A friend gives you a video on a USB drive. You pop it on a computer, double-click on the video and the player displays a message saying it needs a codec to run properly. Problem is, you have no idea what a codec is. You do a quick check on Google and, after wading through a few pages, you just ended up more confused. Hopefully, this clears things up a bit.
Codecs are computer programs that encode or decode video. If a video is encoded with one codec, then it only makes sense to decode it using the same software during playback. Some codecs will come preinstalled with your OS. These will be the ones that your computer can play out of the box. Videos that you can’t play with a standard Windows installation, on the other hand, use codecs that you’ll need to get from somewhere else.
If you download a codec online, you’ll usually get them in grouped sets. Called codec packs, these software install multiple codecs at once, saving you from the hassle of getting each one individually. Problem is, some codecs that come in sets will conflict with some programs you may have installed on your computer. Worse, if you’re not careful, some of the packs from online can come with adware and spyware.
Willing to take the risk of system conflicts and potential malware (you can always use a spyware removal program to fix it)? Then go ahead and get some of the popular codec packs out there. The most popular ones include K-Lite Combined Community Codec Pack and Shark 007. For Mac users, Perian should be to go-to codec pack — it works smoothly. Many of the best video players also come with a bunch of codecs that have been tested to cause no system conflict. Titles like VLC, PotPlayer and GomiPlayer should leave you able to run most encoding variants.
If you need Windows Media Player, though (e.g. you set up an HTPC using Media Center), you’ll have to install a codec pack to widen the program’s encoding support. Same if your preferred video player doesn’t quite come with a robust codec offering on its own. In such cases, we recommend going the minimal route — that is, installing a codec pack that only includes the most necessary items. The best one for this should be K-Lite Basic, whose codecs won’t conflict with anything in your system nor will it install anything else you may not need.