Review: VLC returns to iOS after long hiatus, yet still needs refinement

Following a two-year absence from the iOS App Store, popular media player VLC is back. Version 2.0.1 of VideoLAN’s free open-source player hit the store on Friday, and just like before, it’s an unadorned universal app — compatible with select iPhones, iPod touch devices and iPads — that claims to play pretty much any video file you can throw at it.

So, after such a long a period of leave from the iOS platform, you’d expect the updated app to have received plenty of polish, right? Well, here’s how it holds up.

As ever, the app is rock-solid when it comes to tackling any file format, including the likes of MOV files, WMVs, MPEG 4 videos and H.264 clips, along with a range of more obscure file formats.

During testing (on an iPhone 4S and third-generation iPad), I didn’t come across any issues getting files to actually play. However, once the videos were playing, it wasn’t always smooth — in a couple of instances playback did stutter slightly, with noticeable frame-rate issues, even for local files downloaded directly to the device. Although vexing, these playback issues were the exception, and not the rule. In most cases media playback was reasonable, with welcome additions such as Retina display support, multi-channel audio, and AirPlay provision aiding the experience.

VLC for iOS - Video Player

The 2.0.1 release also introduces a slew of new options for actually getting content into the app ready for playback. These include uploading over Wi-Fi, iTunes sharing, network streaming and a curious integration with Dropbox. Sadly, due to set restrictions, and what might seem like a glaring omission, the app cannot play videos shot on your actual device, so those home videos taken on your iPhone won’t play on the VLC app.

Making use of the aforementioned methods to add video to your library isn’t the most straightforward affair. Traditionally, on appearance alone, VLC has always been something difficult to get excited about. The app, irrespective of platform, has forever been visually straightforward and unadorned, offering basic controls and little else. This new iOS release is no different. Adding content to the app unquestionably fumbles over the fine line between offering simplicity and sacrificing usability. On a traditional PC or Mac, these limited options may be tolerable, but in the enclosed world of iOS the whole experience seems dated and cumbersome.

VLC for iOS - Menu

How it works

On launching the empty app, there is a small note which attempts to inform users on how to add content to the library — there is no obvious call-to-action. After opening the main menu you’re presented with a list of options plainly labeled: Open Network Stream, Download from Web Server, WiFi Upload  and Dropbox. Tapping Open Network Stream or Download from Web Server will present you with a blank text box, with no further clues. What you are meant to enter in the text box will not be obvious to most: put in a URL to a video file though and you’ll be on your way.

The WiFi Upload mode is just a toggle, which will present you with an IP address when turned on. Again, instructions are nowhere to be found, but entering the provided IP address on a separate device, located on the same wireless network, will allow you to upload files into your library. In my testing (between an iPhone 4S and MacBook Pro) I managed to use this method to add a few videos to the app’s VLC library.  However, there was no feedback stating the upload was complete, either on the iOS device or MacBook.

If you have the official Dropbox app installed on your iOS device then connecting it up to VLC is a breeze, but once that task is out of the way the ease-of-use comes to a end. With VLC hooked up to your Dropbox, you can tap the menu option to view all the files available in your account. When navigating through files, if you find yourself digging down a few levels deep into your folders and decide to hit back, the button will return you to the topmost menu — a jarring experience, which really gives you no sense of place within the app, and is especially frustrating if you’re trying to find a particular file several folders deep. There doesn’t appear to be a more refined navigation structure in place. Once you do finally find your file, downloading it and playing it is thankfully straightforward.

Despite its long-awaited return, along with reading well on paper, this upgraded VLC app is hard to recommend. It offers a sufficient amount of ways to get content into the app, yet sadly provides very little compelling reason to actually do so. All of the available options feel somewhat inaccessible and hampered by a poor user interface and user experience choices, which don’t make for an inviting app. Although reliable at playing a range of video formats, I’d argue that in its two-year absence the rise of MP4 video has made the need for such an app an increasingly niche use-case.