March 22, 2007

VLC beyond the basics

Author: Dmitri Popov

VideoLAN's VLC is a cross-platform media player with a simple interface that doesn't require a degree in rocket science to operate. That doesn't mean, however, that VLC is a simplistic application: it has a few tricks up its sleeve that can significantly extend its functionality and enhance your user experience. Here are a couple of VLC's nifty features you might want to try.

Like any player software worth its salt, VLC supports skins, so you can easily customize its appearance by installing additional skin packages. VLC's official Web site offers a few ready-made skins, but if none of them tickle your fancy, you'll be pleased to know that VLC also supports Winamp2 and XMMS skins. There are hundreds of Winamp and XMMS skins available on the Web (check, for example, Winamp's skin repository), so there is a good chance you can find something for your taste. You can also create your own VLC skin using VideoLAN's guide, which provides a detailed description of how to make a custom skin. To install a new skin, copy it into ~/.vlc/skins2 on Linux (you might need to create the skins2 directory manually if it doesn't exist) or C:\Program Files\VideoLAN\VLC\skins on Windows. To enable the new skin, choose Settings -> Switch interface and select the skin.

In most situations, VLC's basic interface is adequate for controlling the application, but if you want to tweak the video or audio settings, you can do so by enabling the Extended GUI (Settings -> Extended GUI). Under its Video tab you can adjust video settings such as contrast, brightness, and saturation. This can come in handy when you are dealing with poor-quality videos such as those downloaded from YouTube or similar services.

VLC includes an audio equalizer with several presets (Audio -> Equalizer), but you can also use an advanced equalizer under the Equalizer tab for more precise manual control. If you have a collection of MP3 files that have different volume settings, you'll appreciate the Volume normalization feature under the Audio tab. It allows you to specify a volume filter, so you don't have to constantly adjust volume.

VLC's playlist feature may look rather bare-bones, but it packs a few clever tricks, like the Services Discovery function, which you can use to subscribe to and play podcasts as well as manage Internet radio and TV listings. To subscribe to a podcast feed, open the Playlist window (View -> Playlist), and choose Manage -> Services Discovery -> Podcasts. This creates the Podcast folder with an empty item in the current playlist. Right-click on the item, select Properties, and enter the link to the podcast feed and its name into the URI and Name fields respectively. Double-click on the added item, and you should see the list of available podcasts in the feed. To view a list of available Internet radio stations, choose Manage -> Services Discovery -> Shoutcast radio stations. This adds the Shoutcast item to the current playlist. Double-click on it to see the list of available radio stations, then choose the station you want.

Speaking of feeds, VLC also allows you to add a newsticker that displays news from specified RSS feeds. To enable this feature, choose Settings -> Preferences, navigate to the Video -> Subtitles/OSD section, and tick the RSS and Atom feeds display check box. Next, go to the Text renderer and choose the font you want to use, then specify the font's settings. Switch to the RSS/Atom section and enter the RSS feed's URL into the Feed URLs field. You can add multiple feeds by using the pipe (|) as a URL separator -- for example:

  http://www.linux.com/index.rss|http://www.linux-watch.com/backend/headlines5.rdf

Make sure that there are no spaces between the pipes; if there are, VLC won't display the feeds properly. Finally, select the newsticker position and adjust other settings. Restart VLC, and the next time you play a video you should see the newsticker.

VLC lets you can add bookmarks to a video or audio file you play. Obviously, you can use this feature to mark and locate particular places in the file. But what's more interesting is that you can add bookmarks to a network stream (both video and audio), effectively turning VLC into a timeshifting tool. You can, for example, add a bookmark to a network radio stream, go make a cup of coffee, come back, and continue listening to the stream right where you left it. Adding bookmarks in VLC is straightforward. Open the Bookmark window by choosing Setting -> Bookmarks, then use the available button to add and manage bookmarks.

VLC allows you to record network streams via a built-in scheduling feature. In fact, you can schedule not only recordings, but also transcoding operations and network broadcasts. There are two ways to create a new schedule in VLC: you can either use VLC's Telnet interface, or you can use the VLM interface through VLC's Web front end. Although the latter offers a graphical interface, it can be confusing in use. The Telnet option, on the other hand, allows you to control VLC and create schedules via the command-line interface. Let's say you want to start recording a network stream at a specified time and stop recording after an hour. First, enable the Telnet interface by choosing Settings -> Add Interface -> Telnet Interface. Use the Terminal to connect to VLC: telnet localhost 4212 (the default password is "admin"). Then use a series of command lines like the following:

  new record broadcast enabled input http://88.191.49.63:443
  output #std{access=file,mux=ts,dst=/home/user/recording_2007-05-25.mp3}
  new start schedule enabled date 2007/05/25-11:00:00 append control record play
  new end schedule enabled date 2007/05/25-12:00:00 append control record stop

Sometimes it's important to keep several VLC clients in sync. For example, if you broadcast a video file to several computers on the network, you might want the clients to stay in sync, so the users see the same picture on their screens at any given time. This is where the Network Synchronization feature comes into play. To enable it, choose Settings -> Preferences, navigate to the Interface -> Control interfaces section, and tick the Network Synchronization check box. Switch to the Netsync section, tick the Advanced option check box, and specify the required settings.

Need to take a snapshot of the currently playing video? VLC has you covered. The Video menu includes the Snapshot command, but before you use it, you should configure the snapshot options. Choose Settings -> Preferences, go to the Video section, and, at the very least, specify the snapshot directory and format.

These are just a few of the advanced features VLC has to offer. If you are willing to spend some time exploring the Preferences window, you will undoubtedly discover even more useful features.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, US, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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