If you’ve read part one of my series on MP3 apps, then you’ve hopefully chosen a player already and are ready to move on to the more advanced stuff.  In this segment I am going to talk about codecs and codec packs.  There are basically two kinds of codecs, audio and video; and even though codecs aren’t apps or even necessary for MP3 playback, I feel it’s important to talk about them in this series.

A codec according to Wikipedia is:

A codec is a device or computer program capable of encoding and/or decoding a digital data stream or signal. The word codec is a portmanteau of ‘compressor-decompressor’ or, more commonly, ‘coder-decoder’. A codec (the program) should not be confused with a coding or compression format or standard – a format is a document (the standard), a way of storing data, while a codec is a program (an implementation) which can read or write such files. In practice “codec” is sometimes used loosely to refer to formats, however.

So now that you know what a codec is, we can begin talking about how to use them.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to codecs.  You can either download and install them as you need them; which can be a very time consuming process.  Or you can download and install a codec pack.  Codec packs usually have the most commonly used and popular codecs included and are all installed together.  A good quality codec pack will cover all your bases and will usually enable you to view and listen to just about anything that’s out there.

So why do you need a codec pack?  Have you ever gotten an error message when trying to view a video or movie file that says you’re missing the required codec?  Windows Media Player is notorious for this and when it offers to download the codec for you, it fails.  Having a codec pack will eliminate this problem and you’ll have trouble free viewing of nearly any video you’ll find.

Now where can you get these magical codec packs?  That’s an easy one.  The best website I’ve come across to download all the latest codecs and packs is Free-Codecs.  They have a great selection of the latest audio and video codecs as well as the popular packs and tools.

At this point you’re probably asking, “Which pack should I use?”  There are some good ones out there.  Some are specialized for particular operating systems, others are more generalized.  You can even find some that are geared for certain media players like WinAmp.  You want to make sure that whatever pack you choose is compatible with your OS or you can end up causing havoc in your PC.  There are a few packs that I would recommend that are well suited for anyone.

Ace Mega Codec Pack 6.03 – This pack has practically everything you will ever need when it comes to codecs as well as some pretty useful tools for content creation.  It works well with Windows XP but can be a little confusing during the install process.  The biggest downfall of this pack is that it has not been updated since December 2004.  It may not work fully with Windows 7 and there have been numerous updates to the codecs included with it since the last update.

XP Codec Pack 2.5.1 – It’s specialized for Windows XP and relies on using Windows Media Player Classic as just one consolidated player for all formats.  It is updated fairly regularly, it’s small and seems to have a solid support base.  You can read more about it at their website here.

Codec 8.3q – This pack boasts that it’s user friendly and powerful.  At only a little under 5MB it contains a few of the essential codecs, but in my opinion lacks many that are widely used today.  This will probably help you in a pinch, but there are other packs that are more complete.

Cole2k Media Codec Pack 7.9.1 – Although it is stocked with nearly every codec you will ever, ever need, this pack comes with a warning.  It has been known to contain spyware that tracks your internet surfing habits.  Use it at your own risk and at the very least scan your PC for spyware after you’ve installed it.  It has a standard and an advanced version as well as a 64-bit version.

Combined Community Codec Pack (CCCP) – This recently updated pack has your essential codecs, but is missing some of the more popular alternatives that you’ll see in other packs.  That doesn’t take away from it’s usefulness, but you might need more than this pack offers.

K-Lite Mega Codec Pack – I will tell you that I am very biased about this pack, mainly because it is the one I use and the most familiar with.  It comes packed with every thing you could need including players and tools.  It has Real Player and Quicktime alternatives and has multiple install options if you’re only interested in installing just the codecs themselves.  It has a lighter and a 64-bit version and it’s updated frequently so you can be sure you’re always up to date.

Vista Codec Package – This is a pack set up for users of Windows Vista.  I don’t have much info on this and have never used it.  It does come bundled with the Bing toolbar, so if you install this one, be careful.  It comes with the essentials, but if you ask me, there are better options.  But it is known to work well with Windows Vista.

Winamp Essentials Pack – For those of you who use Winamp, this is a must have.  It is compiled by actual Winamp staff and contributors but is not an official Nullsoft release.  This pack enhances the already feature rich functionality of Winamp.  It is also frequently updated and supported.

Windows Essential Codec Pack – This contains a pretty complete list of all the popular codecs and is geared to work with Windows Media Player.  It is also updated regularly but lacks some of the tools included in other packs.

One thing that is very important to remember.  These packs should be installed individually and not all together.  You really shouldn’t have more than one codec pack installed at a time.  If you want to try out the options I’ve listed, make sure you uninstall one before installing another.  The only exception is the Winamp Essentials Pack that will only affect Winamp functions.

That should get you started on selecting a codec pack that is best suited for you.  I hope you found this useful and helps get you on your way to having your PC configured like a real power user.  Coming up in part three of this series I will talk about ripping tools and other apps used to create and enhance MP3s.