Today I’ll be talking about file association in windows (which applications respond when various file types are opened), as well as recommending some of my favorite players/viewers and some general tips for each.
File Associations: What are they, and how do they work?
File associations in Windows define which applications launched when files are open, and icons for each type are assigned as well. To see all current associations and their icons, windows search for and open the “Default Programs” menu. There you can assign generic default programs, choose defaults for each file type/extension individual, as well as for protocols (URLs). Windows 10 also has a secondary (tablet focused) UI for this in the settings panel under the “Default apps” tab.
While installing programs or browsing through preferences, you might have seen the ability to change associations there as well, some even allowing you to select different icons for each supported file type. While Windows makes it easy to assign icons to executables, shortcuts, and folders, it doesn’t often give the option for other file types. For this, you’ll need a program like FileTypesMan, or the simpler but far more limited Types. The former is recommended as it allows you to change the icon of a file type, along with almost all of its other properties. You can choose your own from any executable or icon file, but you can also often select the .exe of your player to find multiple icons stored inside.
Setting these up properly is a great way to ensure consistency when opening files, not only so that you don’t have to manually open these applications, but so that files of more unique types aren’t just lumped in with others. Maybe your favorite video player isn’t the best with looping .webm files, or maybe your preferred image viewer can’t animate .gif files. Once setup, the only thing you need to be wary of, is that you choose wisely when installing new programs. Most programs that would change file associations for more than just their own proprietary files, allow you to choose while installing. Unless you’re already sure of the player’s abilities, it’s better to select no associations, and then assign some manually or via the player’s preferences once you have a better understanding. While installing, applications can also give options to add shell extensions, shortcuts in the right click menu when clicking on certain files. You could set it up in a way that your primary application opens on double click, while you have quick access to another via right click. If not, relevant installed programs will usually appear through the “Open with” option as well.
Player / Viewer Recommendations
While I’m still on the look for better alternatives, for the most part I am satisfied with my current stable of players and viewers. Below I’ll cover my recommendations of each type of file with alternates for specific users, and general tips and tricks for the more complex applications. Do note that quite a few of these are very powerful, and while they don’t technically require it, they benefit greatly from taking the time to configure the settings to your liking.
Audio – MP3 / FLAC and more
iTunes – If you’re a heavy iOS user that manages music to play on their mobile devices as well, this is likely a sensible option. It won’t play FLACs, but its interface is very clean, and its feature set has improved quite a bit over the past few years. Outside of some annoyances like it asking you to login every time you try to use the search bar in your own library (since fixed), I was happy with the incremental changes and additions. While it isn’t easily themed, it does have a mini player that’s very easy to use. Its configuration is limited, but it’s all done via buttons and dragging edges. The only real general use issue I have is that pressing play (via media key or clicking) not only has a small delay, but can’t be set to fade in, and small crackle can occur when playing/pausing. It’s simple, looks nice and it works (I don’t recall it ever crashing on me), but its configuration is extremely limited and uses 3-4x more memory during the same tasks vs MusicBee, the player I switched to.
MusicBee – A while back I stumbled upon a screenshot of this and decided to test it out. In the past I’d found players with libraries like this really clunky and hard to setup, on top of being largely unappealing visually. I’m sure Foobar2000 is a fine player, but every time I tried to use it in the past, it ended in frustration. MusicBee was entirely different in that respect. I installed it and got it how I liked without ever living the program, but simply clicking around a bit. No guides, no plugins or extra downloads… There are a ton of buttons and settings, but it all sort-of fell into place. It looks great with a nice skin (tons are included by default, with more available on DeviantArt or the forums), and offers tons of customization in terms of layout and styling of everything. The play/pause response is instant, and it has option fade in/out and crossfading between songs. You can setup “tabs” like a browser, and lock them into different layouts/views for the same library (or multiple if you so choose). You could use a single tab and switch between the options manually, but tabs allows instant switching of arrangements and every element stays where you left it. It’s so powerful and configurable, all while being stable (zero crashes thus far) and easy to understand with some basic trial and error. Click the image below to see my own configuration (though it has changed a bit since, opting for the extremely useful Now Playing section on the right) along with a basic explanation of what I chose.
Metadata / Tagging – MusicBee has quite a bit of functionality when it comes to altering the metadata (aka “tags”) for music files. You can automatically acquire album art and lyrics from various databases, copy and paste in your own, and even pick from numerous storage methods for those things if not multiple. It can copy the art to the folder with the track, and/or edit the image into the file, and/or simply link the file and the image where it stands, with embedding and .txt options for lyrics. It can even automatically acquire tags, and translate from tags to rename the file, or create tags based on the name. If however you want even more control in that respect, or don’t want to use MusicBee, I highly recommend Mp3Tag. It has most if not all of the features I just mentioned, but it’s even more powerful. If you’ve ever individually renamed or set tags for your music, this is for you. Through 2-3 basic steps, you could take a 100 file soundtrack with long complicated file names and no tags at all, and turn it into fully tagged files with nicely formatted names, faster than you could manually type that info for only a few files. It’s also useful for wiping and remaking corrupted tags that Windows explorer usually wants no part of.
VLC / Windows Media Player – I now use MusicBee to preview music files because of the functionality it allows with the now playing list and moving/organizing into folders from there. If you often need to preview tracks from windows, you might want something a bit more lightweight, like the default Windows Media Player or VLC. With the right codecs (more on that later), both support all the same file types, and it’s mainly a choice of interface. For listening to tracks in bulk for sorting purposes, I’ve been using an extra tab in MusicBee set to the folder with those unsorted tracks, with “Include Sub-Folders” option checked in the “Manage Folders” section of the right click menu the left browsing panel. It simply acts as a file browser in that form, without the need to add anything to your library (as you would in iTunes).
Picasa Photo Viewer – This is a component of Google’s full Picasa application, and while it’s not officially distributed separately, you can find the portable version online, or install it yourself and grab the files before uninstalling. It’s not the perfect viewer, but it’s the best option I’ve found for quick previews. Sadly, my search for a basic image viewer that’s slick and has all the features I want has come up dry. I’d really like something along the lines of Picasa, but with .gif support, various simple hotkeys for things like rotation and for how images behave/scale, and multiple instances. That said, it’s the slickest solution I’ve found. You open an image, either into windowed or fullscreen, and you can scroll to zoom, click to drag, with a small thumbnail browser at the bottom, and that’s about it. It’s very fast and looks nice, but really lacks features and configuration.
InfranView – This one is so powerful, allowing for almost everything I’d want… However it has tons of hotkeys, but none of them are configurable from their often nonsense defaults, and it flubs up constantly because of it. If you use the arrow keys to navigate, until you hit a video or any instance with a scroll bar. Backspace and Space function as next and previous at all times, but the arrow keys would make so much more sense. Rotation is on R/L, Flipping on V/H, the number keys change scaling in fullscreen but not in windowed. Really, the lack of keybinding control THE thing that kills a ton of its potential. I’d even go through and manually edit an ini file if to achieve that, but the way it’s coded makes it essentially impossible. It’s still useful as it runs multiple instances, even fullscreen, but it’s slowed down by its unintuitive controls. NexusImage and ImageGlass are two other similar programs I tested, but both were buggy with limited functionality.
[Chrome / FireFox & others] Imagus + Viewhance – These are two browser extensions made by the same dev that I find make day to day browsing drastically faster. The first zooms thumbnails on hover, while the latter completely replaces the default image viewer of Chrome. Both have a wealth of behavior and visual preference options, as well as fully custom hotkeys, and oddly enough fulfill most of what I wanted out of an image viewer, including 120+ FPS rendering. Because they are browser extensions, they only function with content loaded from the web. How on earth someone managed to achieve this kind of functionality in a browser extension that is seemingly nowhere to be found in a traditional desktop app is beyond me, and I really wish a similar option was available. The image zooming in Imgus allows for a single keypress to throw the image into a new tab, and another can essentially put the floating image into a mode where it behaves similarly to how it would in Viewhance. You can zoom, rotate, flip, pan, scale images very quickly with hotkeys, and you can even view individual frames of .gifs, and send images off to one of many reverse image searching sites. Every time I browse the internet on someone else’s PC, I feel like it’s broken without these. I wish it tracked stats, as it’s probably saved me a few dozen thousand clicks by this point. Even links to albums, like the image for MusicBee does further up this page, allow you to use the scroll wheel to flick through them.
Image Browsing and Management – The windows explorer is enough for most users, but if you’re looking for a more full featured way to view directories full of images and do batch renaming/tagging/sizing/conversion, the best I’ve found is XnViewMP. The UI is white and skinning isn’t easy, but a bit of poking around can produce a still dated but clean aesthetic/layout. It can be prone to crashing when messing with the settings, but overall I actually prefer it over the very similar Adobe Bridge.
Picasa, full application this time, isn’t all that full featured but it can do some interesting things. If you have a ton of photos with people, it can be set to scan images for faces, and it’s really quite good at it. You basically put names to the faces, confirm or deny its suggestions, and at the end you have a big list of people, putting all the images in one spot even if they come from dozens of separate folders. You can make collections similarly in other apps, but the face recognition is relatively unique. There’s also an “experimental feature” that finds duplicate images across all of the directories you let Picasa scan, and comparing/deleting them from there is easy. Picasa operates by scanning selected directories, rather than acting purely as a file browser, and that allows all thumbnails to essentially always be visible with no loading. And because of the way the browsing system works, displaying all albums/people/folders selected on the left panel, you can see thousands of thumbnails at once. Managing albums, searching through everything, and viewing what you want really quite fast, and there are some basic editing and image creation features. The slideshow looks nice and it’s actually quite a well-made application, but it lacks hotkeys and UI customization that could make it even more useful.
Gif / Webm
Windows Media Player – One is technically an image while the other is classified as video, but they largely serve the same purpose. If you use Picasa from my recommendation above, sadly it can’t properly support either. The other viewers play them fine as do browsers, but the standard Windows Media Player is a great option as well. With loop set they do so smoothly, and as long as they aren’t too small, the window properly scales to fit, through fullscreen playback is also possible by double click, alt+enter, or the icon in the corner.
Videos / Movies / TV / Anime – MP4 / MKV / MOV / AVI and more
Kodi – If you want a relatively easy to use, but still very configurable video player suited to couch navigation (it supports controllers by default), this is an amazing option. It’s constantly improving and evolving, it has a number of really nice skins to choose from (downloadable from within the app), and gives you a good amount of control over how you lay things out visually. You basically set it up to scan a directory (or multiple if you have files in different places or across multiple drives), and anything with a file name that it can match to numerous online databases, are added to a library.
The items in the libraries (split usually between Movies and TV/Anime) can be viewed in a number of ways, and they are all automatically populated with relevant images, descriptions, logos, and actors with their own images. You can go in and select another option if you dislike the images it chose. TVDB is the default source for shows, and there you can see the kind of images and text it pulls. For naming files, you can usually be pretty loose with it. All it really wants is the title of the film or show, with a year in parenthesis (“<movie> (1994).mp4”) for films with commonly used titles, and a season/episode numbering (I use “<show> S01E01.mkv”) for TV series. That covers really everything, but if you know what you’re doing you can look at the WIKI and get fancy with numbering and folder structure. My general directory layout is all movies in one folder (D:\Movies\Movie01 (2015).mp4), and all shows in their own subfolders (D:\TVShows\Show01\Show01 S01E01.mkv). Plex, a very similar player and media server also respects this kind of naming/organization. It also supports music though I wouldn’t recommend it especially if you already put effort into something like MusicBee or iTunes, as well as music videos which aren’t really my thing.
Kodi is the best application I’ve found for organizing visual media in an appealing way. It’s supported across numerous kinds of devices, and even supports streaming across LAN and WAN if you set it up right. Plex media server is far more tailored to this kind of thing, as its focus is on hosting a server that other devices can draw from, while Kodi is more of a player that manages the media on its own. Kodi’s player is preferred by most over Plex, and I’ve seen quite a few choose to use Plex Media Server or Emby as a backend to stream to their client running Kodi. Kodi is open source and completely free, while those other two options both have free and paid versions locking off some additional features. All that said, I adore it for organizing everything and finding what to watch, but while the player itself is configurable, it didn’t quite have the features I wanted. It’s also quite suited to remote/controller use, rather than mouse and hotkeys. In comes PotPlayer…
PotPlayer – For a raw video player, I used VLC for quite a while. It worked well enough and had real-time video adjustments, but skinning it to look nice while still being functional and consistent was a challenge. I was prompted to switch mainly because the real-time video adjustments were annoying to access, and simply do not function when playing 10-bit content. After a bunch of searching I found PotPlayer, and it had all the functionality I wanted. Frame-perfect display of complex animated subtitles, a billion settings and options for every element including how it behaves in various instances, real-time video adjustments with default keyboard shortcuts and even more advanced options in the menu, etc. It even brought unexpected features like being able to drag any YouTube link into the player and have it play immediately, with the H key opening a context menu if you’d like to set a streaming resolution other than the default 720P.
It looks better than VLC by default, but still pretty dated. Then I stumbled on the best looking player skin I’ve ever seen, theSimpleThing 2.0 by FlyDonkey. You put it in a folder, apply the version you want in the menu, change one setting for the controls, and it looks incredible. As the name implies, it’s about as simple as you could possibly get, but it maintains all of its functionality with a great right click menu and tons of sensible hotkeys. Hotkeys which you can entirely disable with one click in favor of your own custom bindings. Those custom bindings can all be toggled with a checkbox for each, and are given priority over the defaults. I love PotPlayer more than any other program on this page because of its power and speed of use once you understand it and the default (or custom) hotkeys. The only issue I ever had with it was a small bug where it reverted the check for updates option, but that has since been fixed.
Text Files – TXT / XML / CFG and more
Sublime Text 3 / Notepad++ / Atom – The default notepad for windows works for saving basic files, but it doesn’t do so well with other file types, and it can even break files in some instances. An older version of SweetFX, an injector for games that can make adjustments and create effects in real-time, would actually crash if its preset .txt files were edited with notepad. For the average user, Sublime Text 2/3 and Notepad++ are largely the same. Atom is a far larger application, and has a really odd interface. All three can be themed both in terms of the background/default-text colors as well as syntax highlighting for all sorts of coding languages, record and playback series of inputs quickly (like copy and paste but for edits rather than basic insertions), and edit from multiple entry points at once. They all have so many features that go way over my head, but overall I preferred Sublime Text 3 of the bunch for my usage. Notepad++ is probably the most immediately user-friendly with the toolbar of buttons at the top, but I really like the styling and layout options of Sublime.
Essentially all of the applications mentioned here support the various file types all on their own. The default Windows applications and MPC-HC however, which do have their use from time to time, do not. In addition to that, the Windows explorer has limited functionality when it comes to generating thumbnails and showing metadata for the more advanced image and video filetypes, such as PSD/Webm/MKV/etc. For this you’ll need to install additional codecs and the thumbnails involve a shell extension like Icaros. The K-Lite Codec Pack does both of these things for you.
BE WARNED, while I have not run into problems with codec packs, there are users that do advise against them for average users. The problems cited are issues with specific programs, and potential for malware years back when download sites were popular and the nice options weren’t as clearly laid out. If you have a media player already configured with complex renderers and encoders (like frame interpolation with SVP), depending on what you choose during installation, it has a chance of messing with that. You can redo the setup for that player and get it going again after installing the codec pack, so it’s nothing permanent, but it’s something to be wary of. For K-Lite at least, the advanced setup is extremely dense, but it’s worth understanding each of the options you’re selecting. If you blaze through it not paying attention, you could mess up your file associations, or not enable some of the features you wanted out of it in the first place. Some of the settings however, like the Icaros thumbnail changes, can be tweaked later via the “Codec Tweak Tool” in the install location.
I’m incredibly satisfied a number of the applications listed, though there are some others I’m still looking to improve. If you have any alternative suggestions or tips for the programs I’ve mentioned, feel free to let me know in the comments below. For full disclosure, I have no involvement with any of these applications or their developers. All of the applications mentioned are available legally for free, with only Plex and Emby offering premium service, and Sublime Text has a limitless “evaluation period” but hopes that you purchase a license.