Are you stepping to Windows 8? If so, Microsoft's now released Windows 8 Media Center will let you play back DVDs, but it won't necessarily support all of the multimedia files in your collection. There are alternatives out there though, that should let you play back a wider range of digital videos and tunes.
It happened when Windows Vista replaced XP, and again when Windows 7 replaced Vista. Compatibility problems have cropped up again now that users are moving from Windows 7 to Windows 8, with many people complaining online that Windows 8 Media Player refused to play (or garbled) certain video files, or that the player got "hung" in its attempts at playback. Often, Windows 8 has issued error messages that "Windows Media Player cannot play this file."
On the plus side, Microsoft seems to have resolved many of these issues prior to Windows 8's commercial launch by working hard on driver compatibility. Also with the launch, Microsoft announced upgrade deals to Windows 8 Pro, including Media Center Pro, for DVD and Blu-ray playback, at special introductory pricing. Under these offers, those upgrading to Windows 8 Pro -- at pricing of $39.99 online or $69.99 for retail software -- can now get a free download of the Windows 8 Media Center Pack, an add-on which includes codecs (coder/decoders) for playing back DVD and Blu-ray discs.
Prior to Microsoft's Windows 8 commercial rollout, Windows 8 included Windows Media Player. Even though Media Center is built into Windows 7, it hadn't been available for Windows 8 during the lengthy product preview cycle for the new OS.
As I've found over the past few days, though, Windows 8 Media Center isn't guaranteed to solve all of your movie playback problems.
Sometimes, you'll be unable to play back a movie in Windows 8, or any other OS, because the file itself is corrupted. In that case, there's not a lot that you can do -- although if the file became corrupted due to a disc error, you might to able to recover it using a separate file recovery utility.
Needed: The Right Codec
However, a big reason why a multimedia file won't play is that you don't have the proper codec installed. A codec allows the system to recognize the format of an audio or video file, and to then decode the file so that it can be listened to or viewed. Think of a codec as a translator.
You might get the message that a file can't be played if you're using a video or audio editing application which produces a file that's not readable with the codecs installed in your system, for example; or if you uninstall an application which then takes an installed code along with it.
If you are playing back video or audio inside the application that created it, you're using vendor-supplied codecs which have already been installed in the application. That's why, sometimes, a video or audio file will play in the creator application, but not otherwise.
Toward the very end of the Windows 8 preview cycle, I tested Windows 8 Media Player in Windows 8 Pro both before and after Microsoft's "Cumulative Update". Then, just subsequent to Microsoft's commercial rollout of Windows 8, I tried out the newly available Media Center. Along the way, I checked out third-party media playback alternatives.
Media Player Offers Lots of Codecs, But Not all
In these tests, I discovered that Windows 8 Media Player does contain many of the most common codecs you'll need. However, it leaves out some other codecs for both audio and video.
To test the capabilities of Windows 8 Media Player, I tried playing a variety of different files in different file formats. For the most part, Windows Media Player handled standard file formats without a glitch.
MP4 video transcoded from a commercial DVD for the purposes of testing played fine, as you can see from the screenshots accompanying this article.
So did MOV format files shot with an iPhone. AVI, which is another standard video format, also played without problems, as did two of the most common audio file formats: MP3 and WMA.
Finally, I surfed over to YouTube and played a half-dozen videos ranging from music to comedy sketches. In all of the videos tested, I didn't experience any difficulites around synchronization of the audio and video.
However, I personally came across two file formats that the Windows 8 Media Player did not support out-of-the-box, producing a "Can't play" error message. These were as follows: video files in the Adobe Flash format and audio files in FLAC, a lossless format that's never been natively supported in any version of Windows Media Player.
Meanwhile, though, in Windows 8, Microsoft has opted to embed Adobe Flash Player directly into the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 10 browser.
Another type of multimedia file widely known to be unsupported by either the Windows 8 Player or Media Center is MKV, a file that supports a wide variety of video, audio, and subtitle compression formats.
Windows Media Center: Similar Results
To get the free download of Windows 8 Media Player, you need to install Windows 8 Pro, register for the Windows 8 Pro Pack through "Add Features to Windows 8" in the Control Panel, and then wait for Microsoft to send you a registration key by email.
Upon waiting too long to receive my registration key, I found it much easier to simply download the Windows 8 Media Center for $10 from the Windows Store.
After installing the $10 Media Center, I confirmed first-hand that it does indeed enable playback of both DVD and Blu-ray discs.
However, it did not add the ability to play back either Flash or FLAC multimedia files.
According to Microsoft, though, Windows 8 Media Center provides a number of other capabilities not present in Windows 8 Media Player, including the abiity to record broadcast TV shows and to play back VOB, ATSC, DBV-T/S, ISDB-S/T, and DMBH files.
Two Sorts of Alternatives
There are two main solutions to playing files that aren't supported in Windows Media Player or Media Center. The first is to install the missing codec(s). You might obtain a codec from a manufacturer. Another good way to do this is by installing a codec package. Several good packages are available for free, including one from Shark007 and the K-Lite Codec Pack.
A second solution is to replace Windows Media Player with a third-party media player which has tons of codecs already built in. As with codec packs, there are a number of these widely available on the Internet, most of which are free. The one I'm most experienced with is the VLC Media Player from VideoLAN, an open source software supplier.
VLC is simple to install and easy to use. It has played every audio and video format I've ever tried. It works with Windows 8 and previous versions of Windows, and it's also available for other operating systems, including Apple's Mac OS and Linux.
If you want to play back movie and music files in Windows 8 (and who doesn't these days?), Windows 8 Media Player and Windows 8 Media Center are not your only alternatives.
When a multimedia file is behaving balkily, you might want to give a third-party media player or codec pack a whirl.
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