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Summary:

Apple’s iOS devices only play specially encoded .m4v, .mp4 and .mov files natively. VLC plays just about any video format, including .mkv, .avi, and .mpeg’s. VLC is a great tool for Macs, but does the just-released iPad version provide a new hope for iOS devices?

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VLC Screen Capture

Apple’s iOS devices play .m4v, .mp4 and .mov files, but they have to be specifically encoded for the platform. VLC plays just about any video format you could come across. That means .mkv, .avi, and .mpeg’s among others. VLC is a great tool for notebook and desktop computers, but does the just-released iPad version provide a new hope for iOS devices?

How VLC Works

After you install the VLC App on the iPad and launch it for the first time, it will tell you to use iTunes to load video files onto your iPad via the new File Sharing feature. From the Apps tab in iTunes, you’ll see a File Sharing section on the bottom of the screen. From here, you can copy files to and from the iPad. Once you have some media loaded, you’re ready to play.

Videos in VLC are placed on shelves for you to select. Once a video is selected, it will start playback in full-screen mode. When you stop and exit full screen mode, a little timer will appear in the bottom right corner of the thumbnail indicating how much of the video you’ve already viewed. The controls are somewhat limited, even by iPad standards, and will only allow you to manually scroll forward and back, as well as advance to the next and previous chapters, in addition to play/pause and volume functions.

You can’t maximize the screen size of the playing video to hide the black bars, and there doesn’t appear to be any subtitle support at the moment. There’s also no way to see a list of chapters, and I was also unable to play video when connecting the iPad to my external video display.

How VLC Compares

For the first test, I took the exact same file, encoded from a DVD source, using Handbreak, to an .m4v/.mp4 file format. This was a full-length movie file weighing in at 1.62GB utilizing the H.264 video codec and both AAC as well as AC3 audio codecs at a total bit rate of 1,277 (details taken from the Finder’s “More info” screen). I would typically play this file on my Samsung 40″ HDTV by copying it to a USB thumb drive and plugging the thumb drive directly into the side of the HDTV, where it looks very good.

I also loaded the same file onto my iPad and played it using Apple’s own software. The iPad played the file with no noticeable jerks in the video, no jaggies, and the sound matched the actors from a timing perspective.  It looked stunning as well.  Then I loaded the same video file to VLC via iTunes File Sharing. There were noticeable skips, jumps, and at times, horrible jaggies that engulfed the entire screen. The audio seemed to outpace the video, resulting in the dreaded false foreign dubbing effect.

What about HD video? Upon loading HD files, a neat little red banner is tagged across the upper right corner of the thumbnail on the media self in the iPad version of VLC. However, if you play a truly HD video, VLC will warn you that “Your iPad is probably too slow to play this movie correctly”, and allow you to cancel or try anyway. This leads one to believe that it is not a poorly written port of VLC to iOS, but rather the limitations of the A4 chipset that causes playback problems. Yet the exact same video file performed much better in Apple’s stock video app.

How VLC Adapts

I have a relatively extensive video library, including encoded DVDs and DV video shot with a variety of cameras. Getting these files to play back on each new device I purchase has been a nightmare. There are DVD players the support DivX, and HDTVs that support H.264, and then there’s all the codecs that modern DVRs produce. I tried playing the video from the following sources, to see just how nimble VLC for iPad really was:

  • SD video from a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS
  • HD video from a Flip Mino HD
  • HD video from Canon Digital Rebel T1i
  • HD video exported from iMovie on the iPhone 4
  • SD DivX/Xvid video

In all cases, the video did display something, VLC occasionally crashed, and I at least heard something intelligibly audible. If you don’t want to spend your time converting your existing media files, you want something that can play what you’ve got. But nothing was playing at anywhere near the quality required to view and comprehend the video. It was as if I was a member of a CSI team trying to extract evidence from a damaged hard drive.

How VLC Can Improve

VLC is on iOS, and that is a good thing. That said, praising its release and existence in the App Store is about all I will be doing. If I have to convert video to an acceptable bitrate, or downgrade HD video to standard, then I might as well do so in a format that the stock Apple app can already play. The beauty of VLC is that you shouldn’t have to do anything, and any video format you have should be supported. It’s a lofty goal for any development team to be held accountable for. The developers at Applidium have taken on a worthy challenge.

Add some basic features like video output, and, dare I hope, AirPlay support, and VLC would be a mighty contender. In its current state, the media files that I would want to feed VLC are choking on limited resources. Hopefully, there are still some performance enhancements in VLC that can be made, and we’ll see smooth playback of all media formats from iOS devices, including the iPhone, directly to the new Apple TV.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):
3 Things Apple iTV Must Do to Succeed

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  1. There is some subtitle support, if there’s a srt file with the same name as the video it will pick it up, but you can’t seem to adjust it or toggle it on/off.

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  2. Hold up.

    The iPad supports AC3 audio?

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    1. The mpeg 4 videos used above was encoded with multiple audio tracks. Not only did the video have an ac3 audio track, but also a aac audio track. When played on the iPad, it used the aac audio track, not the ac3 audio track.

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  3. I totally agree with you, I have been waiting for this to come out and feel a bit disappointed, I know its a free app, however the beauty of the Win client is its ability to play anything you throw at it, Apple seem to have gotten the correct x264 capability for their native app, so i hope that VLC catches up, this has the potential to be a killer app, fingers crossed it progresses well

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  4. Karthik Ramgopal Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    “This leads one to believe that it is not a poorly written port of VLC to iOS, but rather the limitations of the A4 chipset that causes playback problems. Yet the exact same video file performed much better in Apple’s stock video app.”

    That’s coz Apple’s app has access to the underlying hardware’s MPEG4/H.264 acceleration, whereas VLC purely uses the CPU for decoding. This also shows in battery life, where VLC posts rather dismal results as compared to the stock video player.

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