VLC for iPhone Falls Short of the Desktop Media Marvel
On the desktop, VLC is a great media player that can open nearly any video type and play it with zero fuss. Putting an equally powerful VLC app on the iPhone platform would theoretically allow users to play any format on their phones without having to do the MP4 conversion dance. However, with VLC for iPhone, size matters.
iPhones and iPods are notoriously picky eaters when it comes to feeding them video files. They'll chow down on movies and TV shows downloaded directly from iTunes, of course. But if you want to use the iPod app to view any other video from any other source, you may have to run it through a conversion program in order to transform it into an MP4 file. Depending on the converter, the size of the file and how fast your computer can shovel data, that could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
It's a totally different story on a full-sized computer, especially if it's running what I consider to be the king of all media players, VLC. VLC is a free application, and it's really quite plain and stripped-down looking as far as user interface goes. But spend a few moments browsing through its menus and you'll find a wide array of features at your disposal.
And the best part is that even if you have zero interest in stuff like network streams, visualizations or plug-ins, VLC is a champ at straight-ahead video playback. It'll take almost any video file you throw at it, regardless of format, and make it play. It won't have you dig up some obscure code. It won't clutter your view with media streams you never asked for or playlist menus that are tricky to make disappear. It just works.
Ideally, making a version of VLC for iPhones and iPods would mean the end of having to plan overnight conversion sessions just to get your phone loaded up with video. You could just drop in video files of all breeds and varieties and rest assured knowing VLC can tackle any of them. Unfortunately, reality doesn't quite measure up that ideal.
Try, Try Again
This isn't the first time VLC has appeared in the App Store. A few weeks ago, a version for the iPad arrived. MacNewsWorld's review was less than enthusiastic for that version of the app, but when VLC recently showed up with an iPhone version as well, it also boasted "much faster decoding thanks to assembly optimizations."
Just like with the iPad version, loading the iPhone with video intended for VLC isn't quite as simple as the native drag-and-drop interface you can use with iPod-friendly video, but it probably isn't going to tie you in knots, either. Once the phone is connected to your computer, open iTunes and select the iPhone. In the top row (Summary, Info, etc.), select Apps. Scroll down to the File Sharing section and click on the VLC icon. Click Add, then use the finder to select all the videos you want to load.
Once they're in, launching the app from the iPhone will take you straight to your VLC video library. The interface is about as simple as possible -- all you get is your video list (including preview image, name, time, data size and frame size), as well as an About button for app info and an Edit button for deleting videos. Videos can also be deleted with a swipe.
VLC on the desktop is like a white-hot, diamond-edged can-opener. The only times I've ever seen it fail have involved corrupt files, and even those are sometimes salvageable with VLC's Repair option.
VLC for iPhone is the desktop's equally intelligent yet much weaker kid brother. When it fails, it doesn't seem to be a codec or format issue. More often, frame size is the deciding factor. The iPhone 4 apparently doesn't give VLC enough power to chew through large frames. When you cue up one of these, you get a pop-up message: "Your iPhone is probably too slow to play this movie correctly. Cancel / Try Anyway."
Try Anyway usually results in a stuttered, pixelated presentation that's just not viewable. That "much faster decoding" mentioned in VLC's App Store page may have done something to strengthen its playback abilities, but it's still no champion.
So what's too big for iPhone VLC to handle? The depends -- the threshold appears to vary among different formats. For example, videos with a frame width of 1280 failed in both AVI and WMV formats. But a 1024 AVI played well, while smaller 960 and 720 WMVs came through garbled, even though that warning never popped up. Down at a width of 480, WMVs played smoothly.
Of course, there isn't much of a point in watching high-definition video through a four-inch screen. A frame width of 480 is perfectly suitable for iPhone viewing. But if the file you want to watch happens to have a 1280 screen width, who wants to have to throw it through a converter in order to dumb it down before dumping it into the iPhone? If that's what you have to do, you might as well convert it into MP4 and skip VLC entirely.
VLC for iPhone has a few other hiccups as well. When you start a video, the time stamp will flit and flail about, apparently unsure about how much time remains for the first 15 seconds or so; then it stabilizes. Also, I tried watching a VOB file on VLC, and it seemed that only the background sound channels were coming through -- no dialogue.
When videos are playable, though, VLC's controls are comparable to the iPod app's video player. The slider bar is responsive, and the skip buttons will take you back and forth by one-minute increments -- that's especially useful when trying to find a specific spot in a long video and the slider requires too much dexterity.
Whether VLC is useful for you depends on the size and type of files you want to watch through it. If your video collection is full of high-definition WMVs, you won't be happy. If you prefer moderate to slightly large AVIs, you should be in the clear.
Of course, you could simply resize everything to a 480 frame width before throwing it into the iPhone, just to be sure. But if you're going to have to send everything through the transmogrifier each time you load up your iPhone's video selection, might as well set it to convert to MP4 and use the built-in iPod app.