DivX and Xvid on OS X – How to Watch Online Video

Video online is huge and its going to only get bigger. As quality increases, so does the filesizes and bandwidth requirements. To get around these barriers, compression is necessary. Just like .mp3 for music and .zip for files, two methods of compressing video are DivX and Xvid. Let’s learn how to watch DivX and Xvid video under OS X.

Note: Once again we are venturing into a “gray area” of the internet. While there is nothing wrong or illegal with the codecs themselves and the concept of file compression, they are known to be used in conjunction with illegal purposes such as copyright infringement. This article was not written for those interested in such purposes.

A Short History
DivX originally came about around 1998 by Jérome Rota (aka Gej) as a hacked version of Microsoft’s MPEG-4 v3 codec. According to Wikipedia, it came about when “Rota hacked the Microsoft codec because newer versions of the Windows Media Player wouldn’t play his video portfolio and résumé that were encoded with it. Instead of re-encoding his portfolio, Rota and German hacker Max Morice decided to reverse engineer the codec, which ‘took about a week'”.

DivX uses the MPEG-4 Part 2, also referred to as MPEG-4 ASP, compression format. This is a lossy compression format which means that data is discarded in the compression process, reducing quality in exchange for filesize. It is famous for being able to compress large videos into a much smaller filesize while keeping a high visual quality.

Xvid
In contrast to DivX, Xvid is MPEG-4 standard compliant and also open source, released under the GNU General Public License. Due to its open source nature, Xvid can easily be ported to other platforms.

Xvid originally came about when DivXNetworks started a project called OpenDivX. While OpenDivX was an open source codec, the source code was kept under a restricted license. The DivX Advanced Research Centre (DARC) were the only people with write access to the project’s code. In the beginning of 2001, a DARC member named Sparky wrote an improvement to the codec called “encore2”. After being updated a few times, it was removed from the project without notice. The only explanation was “We (our bosses) decided that we are not ready to have it in public yet.” – Sparky

Soon after, the project began to slow down and stagnate. DARC released a closed-source beta of DivX 4 which was based on encore2. Many of the developers who worked on the OpenDivX project were upset and accused DivXNetworks of starting OpenDivX as a way of generating ideas for them. The developers then started a new project which was a fork of encore2. The OpenDivX code was replaced and Xvid was born under the GNU General Public License. Source –

The Players – Mplayer, VLC, and Quicktime with Perian

There are three video players on OS X that will play DivX and Xvid compressed files. Two are open source (MPlayer and VLC) and the third is Apple’s Quicktime Player with a freeware third party add-on.

MPlayer
MPlayer began in 2000 with Árpád Gereöffy (aka A’rpi). Like many other open source projects, it began when Árpád could not find a suitable equivalent for Linux. Mplayer is open source, released under the GNU General Public License. MPlayer itself is a command line application with an add on GUI. It has been ported to OS X under the MPlayer OS X project. Mplayer supports both DivX and Xvid video codecs.

VLC
VideoLAN’s VLC is a free media player which supports DivX, Xvid, DVD playback and many other media codecs. Developed at the École Centrale Paris by students, it was originally the client for a video streaming project. In February 2001 it was released under the GNU General Public License.

An advantage of VLC over other players is the ability to play partially downloaded or corrupt video files. VLC will also play an .iso disk image even if the host machine can not as well as DVDs.

Quicktime with Perian

Apple’s Quicktime player is included with all installations of OS X. Since version 7.2.1, Apple has allowed the basic (free) version of Quicktime player to show full screen video. Before 7.2.1, it was a Quicktime Pro only feature. Due to this feature, we can add Quicktime to the list of players for this tutorial. As great as Quicktime Player is, it does not support Divx and Xvid out of the box. For these codecs to work, you must download Perian.

Perian works in conjunction with Quicktime player. It is basicaly a component that allows Quicktime to understand the DivX, Xvid and many other video formats. It also supports the SSA and SRT subtitle formats. Install is quick and painless, and you can specify whether it will work for all users on the computer or just your own account.

I’ve extensively used all three players, and here are some thoughts:

My experience with MPlayer is that it is a solid media player. Stable and will play full screen video without glitch, it rivals Apple’s QuickTime. Before Apple opened up the full screen video ability and before I learned about Perian, I primarily used MPlayer for everything.

VLC on OS X however, hasn’t been rewarding. It works but frame sync errors are common. Rewind and fast-forward functionality is either buggy or does not work at all when viewing .FLV videos. Other people I know heavily use VLC and recommend it highly so I know its a great program. The best feature with VLC is the ability to watch DVDs with a different region code, without having to change the region code on your DVD player.

Quicktime with Perian is now my viewer of choice for everything. The stability and integration of Quicktime with OS X, full screen video support, and the many supported codecs from Perian make this the best combination. A close second goes to MPlayer which is also a wonderful video playback application.

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