The best media player for performance 2014
4th Jan 2014 | 14:02
We test 15 media players for speed and resource use
The software we tested
Our best media player article has been fully updated for 2014.
Some media players are bloated monsters, packed with unnecessary features. You've seen the results: open an HD video and they'll keep you waiting while your hard drive thrashes, your RAM is gobbled up and your CPU utilisation reaches new highs.
You don't have to put up with this, though. Other media players launch in a flash, and then make minimal demands on your system resources, allowing smooth HD video playback even on the most under-powered of PC hardware.
There's a problem, of course. You need to figure out which players fall into each category. And that's not easy, because everyone claims their own products are fast, efficient and great performers, whether they are or not.
The answer was obvious, then. We had to benchmark the players ourselves. So we took 15 of the top contenders from around the web, measured the time it took them to load and begin playing (largely) HD videos in five common formats (MP4-based AVI, H.264 MOV, MPEG-2, MP4, and OGG), and monitored their average CPU utilisation and RAM requirements.
And it turned out there were major differences in launch time and resource use between some of the programs – so let's find out which one came out on top and can be proclaimed as the best media player for 2014...
We selected the following 15 popular media players for our tests.
BS Player 2.66
Daum PotPlayer 1.5.40688
DivX Player 10
GOM Media Player 184.108.40.20669
jetAudio 8.1.0 Basic
Media Player Classic Home Cinema 1.7.0
Snow Player 1.19
VLC Media Player 2.1.0
Windows Media Player 12
Zoom Player Free 8.6.1
How we tested
The benchmark process started by selecting our test videos, and we opted for five versions of the Creative Commons-licensed animation, Big Buck Bunny.
These included an AVI movie with MP4 video and AC3 surround sound, a MOV file with H.264 video and AAC surround sound, and an OGG Theora video with Vorbis stereo sound, all of which were full 1080p resolution.
For good measure we also grabbed a copy of the Apple iPod 5G versions (at 320x180 pixels), before downloading the PAL DVD ISO to test MPEG-2 playback.
We chose a reasonably powerful test PC, equipped with Windows 8, 16GB of RAM and an Intel Core i5-4440 CPU, utilising its onboard Intel HD 4000 graphics. We also removed each program using Revo Uninstaller Free to see how much detritus each one left behind.
We then opened the test videos in each of our media players, noting the time it took for them to begin playback.
As the players worked, we used Process Explorer to access the average CPU utilisation and maximum physical RAM they required. We didn't try to optimise the player's settings to improve any results, so our figures relate to the default settings only. It's possible that some players may work faster or use fewer resources if you spend time fiddling with their settings.
The best media player for performance is…
As we took a closer look at the figures, it was again obvious just how important your choice of media player can be, particularly if you're running a lesser-powered PC.
Opening a file using JetAudio Basic, for example, could take up to nine times longer than VLC Media Player. The maximum memory demands of Windows Media Player were around four-and-a-half times that of SMPlayer or Snow Player.
We also carefully recorded the average CPU demands for each video format played, because it was obvious some formats were much more demanding than others. OGG files tended to ask the most of our media players, while the iPod and MPEG-2 versions of the file were the least demanding – unsurprising when you consider that their resolutions were sub-HD.
Having said this, some media players worked better with certain formats than others. Having taken so long to open files, JetAudio Basic excelled at playing back the HD MOV format, averaging a paltry 2% CPU usage – by contrast RealPlayer topped out its demands with 19%. If you're wedded to a particular format, the graphs below should help you pick the perfect media player for your specific requirements.
One thing that did surprise us in these tests is the relatively poor performance of VLC Media Player, our 2011 winner. Yes, it was the quickest to load files – and its format support is second-to-none, making it an excellent all-round choice where performance isn't an issue. But its average CPU utilisation left it in the bottom half of our list, although things were slightly improved by its relatively lean memory demands.
So which player won out in the end? In third place was GOM Media Player. It played all five video formats and averaged under 10% CPU utilisation across the board. But it lost out due to its memory demands, which peaked at 183MB.
In second spot was MPCSTAR. It matched GOM's CPU demands, but weighed in with a lighter memory footprint, peaking at just over 100MB. One possible black mark against it is a lack of OGG support.
The winner of our roundup was SMPlayer. It wasn't the quickest player to launch and load files, but it never took more than two seconds, which we think is an acceptable wait. It excelled where it mattered though - in CPU and memory performance. Thanks to a maximum memory footprint of just 80MB, and average CPU utilisation just that little bit more efficient than the other two players on the podium, SMPlayer emerges as the best performing media player for 2014.
* Couldn't play all our test files. Included for reference only.