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The Best Ways to Watch Your Video Files on Android

By Ryan Whitwam

Codecs, streaming, and casting.

Android has come a long way with its managing and playing your personal video files. Of course, it was always a preferable experience to other platforms that lacked user-accessible file systems all together. With web technologies and apps advancing nonstop, what's it like watching video on Android these days? Well, it's pretty good, especially now that the Chromecast is in the mix.

Let's take a look at the various methods of watching video on Android and figure out what makes sense for you.

Ideal Video Formats

Android devices have various levels of video codec support. For example, Samsung phones usually know how to decode files encoded in all sorts of formats like DivX, Windows Media, and MPEG4. The thing to be aware of here is that most of these formats are being decided in software. It's the same as if you install a third-party video player that is capable of decoding these files. It's basically using the CPU to do all the work of playing the file.

The quality you get with this approach is probably going to be fine. The thing you have to watch out for is battery life. This is more of a concern with phones than tablets, which usually have juice to spare. A video that is encoded with H.264 (usually in a .MOV or .MP4 wrapper) has special status on a mobile device. There is hardware support for deciding this type of video, which is much more efficient when it comes to battery life.

So the first decision you have to make is whether or not you're going to bother with re-encoding all your video to H.264. Luckily, this format has become considerably more common, so hopefully you won't have many AVIs sitting around. If you are in that unenviable situation, converting with Handbrake is a good idea. It has a handy automatic setting for Android phones and tablets, so all the work is done for you. When ripping your media, H.264 is the way to go -- it's just easier in the long run.

Storage and File Management

So you have your files ready to go. Your first instinct might be to dump everything on your device's internal storage and be done with it, but hold your horses. First check to make sure that none of your files is larger than 4GB. It's not likely, but if you've ripped a Blu-ray it could be a few gigabytes in size. Android won't be able to handle a file that large, so encode it at a lower bitrate or resolution if that's the case.

Devices with SD cards are handy for carrying around a lot of video because that saves your internal storage for apps. Some phones still have support for installing apps to the SD card, but it's best to just avoid that -- it's kind of a kludge and tends to break things. Any halfway decent microSD card should be fast enough to watch video these days, so there's no worry there.

When your files are on the device, they will be scanned and indexed by the Gallery app. Anything that is compatible for playback (based on codec support) will be shown there. However, sometimes that can be confusing. You won't see files that require third-party codecs, and the video won't be organized particularly well. It's worth considering the option of simply using a file manager like Solid Explorer to keep your video file hierarchy neat and tidy. You can open files from a file explorer, so you don't have to rely on the Gallery at all. The videos can even be hidden from the Gallery entirely by placing a .nomedia file in the video directory -- just create a new file and call it ".nomedia."

Another option for watching video on your Android phone or tablet doesn't involve transferring it to the device at all. You could keep you video in Dropbox (if you have the space) or leave them on your computer. In both these cases, you can simply stream your files to the device.

Apps for Playback

Let's take this from two angles: playing your local files on the device, and playing files you have stored elsewhere. If you have your videos on the internal storage or SD card, you'll probably want to pick up a robust video player app. The default playback interface in the Gallery should be able to handle all your H.264 videos (along with other formats, depending on device), but it's not the most feature-packed.

For regular local playback, MX Player is one of the top apps. It is multi-threaded for more efficient software decoding, and has support for hardware decoding of supported file types. There are also gesture controls for seeking, brightness, zoom, and volume. The excellent subtitle support is one of the reasons this app has become so popular, and it's free with minimal ads. A paid version is $5.70.

Another option with similar features is VLC for Android, but there's a big caveat here. The app is only available in Google Play for outside of North America. See, it's still technically in beta and has been for about 18 months. Why it has been geo-restricted like that is beyond me, but you can download the latest nightly builds from the VLC site. This app has a somewhat cleaner UI and it's totally free. It should play virtually any file and I've found it to be essentially bug free. As a bonus, VLC can open network streams if you've chosen to put your files on a server.

Keeping videos in Dropbox is a good option if you have enough storage through that service. If you either pay a little for a premium account or take advantage of the various promotions, you can end up with more storage than you have locally on Android. Dropbox uses an HTML5 video player that can stream your H.264 files without any additional apps. Just open the file in the Dropbox app and it will optimize it for mobile playback in a handy full-screen interface. It's a barebones experience, but super-convenient if you have a data connection.

Lastly, I want to talk about Plex a little because it's currently the best way to get your personal video collection onto a Chromecast. There are precious few apps that even have support for Google's streaming stick, and several of them are kind of a mess when it comes to video playback.

This app uses a Plex server on your computer to index and stream your files. You can also cache them offline for playback on your device when there is no connectivity of the server is off. Plex transcodes everything and pulls media info, cover art, and so on -- it's a really spectacular experience.

The only bummer with Plex is that to get features like offline sync, internet streaming, and Chromecast support, you need a Plex Pass subscription. It's $30 for a year, which I think is reasonable.

The best method will depend greatly on what type and how much video you need to play. If you've backed up a large movie collection, it's not practical to carry that around. I'd suggest Plex because it's great at managing large collections without taking up space on your device (unless you want to cache things) and it works very well with the Chromecast. This is my preferred solution right now. It does cost a bit of money, but you get what you pay for.

For a small amount of H.264 video, VLC would be my first stop. If the beta gives you trouble, MX Player is fine as well.