H.264 Playback Guide

Original Page URL: http://www.digital-digest.com/articles/mp4_h264_playback_page1.html
Date Added: Jun 9, 2006
Date Updated: Jun 9, 2006

H.264 encoded videos are becoming more and more common, but playing them back can be difficult if you do not have the right software installed. This guide will show you several ways of playing back H.264 content.

Most H.264 videos on the Internet use the MP4 container. They also frequently come with AAC encoded audio. This guide assumes that you have such a video file, although instructions for playing back H.264 files with other containers and audio encoded in other formats isn't too different.

What is H.264:

H.264 is a video compression standard that is set to replace MPEG-2. H.264 (also known as MPEG-4 AVC, or MPEG-4 Part 10) can offer the same quality video as MPEG-2 at only a third or half the bit-rate. What this means that by using more advanced video encoding techniques, H.264 clips are only a third or half the size of MPEG-2 clips of the same quality. Even DivX/XviD is no match for H.264 - H.264 can often be 30% smaller than DivX/XviD and still offer the same quality video.

H.264 has already been choosen as the format for next generation video systems such as high definition DVD, as high definition MPEG-2 requires storage spaces that even high definition DVD find hard to offer.

Free H.264 encoders such as x264 have allowed the average user to start encoding H.264 content on their own computers, and so there are more and more H.264 encoded content available to download on the Internet.

Playback methods:

This guide covers several ways in which you can playback H.264 content. The methods covered are:

  • VideoLAN
  • ffdshow (Media Player Classic or Windows Media Player)
  • CoreAVC
  • Nero ShowTime
  • QuickTime
  • PowerDVD

You will only need one of these methods to playback H.264 encoded video - the methods above have been listed in the order that you should attempt playback (the easiest/most common solutions at the top).


Cost: Free


VideoLAN is an open source multi-platform video player that has built in support for H.264 (no additional software required).

This is the easiest way to playback H.264 encoded content, although it may have trouble with the AAC encoded audio. This method is listed at the top because this is the easiest to try (no need to mess with installing codecs, etc...).

Pro: Easy to try. No additional software required. Good compatibility of H.264 playback. Free.
Con: May not handle AAC audio well. Not the most efficient.

Download: VideoLAN Download Links

ffdshow (using Media Player Classic or Windows Media Player):

Cost: Free

Media Player Classic

ffdshow is a Directshow filter that supports the decoding of many video and audio formats, including H.264 and AAC. With it installed, you will be able to use any Directshow capable player to playback H.264 videos, including Media Player Classic and Windows Media Player.

This method is slightly trickier, but should offer the best compatibility.

Pro: Very good compatibility. Works in many media players. Has AAC decoder. Free.
Con: Not the most efficient.

Instructions: H.264 playback using ffdshow + Media Player Classic (or Windows Media Player) playback instructions. If you don't mind using a codec pack, you can refer to these instructions instead.

CoreAVC (using Media Player Classic or Windows Media Player):

Cost: $9.95


CoreAVC is a H.264 codec developed by CoreCodec, and it is considered to be the most efficient decoder currently available. With this codec, you'll be able to playback high definition H.264 clips without the need to dedicated video acceleration. With it installed, you will be able to use any Directshow capable player to playback H.264 videos, including Media Player Classic and Windows Media Player.

The standard version of the codec will offer basic playback support, while the Pro version offers multi-processor acceleration, interlacing support and eventually, graphics card acceleration as well.

Pro: Very good compatibility and performance. Works in many media players. Has AAC decoder.
Con: Not free.

Instructions: Purchase CoreAVC. You will also need to install CoreAAC (AAC decoder), which is free/open source - you can find CoreAAC binary downloads here.

Nero ShowTime:

Cost: $59.99 (included as part of Nero 7 Premium package)

Nero ShowTime

Nero ShowTime is a multimedia player that is bundled with the Nero Premium package, including the popular burning software Nero Burning ROM. The Nero package supports the encoding of Nero Digital format, which is infact their own H.264 codec, and Nero ShowTime can play back Nero Digital files and other H.264 encoded files.

The compatibility of Nero ShowTime is an issue because it is really designed to work with Nero encoded files, rather than files encoded using other H.264 encoders.

Pro: Easy to install. Good player interface.
Con: Not free. Poor compatibility with non Nero encoded H.264 files.

Instructions: Nero Download Links.


Cost: Free

Apple QuickTime

Apple QuickTime is a very well known software and it also supports H.264 playback. In fact, high definition QuickTime clips are all encoded in H.264 (main profile), and the Pro version of QuickTime allows you to encode to H.264 as well.

Like Nero ShowTime, QuickTime is only designed to play back files that has been encoded using QuickTime (Pro), and so, compatibility is not the best.

Pro: Easy to install. Good player interface. Pro version allows encoding and conversion functions.
Con: Poor compatibility with non QuickTime encoded H.264 files.

Instructions: Apple QuickTime Download Links.


Cost: $69.95 (Deluxe version only)


PowerDVD is one of the world's most popular media players. In the latest version (7.0), PowerDVD Deluxe includes a built in H.264 decoder, which also supports ATI's Avivo video acceleration (available for Radeon X1000 series cards).

Compatibility is fairly good, with several files unplayable in VideoLAN, Nero ShowTime and QuickTime all playing well. Performance was only average.

Pro: Easy to install. Good player interface. Very good compatibility.
Con: Only average performance.

Instructions: PowerDVD Download Links.

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