Video on PowerPC: Part 1 - Playback on G4/G5

I will say it right off the top... I am a video super-nerd. I love documentaries, films, sitcoms and animation, among many other things. There is no doubt to how much I love my video collection and the fact that I can play it all beautifully on PowerPC hardware. The hardware I currently use for playback is a PowerMac G4 Sawtooth with a 1.8GHz 7448 CPU and over 10.5 TB local storage, but I have used hoards of different PowerPC Macs over the years, and with many different Mac OS, codecs and playback software. The Altivec engine found in all G4 and G5 CPU's is key to good playback on more codecs and resolutions. In the next month or so I will be doing another article based on G3 video playback, but since video really comes to life with Altivec support I wanted to lead with it.

Since at least the early 90's, Apple hardware has been a leader in the professional video production industry, with Mac OS and Avid based applications. For years consumers have been able to play DVD's, and edit their personally filmed camcorder video on their Macs. Until 2002 though, the Mac platform was very limited in terms of good software and codecs for the ripping and playback of compressed video like DivX, XviD or anything FFmpeg based. This was a shame before then, because these are by far the most efficient codecs in terms of low CPU use and file size, and in turn the best for people that want to rip or digitize their video collections.

When OS X 10.2 Jaguar came out in August 2002, it really was a great time, as that was when a lot of new developers started porting their apps to Mac OS. Because of the BSD foundation of OS X this brought many developers over from the Unix and Linux world, and along with them they brought greats like VLC, Mplayer and Handbrake, just to name a few. By summer 2003, the Mac platform had done a complete 180 from DivX inept to fully capable, and I for one was very excited by this as a lover of video. Although I am going to explain how to get good playback on other codecs, I just want to first emphasize how crucial DivX and XviD are to a good experience, because of how inherently efficient both are, especially on sub-700MHz G4 hardware. Even if you have hardware far beyond that spec, it's still nice to keep CPU cycles free for other things. On the extreme low end of the G4 scale, like a 350-600MHz, these codecs will be your saving grace.

When it comes to h.264 video, it's less blocky, but can easily use 2-3x more CPU compared to DivX etc. The YouTube web interface for example is Flash on top of h.264, and will make many PowerPC systems come to screeching halt unless you have a faster G4 or a G5 system, but even then anything higher than 360p can be taxing on it. Flash has not been supported on PowerPC for over 2 years now, and I don't recommend anyone use it any longer.  There are far too many security holes in 10.1, and any technically sane person would never use it.  Those that love to spread the 10.1 plugins that are modified to show as newer versions should be banned from ever helping anyone with computers.  For those that are a true slave to flash, and simply have to use it, you shouldn't do it on a PowerPC.  Life can exist without it very easily.  In my opinion using it is like saying you love things that are covered in horrible.  Far too many people are slaves to this horrible technology. 

I do have a few tips on how to improve playback and lower CPU use that I will get to in this article. One app out there that several PowerPC users I know online have raved about is CorePlayer, which several have confirmed can play 720p and 1080p h.264 on higher end G4 and G5 systems. CorePlayer costs $20 and once I buy and do extensive testing on it I will write an article on it.  Since this writing, CorePlayer has closed operations and is no longer for sale.  I was one of the lucky few to get it while still available, and yes it does play 1080p perfectly on my single G4 1.8GHz.  This article, however, is focussed on freeware playback software such as VLC, Mplayer etc.

I am now going to group the hardware into two categories based on computing power, as it will help fine tune the playback options to the power you have to work with. The lowest OS I will advise on in this article is 10.4 as anything lower really limits playback options. When I do a G3 playback article I will add 10.3 and even 10.2 to the mix. Anyone running a G4 or G5 is far better off on 10.4+ for playback in terms of better software with more codec playability.

Group 1 - Single G4 350-600MHz

Your only real options are DivX (FFmpeg) based codecs at a lower resolution (240-360 high) for compressed video or standard DVD. Some low res h.264 will play also in MacTubes, once you get up to about 450MHz.

Best Software Options for 10.4:

 - VLC 0.9.10 and/or Mplayer OSX 1.0rc1 for DivX
 - Apple DVD Player for DVD
 - MacTubes (set to use Quicktime in prefs.) for YouTube

Best Software Options for 10.5:

 - VLC 1.1.12 and/or Mplayer 1.0rc1 for DivX
 - Apple DVD Player (this will only work on a sub-700 MHz if you turn off deinterlacing)
 - MacTubes (set to use Quicktime in prefs.) for YouTube

Since Leopard requires a G4 867MHz+, you should expect at least a slight decline in performance in this 350-600MHz range if you have shoehorned it on your hardware.

 Group 2 - Single G4 700MHz+ - Any Dual G4 - Any G5

This is where video playback really shines on Apple's PowerPC systems. Virtually every codec is usable, and where your hardware sits on this scale will determine the quality/resolution it is capable of playing. Having a 1.0 GHz or higher is preferable but a 700 MHz is enough beef in my experience. I suppose even the 667 MHz PowerBook and PowerMac could be included, as they are close enough to 700, but I have little direct experience with that exact MHz.

Best Software Options for 10.4:

- VLC 0.9.10 and/or Mplayer OSX 1.0rc1 for ripped video of any codec or DVD's
- MacTubes for YouTube

Best Software Options for 10.5:

- VLC 1.1.12 and/or Mplayer OSX 1.0rc1 for ripped video of any codec or DVD's
- MacTubes for YouTube

About the Software


This is easily the most capable freeware player on any OS. Although 0.9.10 (last version with Tiger support) is very good, I feel the newest build of 1.1.12, which needs Leopard, is enough of a jump forward that it's worth upgrading if video playback is one of your main roles for your Mac. This newest build is hands down the best freeware player on the platform. I use it about 95% of the time I play video. I honestly cannot think of one bad thing to say about 1.1.12. It's that good. VLC had hinted at dropping PowerPC development about a year ago, but some great coders stepped up and they obviously have a great comprehension of Altivec optimizations.

0.9.10 -

1.1.12 -

Web Plugin -

Archive -

Mplayer OSX

Mplayer is a very old and loyal friend that I have always kept around. It offers great features like frame dropping for slower machines, and I find is the best player by far at playing ripped media off optical disks, with it's well implemented disk cache feature. There are actually 2 different Mplayer projects on Macs. There is the standard Mplayer team and then there is another development team that ads the OS X name on the end. Over the years this has resulted in two different directions for the app and many different versions from each. The best one in my experiences is 1.0rc1, which is a PowerPC optimized build from 2006 that runs great on Tiger and Leopard. VLC is a more elegant and capable player in general, but Mplayer is a beast and has always been there for me when I need it. A very worthy tool to keep around indeed.

It tends to like G4 chips a lot more than G5's.

1.0rc1 -


This is a saviour for anyone with at least a G4 450MHz (maybe a 400 if it's all you're running), and the desire to be able to watch YouTube video. It also offers a totally different method of experiencing YouTube. Set the player setting in preferences to Quicktime to make video playable. I am able to play 240/360p/480p perfectly on my G4 1.8GHz with Flash on the site, but after almost two years of using MacTubes now I honestly prefer it over the web. For one you never have to look at what are generally obnoxious comments, unless you want to see them, by clicking on info which opens the comments in a separate window. It makes YouTube a lot more like watching a video in VLC or Mplayer. A winner in my book.

MacTubes is also a very capable and robust YouTube downloader, and also gives you direct urls to each resolution offered, to stream to VLC or whatever player you choose.

Always get the newest -

A note about Quicktime 

While it is useful to give MacTubes its most CPU-efficient form of playback, and to do simple edits (Pro version), it is easily the least efficient playback application on the Mac.  VLC and Mplayer beat it hands down in terms of CPU consumption, and by margins of 50% and higher.  Even if you have every codec under the sun installed for Quicktime, it's simply far too much of a CPU hog to use for playback.  No matter the codec, resolution, or whatever - QT is a sloppy pig.  All I use it for is MacTubes (indirectly) and simple edits, and/or joining parts together ($30 pro version).

Quicktime has a clear role on the Mac, but its strength hasn't been playback for a long long time now.  Even with MacTubes, I often download the videos and watch them in VLC.  A clear example of the difference in CPU use...  to play a 360p video in MacTubes via Quicktime it uses about 30-35% of my 1.8GHz 7448.  To play the same video in VLC it only consumes about 18-19%, and a very low 9-12% in CorePlayer.

The moral of the story is don't use QT to play video.  Streaming a video is going to consume the same bandwidth, so why not just download it and play it with a more efficient tool.  I only ever use VLC and CorePlayer to stream, and only for video I just want to watch the first few seconds of to see if it's worth downloading.  I delete most of them after watching.


  1. Thanks for all the great info.

    I'm not sure about the dates but I guess this info was published before VLC 2... was available. What do you think about this new software and all the updates released? Because version 2... have several audio benefits in terms of comfort, at least. But in video...many problems.

    1. In my experiences VLC 2 is a lot less efficient and even more limiting than 1.1.12. Some former preferences either don't exist any longer or are less customizable. Local and network cache is one example.

      On my 1.8 GHz the CPU use is about 5-10% higher with ver. 2 and the interface is a lot less desirable and useful.

      Newer isn't always better.

    2. Yesterday I uninstalled the 2.0.2 (the 2.0.4 was definitely horrible) and brought back to combat the 1.1.12 version with great results in terms of video. Fluent, light, reliable on my 1.33GHz and 1.25Gb iBook. Also confirmed my thoughts about audio issues: annoying lapses during playback in FLAC and crazy way to order songs in playlist(why not a song number column?). To solve the first one and most important I'd tried before to increase the VLC CPU priority and caching time but now I seem to be unable to find the last one...if you knew some special setup for VLC please let me know.

      Anyway somehow it works now and I'm glad to confirm that some pleople still believe (and demonstrate) our macs are, even today, big guns.

      Take care and thank you. Beautiful brown mac.

  2. Hoping you can tell me is video playback any better or worse in Linux on a G5 compared to 10.5?

    1. Overall Linux is worse at video playback. The one area it's better is that VLC and Mplayer on Linux tend to be a bit more efficient on the CPU. This is simply because Lubuntu has a lot less overhead running.

      Even when the day comes that I don't really go online with Mac OS on PowerPC I will still use it for video playback over Linux. VLC 1.1.12 on Leopard is the ultimate all round player in my opinion. I have 7 G4 towers so I will be playing video with Leopard and Tiger for decades to come.

  3. Brilliant! I'm running VLC 1.1.12 on my 933MHz Quicksilver with osx 10.5.8 and its liquid smooth, using around 75% CPU on a 480p video encoded with x264. By compassion, more recent versions of VLC and Mplayer are completely unwatchable with 1-2 seconds between frames and 100% cpu useage.

  4. This is such a useful post; thank you. I've got these programs running nicely on an MDD FW800, and imagine it will be even better with an upgrade to 2GB RAM. I found some Youtube videos that wouldn't load in MacTubes because embedding was blocked, but they run fine as a network stream in VLC.
    The one thing lacking for me in this area would be getting BBC iPlayer content (at least audio, if not video, but ideally both).
    I found this experimental player/downloader, but need to look into it further sometime: