How is it doing that?

Just about everything that I’ve ever read about media playback on Linux has been negative. As I understand the situation, the general consensus of the internet is that Linux should not be relied on to play media of any kind. Further, I know that the other guys have had troubles with video playback in the past.

All of which added up to me being extremely confused when I accidentally discovered that my system takes video playback like a champ. Now from the outset, you should know that my system is extremely underpowered where high definition video playback is concerned. I’m running Debian testing on a laptop with a 1.73 GHz single-core processor, 758MB shared video RAM, and a 128MB Intel GMA 900 integrated graphics card.

Incredibly enough, it turns out that this humble setup is capable of playing almost every video file that I can find, even with compiz effects fully enabled and just a base install of vlc media player.

Most impressively, the machine can flawlessly stream a 1280x528px 1536kb/s *.mkv file over my wireless network.

As a comparison, I have a Windows Vista machine with a 2.3GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 512MB video card upstairs that can’t play the same file without special codecs and the help of a program called CoreAVC. Even with these, it plays the file imperfectly.

I can’t explain how this is possible, but needless to say, I am astounded at the ability of Linux.


  1. I’ve been running Ubuntu since 5.10 and I have never had any issues what so ever with playing commercial DVD’s, avi’s or mp3’s with nothing more than VLC.

  2. It’s just the usual fear mongering from the usual sources. Jerky video playback and missing codecs are things I only know from Windows (especially with TV cards). Why does Linux own the market for embedded home multimedia (set-top boxes and such), if it can’t play video properly, according to the FUDsters? Hmmm…

  3. “As I understand the situation, the general consensus of the internet is that Linux should not be relied on to play media of any kind.”

    Where do you get this from? Obviously you’re making it up for the sake of argument. VLC can play anything you throw at it,with the right libraries. Totem? Totem…….BLAH.

  4. Other than Flash video, I’ve never really had playback issues on any of my Linux systems, including my P2 laptop that i have sitting somewhere. All of my setups are Debian Sid with KDE4 (except that P2 laptop, which didn’t have KDE4 as an option when I was using it), using Dragon or Kaffeine for video playback.

    Flash is the real culprit of bad video playback on Linux.

  5. I just put together an Acer Aspire Revo / Ubuntu 9.10 / Boxee HTPC. I’m loving it. It is playing everything beautifully.

  6. What a croc. Linux has always been able to playback video perfectly and it does it without codec priority issues. Windows directshow is a half arsed abortion of an error to turn a calculator into a video player. Like all things Windows it can’t do it properly and never will. People who persist with Windows for media are just asking for self induced insanity.

  7. I’ve not seen an issue with any media playback for years with Linux. I was running a beatup ol’ PIII 800Mhz box as my media center for a while, running Boxee on top of ArchLinux with XFCE DM. Really high bitrate stuff was garbage, but that’s a hardware limitation, not Linux. Even criticisms of Flash are almost invalid today — it’s come a long way recently. Still not quite as feature rich as Win/OSX, but does everything I need it to.

  8. For what it’s worth, I’ve had fewer problems on Linux than I have on Windows playing media files. Especially with Miro, a podcasting agrigator. Once it is set up, you are ready to go.

    Install the right codecs, and you can usually play, convert, and encode to anything you can play. Far superior to many Windows apps, which have alimited number of supported codecs. I’ve had problems where Windows DVD creation apps only accept MPEG files split from the audio track. DEVEDE, which is basically a front end, handles pretty much any file with not so much as a hiccup and turns out DVDs that are fully compatible with a standard DVD player. Same goes for full screen HD Flash. Not a single problem.

  9. Most common issue on Linux is video card related. It called tearing you only see it if you move the video output. At long last drivers are appearing that are tear free for linux. Current day intel drivers are tear free. Go back a few years and its not as good.

    Next is being kinda stupid. Trying to watch video while running something heavy in background.

    Compared to windows play back nightmares Linux is nice. Good part is Linux will be down to basic overload issues. With better priority management by user you never see them.

  10. Hey all, thanks for correcting my perceptions about video on Linux – however, I can’t help but think that quite a few of you are missing the point of my post.
    Admittedly, I was somewhat amazed that Linux could play the video files that I threw at it. This was primarily because the videos that I was playing were 9GB 1080p high definition *.mkv files streamed over a home wireless network. Given the hardware in my machine, I found this just short of amazing. As I said in my post, my far more powerful Windows Vista box required quite a bit of fiddling before it could even approach what Debian testing and VLC did with a default install.
    As for the idea that Linux has a hard time rendering video, I back up my opinion by pointing out a few of the older posts on our site: (granted, Jake is running a variant of Gentoo, which is pretty bad ass)
    In addition, on my previous install I couldn’t get any videos to play full screened without using the XBOX Media Centre, which I suspect worked because it operated in full screen mode by default.

  11. Do you use proprietary drivers? There have been long-standing video issues in the past with both the AMD and Nvidia drivers. The proprietary drivers have more emphasis on 3D performance and less on fixing little quirks in my experience.

    You might also try playing with driver options using DRIconf or my command line based dritune script.

  12. Thanks for the tip, Dennis. I use only open source drivers on my system, as supplied by the Debian community. I have had very good luck with these in the past, as my graphics card is an integrated intel chipset, which seems to be very well supported in the Linux world. I’ll spread the word though, as Tyler and Dana have new ATI and nVidia cards, and driver support for such new hardware has caused them both some trials.

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  1. Links 16/12/2009: LinuxCon 2010 Coming, Mandriva One XFCE 2010 | Boycott Novell
  2. Blast from the Past: How is it doing that? | The Linux Experiment

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