Some media players are bloated monsters, packed with unnecessary features. You've seen the results: open an HD video and they'll keep you waiting while your hard drive thrashes, your RAM is gobbled up and your CPU utilisation reaches new highs.
You don't have to put up with this, though. Other media players launch in a flash, and then make minimal demands on your system resources, allowing smooth HD video playback even on the most underpowered of PC hardware.
There's a problem, of course - you have to figure out which players fall into each category. And that's not easy, because everyone claims their own products are fast, efficient and great performers, whether they are, or they're really not.
The answer was obvious, then. We had to benchmark the players ourselves. So we took 16 of the top contenders from around the web, measured the time it took them to load and begin playing (largely) HD videos in 6 common formats (MP4-based AVI, H264 MOV, MPEG-2, MP4, OGG and FLV), and monitored their average CPU utilisation and RAM requirements.
And it turned out there were major differences in launch time and resource use between some of the programs – so let's find out which is the best media player for 2011...
The contenders
We selected the following 16 popular media players for the tests.
DivX plus player
GOM player
Media player classic
VLC media player
Windows media player
Zoom player
How we tested
The benchmark process started by selecting our test videos, and we opted for five versions of the Creative Commons-licensed animation, Big Buck Bunny.
These included an AVI movie with MP4 video and AC3 surround sound, a MOV file with H264 video and AAC surround sound, and an OGG Theora video with Vorbis stereo sound, all of which were full 1080p resolution.
For good measure we also grabbed a copy of the Flash video (FLV) and iPod 5G versions (320x180), before creating a PAL DVD-compliant version of the file to test MPEG-2 playback.
We chose a reasonably powerful test PC, equipped with Windows 7, 4GB of RAM and an Intel Core i7-2533 CPU. And a baseline hard drive image was taken, to ensure each program would start with the same filters, codecs and system configuration.
We then opened the test videos in each of our media players, noting the time it took for them to begin playback.
And as the players worked, we used Process Hacker to access the average CPU utilisation and RAM (private working set) and RAM they required. We didn't try to optimise the player's settings to improve results, so our figures relate to the default settings only: it's possible that some players may work faster or use less resources if you spend time working on their settings.

The best media player for performance is…

As we took a closer look at the figures it was once again obvious just how important your choice of media player can be.
Opening our 1080p AVI file with the DivX Plus Player rather than VLC Media Player, for instance, would leave us waiting almost 13 times as long (11.6 seconds as opposed to 0.9), while also requiring more than three times the CPU utilisation, and 2.76x as much RAM.
And while that's an extreme example, there were many other situations where some players would take two or three times longer than the competition to play particular file types.
We're still only talking about a few seconds, of course, and so if you like a particular program for other reasons - its interface, range of features, whatever it might be - then you might simply decide to live with this. But if speed is your top priority, then where should you turn?
Surprisingly, Windows Media Player 12 delivered reasonable results, popping up quickly and not using too many resources. Of course its integration with Windows gives the program an advantage that other players don't have, though, and it also failed to play our OGG test video.
And so our winner, for the second year in a row, is VLC Media Player. Its mix of fast start times (particularly for the two video formats we rated as the most important, AVI and MP4), generally low resource use, and ability to play a wide range of files meant it just kept its place.
The margin of victory was tiny, though, and several of the other programs actually beat VLC Media Player in some areas. In particular, Daum PotPlayer (the latest project from the original creator of KMPlayer), Media Player Classic Home Cinema and SMPlayer did a great job by not only playing all our test videos, but doing so with the minimum use of resources: if VLC doesn't work for you then these are fast, lightweight alternatives, and well worth a closer look.
The best media player for performance 2011 min launch time
The best media player for performance 2011 max launch time
The best media player for performance 2011 max cpu
The best media player for performance 2011 min ram
The best media player for performance 2011 max ram
* Couldn't play all our test files. Included for reference only.