VLC 4.0 sneak peek—a look at its work-in-progress new interface

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files are still a thing, gretchen —

VLC 4.0’s brand-new interface abstracts media files away from their content.


An orange traffic cone has been lodged in wall made of stone.

Enlarge / Without significant additional work, the new interface probably won’t please all of VLC’s existing userbase.

Last week, we mentioned that the extremely popular open source video player VLC is getting a brand-new interface in its upcoming 4.0 release, expected to debut later this year. VLC 4.0 isn’t ready for prime time use yet—but because the program is open source, adventurous users can grab nightly builds of it to take a peek at what’s coming. The screenshots we’re about to show come from the nightly build released last Friday—20210212-0431.

Goodbye file-opener, hello media jukebox

  • On the left, we have the version of VLC that ships with Ubuntu Focal—3.0.9.2. On the right, we see version 4.0.0-dev, current as of February 12.


    Jim Salter

  • The old VLC presented users with a blank media player when opened—the new version gives you a file browser view into the user’s Videos folder.


    Jim Salter

  • The old version opens videos directly in the main window—the new version spawns a separate playback window, not directly connected to the control interface itself.


    Jim Salter

  • The Browse tab is intended to give easy access to media servers on your local network—Plex servers, Playstations, and presumably other things that don’t begin with P.


    Jim Salter

When opening up the 4.0 dev version of VLC, the first change that leaps out is an interface shift from “file opener” to “media browser.” In older versions of VLC—from its beginnings in 2001 all the way through the 3.x version being distributed now—it opens to a blank player window, with VLC’s iconic traffic cone displayed in the center. The new VLC instead opens to a media-browser interface, showing thumbnails of all videos present in the user’s Videos folder.

This is the view associated with the Video view displayed along the new version’s top menu bar; it also presents Music, Browse, and Discover. Music offers a similar view into the user’s Music folder, Discover presents a network browser looking for shares and streams present on the user’s LAN, and Discover does not appear to have been fully implemented yet.

Another major change isn’t evident until you open a video. In older versions of VLC, a single window provided both the video content and its controls. VLC 4.0 instead spawns a new player window, separate from the browsing/control window from which the video was selected.

File system? What file system? There are only files

  • If you want to find a video outside your Videos directory, you’ll need to use the hamburger menu to get to what looks like a remnant of the old interface.


    Jim Salter

  • In this look at the Music view, we can see that VLC 4.0’s interface makes it extremely difficult even to find the filename of a file you’ve already opened.


    Jim Salter

  • Accessing controls in full-screen mode isn’t much fun yet—we needed to right-click the screen for a drop-down, which technically isn’t a part of the player window at all.


    Jim Salter

  • The interface preferences screen has an option, checked by default, to show controls while in full-screen mode—this appears to be a holdover from 3.x and doesn’t do anything at the moment.


    Jim Salter

As long as your videos are all in your local Videos folder, you probably won’t have any difficulty with the new interface—but in its current state, it’s not much fun for browsing large numbers of files in multiple directories. If you want to get out of your Videos directory, you’ll need to click the hamburger menu on the upper left of the playlist and select Media > Open Directory. Selecting Open Directory, unfortunately, doesn’t actually take you to the new directory—instead, it scans all files both inside and beneath the new directory you select and adds them all, willy-nilly, to the Videos tab itself.

This folder-scanning, browser-updating metaphor is highly reminiscent of the “Movies” interface of the Kodi media player—in theory, it abstracts away the inconvenience of managing folders and files entirely, giving you a single plane of glass within which to view all your content. But it doesn’t fit too many use cases. I don’t necessarily want to see all the dumb memes I’ve downloaded and video clips I’ve recorded with my webcam when I’m looking for movies, or vice versa.

The Kodi media player wisely retains a “Files” interface for those who want to see their content organized by folder—but so far as we can tell, VLC 4.0 has neither retained a way to get to the old file-based interface nor implemented a new version.

It’s also quite difficult to find the filename or location of media that’s already in your library. You can’t do it at all from the library view itself, but while a particular item is playing, you can right-click it, select Tools, then select Media Information.

Did we mention it’s a work in progress?

The current version of VLC 4.0.0-dev isn’t suitable for a lot of the use cases that earlier versions of VLC were—but it’s not yet clear how much of that is by design and how much is because the new version simply isn’t done.

VLC 4.0 has been in development for roughly two years now; it was first announced at FOSDEM in February 2019, with early nightly builds becoming available to the public in the same month. VideoLAN foundation President Jean-Baptiste Kempf told Protocol that 4.0 would be released sometime in 2021—but there’s still no concrete release date.

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