iPhone Life magazine

Review: New Versions of Multimedia Players VLC, nPlayer, and AVPlayer(HD)

Three multimedia players have received some major updates in the last few months. Let's see how their current versions fare.

Let's start with VLC, The following section assumes you've read my previous VLC review as I only elaborate on the changes and whether the biggest problems have been fixed.
1. VLC (free)

This July, when VLC for iOS (current, tested version: 2.1.3) was re-released in the App Store after almost three years, I really disliked the new 2.0.1/2.0.2 version. It was far inferior to the alternative players like nPlayer or AVPlayer(HD), and even some free ones like the jailbreak-only XBMC.

In the last three months, however, the app has received several updates. Among other things, the Settings menu has received a brand new group for controlling the size,font, and encoding of subtitles; and a new subdialog for enabling or disabling deinterlacing. And making the latter automatic. The Settings submenu of the old version:




And that of the new one:

The main menu also sports a lot of promising new features; for example, UPnP, FTP access, and streaming (received in version 2.1.0). Below, I elaborate on both new features and the most important advantages and disadvantages of the initially reviewed first two versions.

1.1 Let's start with deinterlacing!

I didn't notice any difference between the deinterlaced and the original version of:

  • DVB MPEG-2 Standard Definition 50i test video (Sininen laulu)
  • DVB MPEG-2 Full HD 60i test video
  • H.264 AVCHD 1080i60 test video (Streetdrummer)

That is, none of the most common interlaced video formats (direct DVB TV recordings and interlaced consumer camera recordings) are properly deinterlaced. For example, the following two screenshots are from playing “Sininen laulu” first with deinterlacing enabled and, second, disabled:



(click the images for the originals)

As you can see, there is absolutely no difference between the rendering of the individual images—no deinterlacing is applied.

1.2 What about DTS support?

It was probably only because of the DTS support that I recommended the initial versions back in July. It's still here! If you can't/don't want to jailbreak to use XBMC or RushPlayer+ (both support DTS), and can't remux your files, your only choice for DTS  playback is this app or the recently-released 4.5 version of the iPad-only CineXPlayer HD. Nevertheless, I'd seriously consider remuxing the DTS-only audio tracks of your videos to AC3 or, even better, AAC. It's  far easier than you may think, and I've written several tutorials on this topic. (I'll dedicate a separate article to the new CineXPlayer HD very soon.)

1.3 H.264 decoding: Hardware support and software decoding speed

1, Unfortunately, VLC still doesn't make use of hardware H.264 decoding for compatible containers (mov / m4v / mp4). This is still by far the biggest problem with the player making it still a no-no, unless you don't want to play back H.264 video at all (because all you want to watch is MPEG-2, for example.)

2, The software decoder can decode some of the lower-bitrate 24p full HD videos at almost-perfect speed on a reasonably fast hardware (A6 CPU and up; that is, on an iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, and the iPad 4). But it is much slower than the best players' software decoders with:

  • Higher-bitrate 24p files. See the standardized “Birds” test video.
  • Anything with a frame/field rate of 60. There is simply no contest, VLC plays back these videos far-far slower than nPlayer. Note that I've also added “field rate.” The playback quality of interlaced 50i/60i videos is also much worse than in the best alternative players. As the iDevice's hardware can't play back interlaced H.264 video in hardware, all players need to use software decoding for such playback.

All in all, I do not recommend the player for any kind of high-resolution H.264 playback. Even if you're lucky not to see many frame drops, the battery life will suffer a lot and you'll encounter some major heat-ups. Whenever possible, ALWAYS use players with (true) hardware-assisted decoding!

1.4 Styled AAS support 

It's still buggy; the non-Western character problem still hasn't been fixed. 

1.5 Audio-only playback

Audio playback-wise, as has also been mentioned in the 2.1.0 update notes, the new player  has much better and wider audio format compatibility. Of my test audio collection, it only refused to play back the 24-bit Lossless and WMA Pro files. (These two: 24-bit; WMA Pro). Dedicated article on lossless formats.) Everything else was played back, including  16-bit Lossless WMA files (for example THIS one).

In this regard, it's exactly the same as the desktop version of VLC, with the difference that the latter does show an error message when trying to play back 24-bit lossless audio. As with the iOS version, the desktop version plays silence with WMA Pro files.

This all means you'll still need jailbreaking and XBMC to play back  24-bit Lossless WMA and WMA Pro files on iOS. Otherwise, you won't have problems with FLAC, APE, WV, OGG, WMA files / tracks - and, of course, the more traditional ones - when using VLC.

1.6 UPnP

As has already been mentioned, VLC now supports UPnP and FTP streaming. Of the two, I've very thoroughly tested the former. (The latter is much less used.)

In my UPnP testsm I had no problems with the UPnP source (the current, 0.9.8.6.175-88ffbb2 version) of Plex Media ServerOf course, as the player doesn't support hardware playback, it doesn't support direct UPnP proxying between an UPnP network source and an AirPlay receiver. (Please see “1.4 Streaming UPnP sources to the Apple TV” in my UPnP bible for more information.)

File downloading also not supported. Of the reviewed apps, nPlayer supports both. (In nPlayer, tap-and-hold a list item to bring up its download menu item or to add it to a playlist. Incidentally, VLC lacks playlist support entirely. Note that download support is also pretty new in nPlayer. It received it after I published my UPnP bible. AVPlayer(HD), unfortunately, still doesn't support any kind of streaming, except for the pretty rare FTP.

1.7 Conclusion

I still can't recommend this player for video playback. While I certainly welcome the updates, the core of the entire player is still suffering from the same problem: software-only video playback, which is a major handicap. For audio playback, however, it may be a good choice.


2. Now let's turn our attention to my personal favorite player, nPlayer ($4.99) 

The current 2.2 version has received a lot of goodies since my last review and other roundups I've written also featuring the player.

One of the most important of them is color adjustment even in hardware-decoding mode. Until now, only the semi-hardware decoder and “It's Playing” (which has not been updated in a long time) were capable of this with regard to non-software-only players. (The software-only VLC has always supported this, see below for some screenshots.)

Remember: when playing back iOS-native video files (mp4/m4v/mov), you MUST disable the default “QuickTime” decoding mode so that the “Color Adjustment” menu item becomes visible. It's under that that you can make the controls displayed:



Now, tap Decoder and select Hardware; I've annotated the latter:



After returning to the main menu, tapping the checkmark, and re-invoking the menu, “Color Adjustment” becomes visible:

Tap it to bring up the new menu. An example of it, showing its default values with the standardized Monsters test video:




This is a shot with minimized brightness and maximized contrast and saturation:




and this with low contrast & saturation and a bit high brightness:





Note: nPlayer can't change the hue, unlike VLC. Let me present you two screenshots of the VLC player, also showing the very beginning of the Monsters video:




and:




(All these shots show the sliders' positions.)

With these changes, nPlayer easily remains the most recommended iOS video player.

3. Finally, let's discuss another very popular title, AVPlayer(HD).

AVPlayer and AVPlayerHD (both $2.99) I tested the current 2.20 version on both platforms. These are also great players that have received a completely new and much much more logical and intuitive interface.

3.1 Subtitles

You no longer need to switch between subtitle tracks in the file list, something that wasn't intuitive at all. Actually, the old “tool” dialog is completely gone, at last.

Now, you can select and change the subtitle track right during playback:


 

(the screenshot also shows an embedded subtitle in Finnish being rendered below the movie)

Subtitles can also be relocated, and their size and style can be changed:



Note that while the engine supports displaying two independent subtitles at the same time, it still only seems to be able to do this with SMI external subtitles and not embedded ones, which means it's of little practical use. DVB TS subtitles are also still incorrectly renderedthat is they don't make use of the color information and they use fuzzy, very hard-to-read outlines. 

This is how the standardized Lupaus” test video multicolor subtitle is rendered by nPlayer:



and by VLC:



Compare the above two shots to AVPlayer's (much worse) rendition:



Unfortunately, while AVPlayer can decode DVD (that is, bitmap) subtitles (for example, the embedded ones in THIS standardized test file), it suffers from exactly the same problem: they're rendered with a fuzzy outline, making them very hard to read:


 
Both nPlayer and VLC renders these subtitles properly. An nPlayer screenshot example:



Styled SSA subtitles are still not parsed, unlike in nPlayer.

In all these regards, nPlayer (and, in most cases, also VLC) is still superior.

3.2 Brightness, contrast, and saturation control

Like nPlayer, AVPlayerHD supports setting the brightness, contrast, and saturation. Here is an example of the same Monsters test video starting frame, with maximized  saturation:



Note that these controls can be used while playing back video with hardware decoding.

Audio boosting is also supported by the new versions.

All in all, AVPlayer(HD) remains one of the top picks as a quality player, particularly if you don't need UPnP / SMB streaming or fancy subtitle support.

UPDATE (11/Oct/2013 10:45 GMT): answering a question at Mac Rumors, I've quickly tested the AirPlay support of the above-reviewed apps. As was easy to predict, VLC, as it completely lacks hardware decoding, can't drive the AirPlay receiver in native (non-mirrored) mode (assuming you're trying to play back native iOS videos like mov, mp4, and m4v files). All you can do is mirroring with all its problems (significantly lower quality, abundance of dropped frames etc.)

nPlayer has no problems with the native mode – assuming you're sticking with the default QuickTime decoding mode. If you switch to Hardware decoding (let alone Software), only the audio will be mirrored. That is, if you connect your iDevice to your AppleTV but don't enable mirroring, and you only get audio out of your  native iOS videos, make absolutely sure you have selected QuickTime decoding.

I had no problems with AVPlayer(HD)'s native AirPlay output (in the default hardware-decoded mode, of course).

Of course, neither nPlayer nor AVPlayer(HD) are able to mirror hardware-decoded MKV files over a native (non-mirrored) AirPlay connection. For them, you absolutely must use a wired HDMI or VGA connection—preferably on an "old" 30-pin device as the Lightning HDMI / VGA adapters deliver inferior image quality when driven in non-native mode.

All the three apps work in mirrored mode in all possible decoding configurations (not applying to the software-only VLC, of course) but, as has been pointed out, you never should use mirroring mode when playing back video over AirPlay, unless absolutely necessary for example, when you're trying to play back a non-native file like an MKV or an AVI.

UPDATE (18/Oct/2013 6:55 GMT): answering another question at Mac Rumors, I've directly compared the MPEG-2 decoder of VLC to that of nPlayer with the standard ATSC 1080i60 test video. nPlayer seems to have a better, more efficient MPEG-2 decoder. It's both faster and exhibits no combing. That is, when playing back not only H.264, but also MPEG-2, nPlayer should be preferred to VLC for the best, most fluid results.

I've created a video demonstrating this. It's available at http://youtu.be/0mWjCUh7KH4 and shows the playback on VLC for iOS 2.1.2 and nPlayer 2.2. The white iPad2 on the left runs VLC, the black iPad 3 on the right nPlayer. I've set VLC to be as fast as possible (deintelacing explicitly set to off; no deblocking) and made sure it's run on the iPad 2, which, as some say, may be in cases faster than the iPad 3. (Albeit I haven't seen any speed difference between the two when shooting my past video playback benchmarks.)

 

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Werner Ruotsalainen is an iOS and Java programming lecturer who is well-versed in programming, hacking, operating systems, and programming languages. Werner tries to generate unique articles on subjects not widely discussed. Some of his articles are highly technical and are intended for other programmers and coders.

Werner also is interested in photography and videography. He is a frequent contributor to not only mobile and computing publications, but also photo and video forums. He loves swimming, skiing, going to the gym, and using his iPads. English is one of several languages he speaks.