainment and information right on your desktop.

The interface is also decidedly user-friendly. It's easy to use and easy on the eyes. The only shortcoming for Miro is that it's only focused on desktop use. It doesn't have a way to sync content with portable players, which can be a bit of a bummer if you wanted to sync media to a portable device.

The Miro Project is a non-profit, open source project that is focused on supporting users and content creators. Packages are available for quite a few distros, see the platforms page to get Miro for your favorite distro.


Last, but certainly not least, there's Boxee, a "social media center" that lets you play locally stored content or grab content from sources like Hulu. You can just connect your computer to the telly and be done with it with Boxee.

Rather than being designed as a standard desktop media playback app, Boxee is designed to play videos, music, and pictures off your computer and via the Internet on your TV. It supports a slew of content and has a spiffy interface that is well-designed for a set-top box. You can, of course, use Boxee on your computer as well. But it looks very nice on an HDTV too.

Boxee also requires a user account with Boxee.tv. It doesn't cost anything, but some users might find it a bit annoying to have to sign up for a account with the service.

Most of the channels/formats work on Linux, though one of the nice features in Boxee on other platforms is Netflix support via Microsoft Silverlight. This doesn't work in the Linux version of Boxee.

Interested users can find packages for Ubuntu Linux or source code for Boxee. It's not pre-packaged for most distros, so users on non-Ubuntu systems might have a bit of a headache getting it up and running.

As always, there are plenty of options on Linux. If you're looking to trick out your Linux box as an entertainment center, any of the options here will get you started. It's a big world of applications out there, and I'd love to hear from other Linux users about their favorite video apps as well.

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