Note: This review addresses version 1.0 of the product.
For several years, the free, third-party media player of choice for many video connoisseurs was the open-source VLC media player. It worked on multiple operating systems, it worked on a bare install of Windows without any special codecs, and it was light and fast. All that is still true. Now, VLC finally hits an important milestone: version 1.0.0 (given the James Bond-referencing nickname of Goldeneye), and with this version comes a pile of useful new features.
The most important addition to VLC 1.0.0, and one that will garner the most attention, is the ability to easily record all media on the fly. Yes, that means CSS-protected content as well. I was able to take a Sony DVD movie, Spider-Man 2 (Sony movies being notoriously difficult to decode), and stream it to VLC's .PS format on my hard drive. I then played the file on a laptop on the network running VLC, even before the host computer was finished transcoding the DVD to the file. The default encoding is pretty rough, but you can fine-tune it to be DVD quality. You'll have to have some good network bandwidth in order to stream it in that case, but at least it's feasible for most DVDs. Note that the very newest DVDs may have copy protection that might prevent VLC from streaming in this way, so you'll have to experiment.
VLC can also act as both a streaming server and client. You can set up VLC to stream media from a file or from a DVD as a server, and then another client can stream that media, without having to encode the file first. You'll need a little knowledge of network administration to do this, though--it might be easier just to stream to a file, though it can take a couple of hours to get the whole thing. Also, be sure and check the box to get rid of the DVD menus, otherwise all you'll be streaming is the main DVD menu in an endless loop.
Other new features in 1.0.0 are the ability to play back a single frame at a time, the ability to pause instantly(whereas before you always lost a couple of frames that way); and Blu-Ray and HD audio support for the first time. The developer also claims that VLC can also record live TV from a decoder card and act as a sort of mini-DVR in that respect; I was unable to verify this on my test PC, which lacks a TV decoder card.
And the nicest thing is that VLC is small, at about 17MB, and is entirely self contained after installation. No additional installs or codecs are required. VLC is a good choice if you format your machine and still want DVD playback (as DVD codecs are normally proprietary and difficult to come by). It's also a great choice for streaming media of any kind.
Note that you won't be able to burn a streamed file to a disc to copy your DVDs; there are other utilities out there for that. VLC is strictly for playback using many media types across many local or network sources. VLC 1.0.0 is a must-download.
Note: This program is donationware. It is free to try, but the author accepts and encourages donations towards further development.