Updated: January 7, 2011
Before I start writing about the topic at hand, I promise not to make yet another cheesy compilation of X best programs. Honestly, I'll try to give you a short list of several media program that I think are really worth their megabytes. This relates to everything - ease of use, codecs, options, integration with the system theme, and whatnot.
OK, so today, we will talk about media players. Every Linux distro comes with a handful of them preinstalled. But are they really the best choice for you? What if you like watching foreign movies? Do you need subtitles? What about tagging and rating? What about online music stores? Are you anti-mono? Do you need radio streaming and special codecs? What about high-definition movies?
I'm a fairly conservative user, but I still believe I do possess the basic instinct for beauty and style. If you think my advice could apply to you, have a read and see what media players out there are the top choices for your distro.
On the KDE desktop, my first choice is Amarok. Now, there's a dispute between Amarok fans as to whether the older version 1.4 is or was better than the current incarnation, at increment 2.0. Regardless, Amarok is an excellent media player, with lots of cool stuff.
Amarok 1.4 does have a more classic, perhaps even Windows-like feel, which could explain the natural affection, while Amarok 2 is more of a hybrid product. It comes with the very active and useful center pane, where you get lyrics, Wikipedia entries or visualization displayed for your currently played track. The variety of plugins will change between distributions, but you can easily replenish them as you see fit.
For instance, with the the lyrics plugin enabled, in Pardus Linux:
Typical distros shipping with Amarok: openSUSE KDE, Kubuntu, Mandriva. But you can install it on pretty much any Linux, including Gnome desktops. You will need to download a bunch of KDE (Qt) libraries and the desktop integration won't be as pretty, but you'll have the program running.
Totem is the workhorse of the Gnome desktop. While it looks spartan, it's a very capable player. It will autoload subtitles when necessary, plus it can stream directly from online services like BBC or Youtube.
The interface is very simple to use and navigate. You can't really go wrong with Totem. For purists and fresh converts who are not aware of any alternative players, this is possibly the most sensible transition package when it comes to media. This software comes with pretty much any Gnome desktop, including Linux Mint and openSUSE Gnome.
On some distributions, like Ubuntu, Totem will search for missing plugins and install them for you, so you won't have to worry about manually sorting this out. Now, don't expect this miracle on every Linux, but be aware that it exists - and has existed for a while.
MPlayer (and family)
MPlayer is an extremely powerful and versatile media application. In fact, it's more than just a player. It's a complete set of tools, including encoders, decoders and whatnot. But for average users, MPlayer will do just well. It can be a little non-intuitive in some aspects, but it does have tons of options you don't normally see with the competition.
VLC is probably the most popular open-source player, not just in the Linux world. Its major selling point is: it plays everything. And this is true. If VLC doesn't play a file, it probably means the file is broken. Hell, it will even stream temporary files in your eMule/aMule download directory.
VLC also has a ton of plugins, extensions and skins, all of which make it somewhat of a wonder player. Some of the features are specific to certain operating systems, like the DirectX wallpaper for Windows. However, when it comes to subtitles, screenshots, radio streaming, recording video, it works majestically on any platform.
Personally, I think this is the best choice all around. Most distros do not ship with VLC as the default player because of its non-standard design, but you can find it in the repositories of pretty much any Linux.
Rhythmbox is a media player for Gnome desktops. It is designed to cater to the modern user. It comes with popular online stations and music stores integrated in the player, including Last.fm, Jamendo, Ubuntu One, and others. You can use the player to listen to music or even securely purchase albums and individual songs at very reasonable prices.
Rhythmbox ships mainly with Ubuntu and family and openSUSE. Most recommended for users who need a sort of a Jack o' all trades player. Once again, if you're not in favor of proprietary software and affiliations, Rhythmbox is not for you.
Media applications listed below are also quite good, however due to their nature, they can't be placed in the first-choice list. Now, make no mistake, the honorable mentions are tremendous programs. Let's take a look.
This could have been the best media player. Unfortunately, the developers decided to drop the official support for Linux. You can still most likely install and use the program, but there are no guarantees. If you're willing to experiment, do try. It's like Banshee on steroids, plus some of Amarok's cool stuff. Really great. And really sad.
XBMC - A whole media center, perhaps, an overkill?
Indeed. On the far end of the spectrum, you get XBMC, a complete, beautiful media center. It ships as its own, fully functional live CD operating system and will run on pretty much any platform; Xbox 360 is an option, too. Some distributions, like Sabayon, bundle XBMC with their desktop, but it is available in the repository of virtual any distro.
XBMC is truly amazing. It's a league of its own. But it's not a media player, it's a complete media center, hence it can't be the first choice if you merely want to listen to some music or watch a home-made video.
There's also Exaile, Xine, Kaffeine, Dragon, and a few others, but I can't really say I like those. For example, Kaffeine comes with the KDE desktops, like openSUSE. Exaile is a favorite with PCLinuxOS. Dragon is bundled with Kubuntu and Sabayon. And there are many other great choice, just not my personal favorites.
And I think that's more than enough information for one compilation.
As I've mentioned before, my multimedia skills and taste probably cater to the average medieval user, but even so, my choice of programs should be decent enough. Without bombarding you with too many options, you have an adequate selection, whether you like KDE or Gnome, whether you prefer free or slightly proprietary software, or better yet, care nothing for things of that sort.
This compilation is a good starting point. Pick any among the top listed candidates and you will enjoy your media experience. If you're a fresh Windows convert or just someone looking for more information on media players in Linux, you have a solid baseline, now.
Amarok is probably the best KDE player, Totem is the best Gnome player, VLC and MPlayer are the best all-around programs. Rhythmbox has music stores, Amarok displays lyrics, Totem can stream Youtube, VLC will play subtitles, and XBMC is a complete media center. Your oyster has just turned a pearly one.
I hope you like it. If you have any recommendations, feel free to mail me.