An equal-opportunity player for Web 2.0

The latest version of Democracy Player doesn't just compete with other video players--it surpasses them, integrating feeds and vidcasts with your locally stored files to provide a seamless viewing experience.

There's the temptation to start talking about the Democracy Player with a Lord of the Rings-esque, "One Player to Rule Them All" joke, but that wouldn't be very democratic, would it?

The latest version of the open-source Democracy Player contains some serious upgrades that make it worth a second look, if you haven't liked it in the past. The most important improvement is that the publisher, the Participatory Culture Foundation, seems to have worked through most of program's early stability issues. After tooling around with the player for hours on Windows Vista, it neither crushed my system's memory usage nor crashed. Memory usage and stability have been major issues for the plucky little player, and I suspect they will continue to be. But at least it wasn't gathering piles of RAM like a YouTube-obsessed squirrel fearing the approaching winter.

For those of you not familiar with Democracy Player, the underlying concept of the player is another one of those brilliant yet simple hallmarks of Web 2.0: create a video player that can subscribe to and download video podcasts while comprehensively managing saved videos. On the face of it, this might sound like iTunes, but the interface shows you right away that this was built for images, not music.

When you launch the application, a left sidebar displays a folder tree for managing videos. Each item under a folder uses a mini-screen capture as an icon and displays a number, which represents the number of videos in that particular feed. Clicking on a feed displays a larger version of the screen capture in the central pane, along with the title and a brief summary of the video. Clicking on the Details link gives you the Web page permanent link from which the video came, as well as the local file name and its link, too. There's also a Send to Friend button, plus other extraneous options.

Democracy Player\'s main interface is well-suited to managing multiple videos and sources. (Credit: Participatory Culture Foundation)

The central pane does double duty for viewing and searching for videos. When you play a video, the entire central pane becomes the viewer, nicely taking advantage of your screen's real estate. The bottom portion hosts a search box for parsing through Google, YouTube, Yahoo and other major video aggregators.

The built-in torrent compatibility is brilliantly done. You can download and watch torrented videos without having to open up a second application. The torrent functions are frills-free--forget about trying to download only one file out of five that have been bundled into a torrent--but I was getting the same download speeds in uTorrent as I was in Democracy Player.

A great addition with this upgrade is folder watching. This features instantly adds new videos to Democracy Player that have been added to a local folder set to "watch". Other new features include resumable playback, which lets you pick up where you left off in a video if you have to stop watching or your player crashes, and lots of keyboard shortcuts. Older appealing features include channel surfing, which organizes video feeds by topic, as well as video sharing and hosting, and video-creation assistance.

The feed manager shows which videos have been downloaded, where the file is stored locally, and more. (Credit: Participatory Culture Foundation)

It's not perfect, but the flaws I've encountered in the new version of Democracy Player seem to be minor. I'd like to be able to double-click on the playback window to maximize it to full screen, for example, and it's not clear how any codec issues should be handled.

The publishers believe this version of Democracy Player is so strong, though, that it's essentially a release candidate for version 1.0; the player will be renamed Mira when that comes out. It's a fitting moniker for a player that makes a strong effort to incorporate widespread broadband use with the popularity of user-driven video watching.