The field of freeware media players that claim support for most or all playback formats out there is growing. GOM, VLC, and KMPlayer tend to top people's lists. KMPlayer is perhaps the least known of the three, but if you haven't toyed around with the level of customization that it offers, you're missing out.

Recent updates have made it a true contender. Lightweight and extremely versatile, it sports a similarly-sized install file and resource footprint to GOM and VLC. However, VLC is well-respected for eating up the smallest amount of memory of the bunch.

An unpolished finished doesn't impede KMPlayer's robust feature set. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

KMPlayer is known for supporting more formats than most users thought existed, from the common AVI, MKV, OGG, OGM, 3GP, MPEG, WMV, RealMedia, and QuickTime formats to supporting playback of broken or incomplete files, which VLC sometimes does, to include certain kinds of compressed media files in RAR or ZIP. The only format I encountered that the KMPlayer wasn't happy with was RealPlayer's new IVR, which gets used by its new streaming video saver function.

Undoubtedly, KMPlayer's biggest strength is its options, and one of the best-developed options are the hotkey choices. You can customize keyboard commands by creating a standard set of hot keys, as you can in most programs. You can also map them to systemwide global hot keys, configure the player's predetermined set of keys to whichever actions you choose, or mix-and-match so that the keys you use to control WinAmp, for example, are reflected in the KMPlayer. This option eliminates duplicate and priority-confusing behaviors.

The choices for processing are incredibly deep, as well. Adjusting color spaces, oversampling, and deinterlacing sit next to options to add or reduce the noise level. Some older plug-ins from WinAmp are compatible, and the audio adjusting options are as robust as the video ones. Managing multiple audio streams requires only enough knowledge to know what you're doing because the tools are all laid out for you.

As we pointed out in December, the KMPlayer supports incremental frame movements, both forward and back, an empirically faster button response time compared with the competition. It also has built-in capture functions for both video and audio. Every time I go diving into the application's list of commands, it seems like I find more and more features. This might explain why there's no Help file: nobody wants to compile one.

At least, there's no Help choices for English readers. The KMPlayer, which is from Korea, is supported by a Web site entirely in Korean. This means that for most of the world, you're going to have to learn the ropes yourself, perhaps a hindrance to newcomers.

The player comes with two skins, many color choices, and a wealth of options including a built-in system clock when your video isn't playing. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

Right-clicking anywhere in the player will get you the main control panel, which has access to all features, functions, and sub-functions. There are buttons within the video navigation panel that give you piecemeal access to specific parts of the control panel, such as the playlist, preferences, subtitles, video-specific options, and screen-specific controls. If you're familiar with where things ought to be in programs, and willing to patiently wait for mouse-over labels to pop up and then click on them for the actual menus, KMPlayer has the potential to be immensely rewarding.

Despite lacking a Help file, KMPlayer is one of the most powerful freeware video players we've seen. It includes a vast array of video- and audio-capturing options, as well as skins, a plethora of playback controls and tweaks, and broad DVD support.

The depth of KMPlayer's Options are impossible to ignore. Combined with streaming TV and HDTV compatibility, playlists, and the ability to select which codec is used on a video-by-video basis, and you get a media player that demands attention. Subtitle support, skins, and eminently customizable, KMPlayer replaces VLC's somewhat wan interface with one that makes you almost as interested in tinkering with the player as it does in watching videos.