iPhone Life magazine

VLC for iOS Returns to the App Store

VLC is probably the best all-in-one multimedia player for both Mac OS X and Windows. It also has ports on mobile platforms (or will have when Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 are concerned).

The iOS port, which was released back in 2010, had a stormy history. Shortly after its release, it had to be removed from the App Store, only to return almost three years later, this week VLC for iOS (free). Before, the only VLC version available on iOS was from Cydia, the jailbroken App Store. The Cydia version of VLC has always been the same as the 2010 (initial) version of VLC.

The removal of the initial version of VLC has understandably caused quite much uproar because people tend to think of VLC as the best of all players no matter what platform it's running on. This, unfortunately, hasn't been the case of the initial (2010) version – actually, it has been one of the absolute worst players in terms of compatibility, features, and efficiency. As I've always recommended in all iOS forums, you simply didn't want to use the then-current (2010) version of iOS VLC, because it was plain inferior to the top App Store players (GoodPlayer, It's Playing, AVPlayerHD, nPlayer, HD Player Pro (currently unavailable), RushPlayer, BUZZ Player HD. etc.), and Cydia ones (XBMC, RushPlayer+).


VLC in the iOS 7 App Store.

How different is the just-released, brand new version? I have some bad news: not much better. While it has indeed been enhanced, it still can't hold a candle to top App Store players. Basically, if it didn't have VLC in its name, I assume no one would ever download it.

How dare I...?
Why am I saying the new version is inferior to alternatives? Well, for the same reasons I have not recommended several App Store players, most importantly the complete lack of hardware H.264 decoding of iOS-native files (mov/mp4/m4v). You may not immediately notice this on sufficiently powerful iDevice models (at the time, iPad 4 and iPhone 5) or, on older and slower hardware, when playing back lower-resolution videos. However, you'll surely notice the player chewing through the battery really fast. After all, software decoding uses the processor of the iDevice quite a bit, resulting in sometimes dramatically lower battery life. The difference can even be five-fold on iPhones and iPod touches operating with lower backlight. That is, you'll have five times better battery life with a player that uses hardware decoding than with one that doesn't. (Consult section What about software-only playback?” in a recent article for a more thorough explanation.)

In addition, the player crashes a lot and is incompatible with some often-used audio formats, most importantly, MP3 (and MP2) audio. The latter means a lot of AVI files (which, when not using AC3, generally use MP3 audio), all standard definition DVB .TS files, many MKV files etc. are unplayable. Also, since most streaming radio stations use MP3, they won't work either (e.g. Radioio, see my dedicated explanation HERE). 

And the final problem with the current version is that it has been crashing continuously.

Basically, the only reason you may want to download (and archive) VLC is its support for AC3 and DTS audio. Which, I'm afraid, will be very short-lived. If you in no way can convert the DTS audio track(s) of your videos, you may find VLC useful. However, I still strongly recommend against it: remuxing an 5-15 Gbyte MKV file with Subler or MP4Tools only takes some minutes, and this already includes converting DTS tracks to AAC. That is, try remuxing videos containing DTS audio to using VLC to play them back. The vastly enhanced battery life will make this all worthwhile.

So, how dare I criticize the “almighty” VLC? Let's face the truth: it's not ready for primetime. After carefully deciding what you need in a multimedia player (flawless MKV playback? SSA subtitles?) pick a player from the list I've presented above, and use it. (Basically, unless you need SSA subtitles or streaming, nPlayer is the safest bet. If you do need SSA, get HD Player Pro instead.)

Video list

Note: this article discusses the now-current, 2.0.1 version. When future versions are released, I'll try to post updates to the article, but this all depends on my free time. Keep this in mind if and when new, enhanced versions are released. They may be better than 2.0.1., which for the time being is pretty much useless.

Pros and Cons
 
Pros

  • DTS and AC3 support. This is the single reason you should download and archive the file so that you can still keep DTS support when future versions remove it;
     
  • Video filters, playback speed manipulation, and fine seeking;
     
  • Acceptable SSA subtitle support. Note that it can't decode some kinds of SSA subtitles - for example, Japanese kanjis. An example:



Pay special attention to the area, annotated by a red rectangle, in the upper right corner!

The same vertical subtitle is properly rendered by the desktop VLC:


and in HD Player Pro, the, currently, best SSA-capable player:



Note that all similar videos exhibit the same problem; for example, THIS one (originally introduced in my Hi10P playback article)
 

Cons

  • No hardware acceleration support for native formats;
     
  • Furthermore, to make things even worse, the H.264 decoder is somewhat slower than in top players;
     
  • No MKV remuxing (after all, it doesn't play any kind of video hardware accelerated);
     
  • Definitely worse MPEG2 1080i60 decoding support than in several other players;
     
  • Incompatible with several audio formats; for example, MP3 (see the Hindi track in the Harry Potter test video) and MP2 (European SD DVB audio track). This also renders a lot of AVI files and network streams unplayable because of the distorted audio;
     
  • No Apple CC support (which was easy to predict as it doesn't use HW acceleration / decoding at all);
     
  • Very unstable – freezes / crashes VERY frequently;
     
  • No metadata displaying support;
     
  • No support for displaying more than one subtitle at a time;
     
  • When audio-only files are concerned, only OGG Audio (OGA) is supported – there's absolutely no support for WMA / WAV / FLAC / WV / APE files;
     
  • Impossible to resize / relocate / restyle textual subtitles;
     
  • No playlists, camera roll / iPod library access, filelist sorting, folders, file renaming.

 

UPDATE (24/Jul/2013): I've tested the just-released 2.0.2 update:

- it fixes mp2 / mp3 audio playback. Now, all my MKV / SD DVB TS files work.

- it still has DTS / AC3 audio support (not for long, I'm afraid...  That is, you absolutely need to backup the IPA file, should you want to use it for DTS / AC3 audio playback in the future.)

- unfortunately, it still is unable to play back anything using hardware acceleration, not even iOS-native files (let alone MKV's). Therefore, if you do plan to play  iOS-native files (mp4 / m4v / mov) or MKV's, you still absolutely shouldn't use this app, assuming you want the best possible framerate and batter life. As has been explained in the article, the player is usable with other, no-way-hardware-decodeable formats (e.g., MP2 files) but, again, the top AppStore players contain better H.264 and MPEG-2 video decoders.

- the new version seems to have introduced an “instant-crash-while-trying-to-decode-in-filelist-view” bug with the test file “Sininen laulu” . As soon as the player tries to parse the file, it crashes.

All in all, I still don't recommend it, unless you absolutely need DTS audio and don't want to jailbreak for, say, XBMC. (AC3 is now licensed and supported by several AppStore players, on the other hand.)

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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.