To play music and video files, Windows doesn’t have “the one program”, but there are several on-board tools. However, you should not expect format support equipped for every eventuality – it is smaller than that of the top dog media player VLC. Windows 10/11 also has a problem from 2012: Windows 8, which was introduced at that time, no longer plays movie DVDs due to the lack of an MPEG2 decoder, and the same applies to Windows Media Player (WMP) in Windows 10/11. If the discs are inserted, they don’t even appear in the WMP on-board tool; using that of Windows 7 is not an option due to the ended update support for the old operating system. With alternative media players, you can even play Blu-rays in addition to music and video DVDs – see the fifth next paragraph in this article. And you escape Microsoft’s preference for (possibly annoying) on-board apps that are linked to multimedia file formats under Windows 10/11.
Windows media apps as on-board tools
With a bit of attention to technical detail, we look back: Windows 7 brings Windows Media Player version 12 for the first time and does not yet support apps, so double-clicked multimedia files open in WMP. Apps have been on board since Windows 8: Probably to push them, the operating system links common audio and video formats (MP3 and WAV; AVI and MP4) with the screen-filling apps as standard. Although WMP is included, it does not open when you double-click on the corresponding multimedia files – the music or video app appears.
Microsoft showed some understanding with Windows 8.1: Apps and WMP still reside in parallel, but the above-mentioned multimedia file types are linked to WMP again – instead of apps. Windows 10/11, on the other hand, behaves like Windows 8 with MP3, WAV, AVI, MP4, but has better manageable playback apps. These are Groove Music and Movies & TV. Windows 11 22H2 (first OS feature update) opens audio and video files with a unified app, “Media Playback”.
Beyond the touch applications, playing songs works puristically via a console window: The PowerShell is able to play WAV content under Windows 7, Windows 8.1, Windows 10 and Windows 11. Many a Microsoft enthusiast thinks, “Cool, that’s possible” – but due to the lack of graphical user guidance, there is no joy in the long run. The situation is different with additional media players. Some of them are more visually appealing than the Groove music application, for example.
Three powerful media players: VLC Media Player
The most popular media player that plays almost all audio and video files – even zipped, corrupted and incompletely saved ones – is VLC. The interface is slim, the resource consumption turns out to be low.
The range of functions is nevertheless impressive: File conversions, correcting the alignment of a crooked video image and downloading YouTube clips are just a few examples. You’ll have the basic features down pat after a short time. If you want to dig deeper and exploit all the possibilities, you will be confronted with a certain amount of nesting.
Media Player Classic – Home Cinema is probably the most important VLC competitor. Its name is reminiscent of Windows Media Player, but it has a larger supported format palette. When you exit Media Player Classic, it remembers the file opened in it. The tool plays it back the next time it is started. The program comes with an activatable dark mode, and there is also a Black Edition of the software, which has a dark appearance from the start.
VLC clone for demanding users: GridPlayer
GridPlayer is interesting because of its technical basis: VLC. The clone program is characterized by the fact that it plays several video files simultaneously. The number of files is limited by the hardware resources, not by the application. The operation is very simple: You transport one or more files via drag & drop into the GridPlayer. Playback starts immediately. If you drag and drop another file, the application plays it simultaneously with the content(s) already output in it.
Press the space bar to pause all clips at once. Double-clicking on the thumbnail of a running video lets you view only that one; another double-click maneuvers you out of this mode, so that the tool again displays different contents in multitasking. Fast-forwarding and rewinding is possible separately in each individual video segment.
An alternative to the GridPlayer is to play videos in picture-in-picture mode. You can realize such an overlay construction for example with the VSDC Free Video Editor. It saves a new video file where two clip contents play simultaneously.
Alternatives for radio reception
(WMP) alternative playback programs can handle all kinds of file types, especially the format master VLC. The software is the acronym for VideoLAN Client and makes radio reception a bit more convenient than Windows Media Player with an additional function; VLC users do not have to fiddle with M3U URLs. Programs specialized in listening to radio stations are, however, even better in this discipline – the sprinkling starts with a click on a radio station entry in the software interface. The use of some WMP/VLC alternatives is especially convenient if you like the graphical interface.
Some of the applications offer multiple interface modes, others design setting options – there should be something for everyone. If not, depending on the software, you can find (mostly free) themes for download online. And yes, the emphasis is also on “VLC alternatives” – so many know and use the VLC Media Player that something new (as a supplement) brings a breath of fresh air, both visually and functionally.
Play local music, videos and Blu-rays/DVDs
The players compiled above play files of different formats. Although most users think of them as audio/video players, image playback also works with them. With only one image loaded into the software you see the content of this one file, with several images you can expect a slideshow. Different methods are available to open files: This works a) by dragging a file into the playback tool window (drag & drop), b) by dragging the desired file onto the media player shortcut or c) after calling the media player via a menu command, a button or with Ctrl-O. Besides such local content from your SSD or hard drive, you often play DVDs (for example with VLC) and Blu-ray discs – whereby Blu-rays require a suitable drive.
Microsoft provides an app for DVD playback with the Windows DVD Player for around 15 Euros, but in view of powerful freeware competition, you rather do not need this application. For free Blu-ray playback, the VLC Media Player is often a recommendation. Unfortunately, VLC does not play copy-protected, i.e. commercially purchased Blu-ray discs. This is usually only mastered by commercial player programs. If you don’t want to spend money, you can use the Leawo Blu-ray player from China. It played a purchased Blu-ray in our test. The tool is the big exception among the free players, since it is also suitable for commercial Blu-rays.
Listen and record online radio
With Pocket Radio Player and Audials One 2023 (free full version), you get software to tap into radio stations: Both programs allow you to stream – i.e. just listen to – and download station content. While the first tool is portable and particularly slim, Audials One 2023 comes to you as a web installer, with greater scope with more complex operation. The more functions speak for the Audials application: You can choose to start a recording immediately at the push of a button and stop it manually, or use a scheduler for a time-controlled recording.
And more: Other media players
Depending on the program, certain extras are on board or additional functions are implemented differently. Features that you should know about are described in the media player photo gallery above – you should quickly find these possibilities and benefit from them. It would go beyond the scope of this article to mention all the functions, which is why we will only mention a few highlights as examples. If a media player appeals to you based on the screenshot and/or description text, download it to try it out. Multiple programs installed at the same time usually don’t cause any problems, but only one program can be associated with one and the same file format at a time. The program format association controls which application opens when you double-click on any files of a certain type.
Some of the tools are particularly light on the PC system: The applications can be both set up and installed portably; other tools are available in dedicated portable versions. What you can expect are visualizations, modern (dark mode) designs, modules for ripping (copy inserted audio CD), playing YouTube videos, downloading them and a sleep timer, among others. The latter shuts down Windows automatically. Such an automatic shutdown is free with MusicBee, whereas it costs something with MediaMonkey. MediaMonkey is considered an iTunes alternative for several reasons: It manages and plays files as well. In addition, it synchronizes with Apple MP3 players without (!) installed iTunes – and transfers PC song files to the iDevice. However, this requires MediaMonkey to have the “Apple Mobile Device Support” driver installed – similar to other iTunes alternatives with sync.
Windows Media Player plays MIDI
Finally, it should be mentioned that WMP has something ahead of the popular and technically more modern VLC: MIDI playback. Files in the corresponding format are especially interesting for musicians; but when it comes down to it, VLC capitulates – and it’s WMP’s hour.
By the way: Under Windows 11 the Windows Media Player is now called differently. If the first OS feature update 22H2 is installed, “Legacy Windows Media Player” is mentioned instead of “Windows Media Player” in its title bar. Legacy means as much as obsolete. Despite this status, WMP is not totally bad. On the contrary, it has functional refinements similar to iTunes. However, the handling seems to be at least minimally a horror to users who are spoiled by the freeware competition. You are better off with the WMP alternatives listed in this article. Tip: If you want to give WMP a chance, read the article “Windows Media Player: Tutorial”. In it, we break down some useful moves.