Struggling to get certain media files to play? Our Windows Media Player help pages will help you with your playback problems
Playback problems with Windows Media Player can be very frustrating. Because of this, we’ve constructed these Windows Media Player help pages to try and help you understand the complications associated with video playback on modern computers and to help you troubleshoot any issues you encounter. If you’re still not comfortable with the basics of using Media Player, you should review our Windows Media Player basics tutorials first.
Unfortunately, media playback has become a complex issue in modern times, due to the huge number of different formats used to store audio, video and subtitle data and transport it around the Internet and other computer networks.
Why can’t Windows Media Player just play everything?
Thanks to the Internet, we live in a highly connected world. In this modern world, people want to move masses of data and increasingly this includes rich multimedia content such as video. Video is made up of hundreds, sometimes thousands or millions of still pictures that are played in sequence to make up the video clip that you are watching. Storing hundreds of picture files like this presents a problem, the files that are generated are extremely large. Even with a broadband connection, transporting data like this would be impractical and if this was the only way we had to store video content, sites like Youtube would probably not exist.
To combat this problem, computer programs were written that could compress the video data into more manageable sizes. If you listen to music on your computer, you might be familiar with MP3 files. MP3 allows for audio data to be stored very efficiently with minimal loss in quality. While there are other formats for music to be stored in, MP3 is by far the most popular standard. Unfortunately, no de-facto standard like this exists for video. New techniques for storing video are still being actively researched and it is not uncommon for new standards to emerge on the internet. Because of this, and the fact that Microsoft cannot distribute certain software with Media player due to copyright issues, playing back third party media files often requires the installation of additional software.
The Codec Issue
Getting sound but no picture when trying to play a video file is a common problem associated with missing codecs.
No Windows Media Player help guide would be complete without explaining codecs. Codec is short for “compressor/decompresser” and perhaps “code/decode” too (depending who you ask). A codecs job is to help Windows Media Player (and most other media players that are available for Windows) to playback video and audio files. If you have ever tried to play back a file that you thought was a video file, only to find that it seemingly only contained audio data, then you probably had a missing video codec for that particular type of file. Find and install the missing codec and then your file should play without any problems.
Unfortunately, there are dozens of different codecs available and dozens of different formats for storing video. It’s not always easy to know what codecs are missing or where to obtain the correct ones.
My files are all AVI files, where do I get a Windows Media Player AVI codec?
The AVI format is particularly confusing because it isn’t actually a video format at all. AVI is what is known as a “container” format. This means that AVI files can contain video and audio data that is encoded in any number of ways. One AVI file might have an MP3 soundtrack and a DIVX video track, another might have a completely different combination. Because of this, there is unfortunately, no such thing as a Windows Media Player AVI codec.
I want to play DVD’s
If you are looking for a way to play DVD’s on Windows Media Player, we have set up a separate page to help with this. Head over to our Windows DVD playback guide for more information.
So I need codecs, where do I get them?
There are two approaches to obtaining codecs and installing them on your computer which we will cover in this Windows Media Player help guide. The methods are:-
- Use “Codec Packs” which contain all the popular video and audio codecs in one easy to install package
- Obtain each codec individually, installing only what is needed
Both of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages, we’ll take a look at each method in detail now.
Using Codec Packs
Codecs are complex, but necessary for playback of a wide range of audio and video formats.
Finding and installing a single codec pack is the easiest way to enable media playback of a huge range of formats. Rather than trying to figure out which formats you need and then trawling the Internet looking for the correct software to install, you simply install one file that takes care of everything. There are a great many codec packs available on the internet, but we only recommend two. The Combined Community Codec Pack and the K-Lite Codec Pack. The K-Lite pack comes in standard and mega varieties, the mega pack containing some lesser used codecs. We also recommend choosing one or the other of these packs but not both, in order to avoid conflicts.
What are the disadvantages of installing codec packs? Blight, lead developer of Zoom Player, a popular and extremely powerful Windows Media Player alternative, had this to say about codec packs on the official Zoom Player forums:-
“Codec packs are evil, they can take over your system, install multiple version of decoders which can conflict and even install bad filters which can cause your image to vertically flip, your audio to crackle or even stop working and other nasty side-effects.”
This post sparked a great deal of debate and we feel that calling codec packs evil is perhaps a little over the top. Use only our recommended codec packs and you should be fine, but if that has put you off codec packs, we’ll explore the alternative method below.
Obtain codecs yourself, installing only what you need
Although modern codec packs are much more reliable, this method is often preferred by power users. Doing things this way gives you the greatest control over what is installed on your system. It allows you to cherry pick the best codecs for your system (as often there are several codecs available for one type of media file). It can give the best results for playback of all types of media, if you have your PC connected to a high-end display system such as a plasma or LCD TV, this can be highly desirable.
What are the disadvantages of this approach? It is far more work, especially for the less experienced computer user. Nevertheless, this is the approach I have taken with my own Windows machines for several years. If you are considering going down this route, the links below will help you decide if it is worth the hassle for you.
Additional help and useful tools
Configuring your system for media playback – This guide was written with Zoom Player in mind, but it is useful for anyone playing multimedia files on Windows, especially those of you who wish to avoid using codec packs.
A clean start without reinstalling Windows – If you think you have a serious problem with media playback, this page explains how you can uninstall all your codecs and start again from scratch. Before you do this, uninstall any codec packs using the add/remove programs control panel option.
Sherlock the codec detective – Marc Liron’s Sherlock program can provide detailed information about what codecs you have installed on your system.
Gspot Codec Information Appliance – This handy utility lets you drag and drop media files onto its window. It then gives you information about what media format the file is using. Finding the correct codec should then be just a web search away.
Discuss this page in our forum.