There’s a good chance you already use the VLC media player. But VLC isn’t just a media player — it’s a complete Swiss Army Knife for digital videos and music, filled with useful and fun features you haven’t found yet.

If you’re just using VLC to play back local media files, you’re only using a tiny fraction of VLC’s capabilities. There’s so much more you can do with VLC, whether you’re using it on Windows, Mac, or Linux.

Convert Media Files

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VLC can convert media files between the formats it supports. You could use this to make a video smaller for a mobile device, convert media from an unsupported format to one your device supports, or even to extract the audio from a video and save it as a separate file.

To do this, click the Media menu and select Convert / Save. Load the file you want to convert, click the Convert / Save button, and select the type of file you want to convert it to. Use the Edit selected profile button to tweak the video encoding settings.

Stream Media Over the Network or Internet

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VLC can stream media across the Internet or on your local network. To get started, click the Media menu, select Stream, provide the media file you want to stream and click the Stream button. You’ll be able to set up VLC as a media server so other computers on the network — or even around the world — can connect to your stream and view it.

Of course, if you want to stream over the Internet, you’ll probably need to forward ports on your router.

Record Your Desktop

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VLC can load your desktop as an input device. This means that you can use the Convert / Save feature to save a video of your desktop, effectively turning VLC into screen capture software. You could also use this in concert with the Stream feature to broadcast a live stream of your desktop across the network or Internet with no additional software required.

vlc screencast header

Remotely Control Playback From a Browser

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VLC has an integrated HTTP server you can enable. Set this up and you can then remotely access your VLC client via a web browser. This would allow you to remotely control a media center PC from a web browser, controlling playback and queuing up audio or video files. You could even use this along with a smartphone to turn your phone into a remote control for VLC. There are mobile apps that function as remote controls for VLC, and these apps use VLC’s web interface to function.

Watch YouTube Videos

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Want to play a YouTube video outside of your web browser? Just browse to a video on YouTube and copy its full URL — this should look something like the following:

Click the Media menu in VLC, select Open Network Stream, and paste the YouTube video’s URL into the box. VLC will load the video from YouTube and play it in a VLC window on your desktop.

When the video is playing, you could click the Tools menu and select Codec Information. You’ll see the full web address of the MP4 video displayed in the Location box, so you can copy-and-paste into a download manager — or just your web browser — to download the YouTube video to your computer.

Subscribe to Podcasts

VLC can be used to stream podcasts, so you don’t need any additional software if you want to listen to podcasts at your PC. Just click the View menu in VLC and select Playlist. Hover over Podcasts in the sidebar, click the + button, and paste the address of a podcast’s feed into the box. You can then stream the podcast’s episodes from within VLC.

Play Internet Radio

Before Pandora and Spotify, there were streaming Internet radio stations. There was a time when Internet users primarily streamed these radio stations from within Winamp, but they live on. You can view a searchable directory of radio stations from within VLC — just open the playlist and select Icecast Radio Directory. Perform a search for the kind of music you want to listen to or browse the list of free streaming radio stations.

Of course, VLC can also stream other Internet radio stations that aren’t included in this directory. You can generally find a “listen” link on their websites that will allow you to listen in a desktop player like VLC.

Apply Video and Audio Effects

VLC can apply audio effects, video effects, and tweak the way a video’s audio and video line up. Click the Tools menu and select Effects and Filters. From here, you can apply an audio equalizer or video effects, such as cropping, rotating, overlaying, or colorizing a video. From the Synchronization tab, you can tweak the way a video’s audio and video stream line up. This allows you to fix broken videos where the audio and video are out of sync.

As with other VLC features, these effects can be combined with other features. For example, you could permanently apply effects to a video by enabling these effects before using the Convert / Save feature.

ASCII Playback

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ASCII playback isn’t a very useful feature, but it’s certainly an amusing one. In ASCII playback mode, VLC will display a video as ASCII characters rather than play it normally. It’s extremely impractical, but extremely geeky and worth a test drive if you want to surprise and amuse someone.

Click the Tools option in VLC, select Preferences, and click the Video icon. Click the Output box and select Color ASCII art video output. Save your settings, restart VLC, and start playing a new video. This feature works best with simple videos, such as cartoons with large sections of flat color.

After you’re done, go back into this window, click the Output box, and select Automatic to make VLC play videos normally.

Use a Video Wallpaper

RELATED: Set a Video as Your Desktop Wallpaper with VLC

VLC also allows you to set a video as your desktop wallpaper, replacing your desktop background with a video. It’s not very practical and extremely distracting, but hey — it’s something you can’t do with many media players.

To do this, open VLC’s preferences window, click the Video icon, and select DirectX (DirectDraw) video output in the Output box. Restart VLC, load a video, and you’ll be able to click the Video menu and select Set as Wallpaper to turn the video into your desktop wallpaper.

When you’re done, just change VLC’s Output setting back to Automatic and restart it.

VLC is also available for other platforms, giving you excellent compatibility with different media formats on almost any device. In addition to Windows, Mac, and Linux, VLC can run on an Android phone or tablet or an iOS device like an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. VLC will also soon be available for Windows 8’s Modern interface and Windows Phone.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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