When you’re on a 17.5-hour direct flight from Dubai to Panama without access to power, every minute of laptop battery life counts.
While most people assume all video players are created equal, they’re not. Your choice can cut or add hours to playback time. To find out what gives you the best possible battery life, I grabbed six popular free video players and put them through the wringer.
The players in my shootout include VLC, MediaPlayer Classic HC, KMPlayer, PotPlayer and Windows 10’s built-in Movies & TV player. And just because Apple used to push it on everyone, I also tested QuickTime 7.
Most of these free media players make the majority of “best” or “top” lists I’ve seen. I also elected to exclude paid players, as few shell out for them since the optical drive died on laptops. You can jump to the benchmark chart at the bottom of this article if you just want to see which software won, but first let me explain my testing method.
A midrange test laptop
For my testing platform, I picked Toshiba’s new Radius 12 running Windows 10. The laptop gave me Intel’s latest Skylake CPU, a moderately sized battery, and, with its 4K panel, the low end of run time. I actually wanted a laptop with a modest battery life rather than, say, Microsoft’s Surface Book, which can take half a day to zero. Even if another laptop has a larger battery, or a smaller screen, however, I believe the results should scale.
The test conditions
I know from the excellent testing that Techspot.com’s Tim Schiesser ran two years ago that lower resolution and lower bit rate increases battery life. For my test, I wanted to keep the video expectations very high, so I used the same 6GB UltraHD 4K Tears of Steel video (open-source) that I used in my MacBook Pro 13 vs. Surface Book shootout. It’s a 74.4Mbps .MOV file with a resolution of 3840×1714, encoded in H.264 using the high 5.1 profile.
The screen was set at a relatively bright 260 nits (as close as I could get to 250) and the audio was on. I even used the same Samsung earbuds as I did with the MacBook Pro 13 vs. Surface Book shootout.
All of the testing was done on Windows 10 before the TH2 patch was released, and in airplane mode. Besides manually setting the screen brightness, all of the testing was also done with the default power settings for the OS.
Battery life was measured using an external, self-powered USB probe that logged when power was supplied to the USB port. Each run drained the battery until the laptop could no longer be powered on.
For many people, the results will be surprising. Most people “in the know” skip the default options for their video player of choice because other settings are “better” or more “efficient.” My results disprove this from a battery-life aspect.
VLC: hecka popular, hecka disappointing
Surprise: VLC, the worst of the bunch in runtime, is also the most popular. I didn’t even bother with the Metro/Modern version, as most reach for the desktop version.
I’m a huge VLC fan and out of pure laziness, download VLC on my machines and never venture further. So it was a bummer to see my favorite media player perform so poorly in battery performance.
VLC’s subtitle support is great and I’ll still use it, but mostly on my desktop. On my laptop, when battery life matters, I’ll have to skip it.
QuickTime 7: The fail boat version
The fail boat was boarded by the QuickTime 7 player. This has been a horrible player for years, and it hasn’t gotten any better. On the Radius 12 with its Core i7 Skylake CPU, it could not even play the video file without constantly dropping frames. I actually gave up after several attempts to make it work. And, yeah, I was playing a .mov file, which is Apple’s own QuickTime file format.
I considered just dropping it from the test, but I decided it’d be a worthy public service advisory to remind people just how much of a fail QuickTime 7 is. At least Apple doesn’t force you to download it with iTunes anymore, but it seems odd that Apple would hurl stones at Adobe while sitting inside of a house made of shimmering non-Gorilla Glass. Maybe in addition to targeting Adobe Flash for public ridicule, you should also flog the QuickTime player now and then?
PotPlayer: Flexible but no cigar
I’ll admit I’d never heard of PotPlayer before researching this article. Like VLC, it can play files with missing or corrupted portions. When it installs, it will prompt you to fetch additional video and audio codecs for installation. It claims to be able to play more files without the need for third-party codec packs.
It also has a nifty feature that lets it record screen captures along with Picture-in-Picture mode, and it supports 3D glasses. The UI is polished and it has overwhelming, head-spinning options. For my test, I used the default settings, and in battery life it was only slightly better than VLC. PotPlayer actually makes a point of touting “enhanced hardware acceleration that provides the maximum performance with the minimum resource using DXVA, CUDA, QuickSync.”
Media Player Classic HC: Is that retro look and feel worth it?
If you want to be a tech hipster, you don’t use VLC. You download Media Player Classic Home Cinema and then nod to others about how cool you are. That’s no surprise when the player itself is an homage to Windows Media Player 6.4, which shipped with Windows 95. Yes, it’s designed to mimic the look and feel of Windows 95. So, yeah, hipsters.
Like VLC, PotPlayer and others, it’s flexible, powerful and tweakable. It’s also slightly more efficient than VLC in battery life. If you had to pick something that isn’t establishment, Media Player Classic HC would be it.
Microsoft Movies & TV: Boring, but stupidly more efficient
The winner here is Windows 10’s built-in Movies & TV player. And by win, I don’t mean squeaked ahead by a few minutes, like how Media Player Classic HC noses out VLC. I mean a massive, undeniable advantage in battery life that even a diehard fan couldn’t deny. One look at this chart should prove my point.
That long bar on top? That’s the look of Microsoft’s Movies & TV player kicking everyone’s butt. When you’re looking at just over two hours of run time with VLC versus more than five for Movies & TV player, there’s just no reason to run VLC with higher-quality files if you’re unplugged. The gulf between Movies & TV Player and the freebies is likely to close as the quality of the file goes down, but again, referencing Schiesser’s tests, the Windows 8 media player won by a hefty margin.
I will say that with less punishing video resolutions, you could eke more battery life out of the other free players. Windows 10 Movies & TV player will still win, though.
And no, you can’t make up for the battery life by just cranking down the brightness. I ran the same video using both the maximum brightness on the laptop and a manual setting of 100 nits, which is probably as dim as you could stand for watching a movie.
Certainly, the resolution and the manufacturer of the panel can be at play in power consumption, but cutting the brightness from 260 nits to 100 nits on this 12-inch IGZO panel didn’t net the battery gain I expected.
In the end, Microsoft’s Movies & TV is as boring as an in-flight magazine, with the tweaking options of a toaster. But the thing is, when you’re sitting on a plane watching a movie, you’ll care.