Intuitivity Redux: VLC vs. MPlayer

Monday, 2005-11-28; 02:24:00

Utterly ridiculous.

Over two months ago, I rambled on about what I called "intuitivity". It was kind of a self-indulging exploration about the nature of well-designed software from a usability perspective. However, I recently encountered an example that is perfect for highlighting the usability differences between two pieces of software that attempt to do the same thing. It's actually only something I've noticed within the past three months, after I originally ranted on intuitivity.

First, a bit of history: there are a lot of video files plastered all over the net. While you can usually view them directly in a web browser using a media plugin, I still have plenty of video files locally on my hard drive (including ones that I couldn't directly view using a plugin -- *coughwindowsmediapluginiscrapcough*). Many of these are those infamous ".avi" files -- files that have been encoded with literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of different combinations of audio and video codecs. There's a bunch of DivX codecs, there's Xvid, there's a bunch of proprietary Microsoft codecs, and so much other stuff that it's really getting ridiculous. Since QuickTime totally sucks at playing most of these files (FFusion and DivX Fusion notwithstanding), I need another application that handles the playback of all these different video files.

Historically, my weapon of choice has always been VLC. Just as the landscape of different video files out there is getting ridiculous, VLC is equally as ridiculous at playing these files -- ridiculously AWESOME, that is. There's only been a couple of Windows Media files I've thrown at it that it couldn't handle, but that's forgivable, especially since some Windows Media files have DRM protections that VLC probably can't possibly support without breaking the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (boooo).

While VLC is, I think, the far-and-away favorite among most technically minded computer users on any platform including the Mac, Windows OR Linux, there has always been one media player lurking in the shadows: MPlayer. (If you use MacUpdate, don't be confused by the other MPlayer, which is not the official binary distribution.) I don't think MPlayer has ever had more mindshare or marketshare than VLC (this is just an educated guess), but it's been a good backup. Occasionally there were video files that MPlayer could play that VLC couldn't, but these were pretty rare.

On Mac OS X, MPlayer was marred by one really bad design decision that, at least for me, made me only want to use it when necessary. MPlayer used to spawn a separate "MPlayer window" application when playing video files. This separate app would appear as a separate icon in your Dock, and would stay in your Dock until the video file finished playing -- then it would disappear. While it's not really that bad of an annoyance, I really hate having excess icons in my Dock, and so this really turned me off to MPlayer. VLC was so good, even, that I forgot about MPlayer for a while.

Well, after September's rant, I randomly decided to check out MPlayer again, and when I downloaded the latest official version, MPlayer blew me away. MPlayer quickly earned a place in my Dock, and has since become my video player of choice. But not because of how well it plays videos or even the number of different kinds of video files it can handle. No, MPlayer blew me away because of its new interface, at least on Mac OS X.

Without further ado, let me present the most obvious new usability gain in the newer versions of MPlayer: integrated control and video window. Yes, I am such an intuitivity freak that I will switch video-playing applications partially because the control window morphs its size to include the playing video, instead of opening the video in a separate window. And it's just so slick the way that the window does a smooth resize rather than an abrupt one. That's some good cake icing!

However, it's ridiculous how much of a usability benefit this particular feature of MPlayer is over the way that VLC does it. Your video controls never get lost! If you see part of the movie you want to watch, you know exactly where the controls are. With VLC, you hopelessly get pushed into creating the habit of going down to the Dock to reveal all of VLC's windows, one of which is the controller window. Furthermore, if you're watching a video in MPlayer, keyboard shortcuts for video controls are going to automatically be recognized as long as the window is frontmost. Contrast this with VLC -- should you have the controller window or the video window frontmost in order to initiate playback keyboard shortcuts? Surprisingly, it actually does matter in VLC. If you have the controller window frontmost, any keyboard shortcuts for video playback -- like pressing space to toggle pausing of playback -- don't actually work. You have to have the video window frontmost. This is, at first thought, backwards, since the keyboard shortcuts are playback controls just like the controller window. However, that's wrong too -- it shouldn't matter whether you have the controller or video window frontmost! The keyboard shortcuts should just work!

(It should be noted here that both VLC and MPlayer enforce a one-movie-at-a-time rule -- you can't ever have more than one video open at once. If you try to open another one, the other is automatically closed. This is in contrast to all of the three major players in the video market, QuickTime Player, RealPlayer, and Windows Media Player. However, given that these are video viewing apps and not video editing apps, this limitation isn't that bad, and actually makes some sort of sense. You're not -- usually, anyway -- going to be viewing two videos at once, since watching a video is an active activity, not a passive one like listening to music. It should also be noted that all of the three major video players also have controls integrated into each video window just like the new MPlayer. I would insert some snarky remark about how ridiculous it is that the interface of most open source software is crap, but I won't -- the fact that QuickTime, RealPlayer, and even *coughhorriblecough* Windows Media Player on the Mac have had integrated controls from day one may indicate that proprietary software usually has better interface direction. On the other hand, it could simply be an artifact of the decision that these three video players open multiple video files at once, and therefore it's absolutely necessary to have controls integrated onto the video window.)

There are two other major things about the new MPlayer that make me want to use it more than VLC. The first is video scrubbing. With VLC, when you press Command-Option-Left Arrow (to advance playback by about ten seconds -- more about this later), it takes about half a second for the video in the new location to appear. In fact, if playback is paused, a new frame doesn't appear at all! With MPlayer, feedback is literally instantaneous -- a new frame appears immediately, with no interruption. So if you're trying to find a particular spot, it's much better with MPlayer, because you don't have to wait for the new frame to appear, saving you -- granted, only split seconds, but those split seconds add up when trying to navigate a 45-minute movie. (By the way, MPlayer's keyboard shortcut for advancing playback by ten seconds is just the left arrow: much more intuitive.)

More on video scrubbing controls: with VLC, pressing Command-Option-Left Arrow doesn't necessarily advanced you ten seconds. Sometimes it's fifteen, or some other odd number in between. Also, the amount by which advancing forward takes you isn't always equal to the amount you go by advancing backwards (Command-Option-Right Arrow). So if you advance forward and then immediately advance backward in VLC, you aren't always at the same place you started. Annoying. Needless to say, this doesn't happen in MPlayer.

The last major difference: when VLC encounters gaps in a video file (like when you try to play a video you haven't yet completely downloaded via BitTorrent), it tries to play that corrupted data. (In case you don't know, BitTorrent doesn't download a video file in a linear fashion: it divvies a video file up into chunks, and then sends you random chunks. So you can end up with a video file that has gaps in the middle, but with the beginning and ending completely intact.) That means that VLC wastes seconds and even minutes showing you garbled video before it starts playing an intact portion again. This video is often so corrupt that it confuses VLC and convinces it that the video is much larger than it actually is, so VLC happily changes the size of the video playback window to be a humongous. Contrast this with MPlayer -- it skips over this corrupted data and starts playing at the next point where the video is intact. Much better usability.

Now, I've gone over the benefits of MPlayer over VLC. Here's what I didn't tell you: in actual video playback, MPlayer can suck. Often times pretty badly. Video and audio often get out of sync after skipping over corrupted data (not so in VLC). After playing one or two videos, video playback gets jerky -- playback goes through cycles of faster than normal video playback and slower than normal playback, making it annoying to watch (you end up quitting MPlayer after almost every two videos you watch to stop this from happening). It can't play some video files which VLC can. It isn't even as complete as VLC is -- VLC can download and save streamed videos, while MPlayer can only view streams, for example.

You'd think that since VLC and MPlayer are designed to play video, I would prefer an app that plays video better, rather than one that has a better interface. I mean seriously, if I told you right of the bat that you had to quit MPlayer after every two videos just to get smooth playback, you'd probably say, "Fuck that!"

But intuitive applications can have a strong pull, especially for Mac users (well, maybe over-obsessed Mac users like me, but there are many out there, *cough* *cough*). MPlayer is currently winning the battle, for me anyway.

One last thing: the icons for the two different video players:

MPlayer iconOld VLC iconNew VLC icon

The one on the left is (obviously) MPlayer's icon. The one in the middle is VLC's old icon. The one on the right is VLC's new icon, as of the official release of VLC 0.8.4.

While MPlayer's icon isn't especially evocative of a video player, it at least has the name of the app, it has the standard triangle-on-its-side icon to indicate playback of some kind, and the shape of the icon -- to me at least -- is a bit reminiscent of a wide-screen video player. VLC's old icon isn't especially evocative of a video player either, but it at least is an icon of a screen, from which you might be able to extrapolate that the app plays video. It also has the little holes along each side of the screen (evocative of a film reel), and again the shape kind of reinforces the notion of a widescreen video player.

VLC's new icon? Doesn't cut it. Sorry. What the hell does a traffic cone have to do with video playing? Seriously. What the fuck?

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