How to use VLC to watch any video on Apple TV

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Upgrade tvOS to the latest for folders, dictation, and more.
Upgrade tvOS to the latest for folders, dictation, and more.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

So you’ve got a fourth-generation Apple TV (the one with Siri Remote and all the apps) and you’ve just downloaded VLC, the “play everything” video app that was just ported to tvOS.

The last few versions of Apple TV haven’t included any storage for video files, and the same is true of the latest model: All the device’s storage is for apps and associated media files. Getting your own videos up on the big screen using VLC takes a little finesse.

Here’s how to watch any video (with a few caveats) on your Apple TV via VLC.

First up, while VLC will play any video you can throw at it, AC3 audio support for .avi files doesn’t seem to be working. If you try to play a file in this format, you’ll be able to see the video, but it won’t have any sound. Bummer.

All the other video formats that I’ve tried, including .mkv, .mp4 and .mov files, work just fine.

There are three basic ways to get VLC on Apple TV to play your videos: Local Network, Remote Playback or Network Stream. You’ll need some sort of media server, like Plex, for the first one, a web browser for the second, and a web or FTP server for the third. Let’s take a look at each in order.

Local Network

Use your own media server to watch on Apple TV.
Use your own media server to watch on Apple TV.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

VLC supports Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) media servers (like Plex) and FTP servers running on your local network.

The great thing about Plex is that there’s an Apple TV app and a Mac server that will do all the work for you – just point it to a folder full of media files on your Mac and turn it on.

If you’ve already got a media server like Plex up and running, using VLC to access the movies stored there is super simple. Launch VLC on your Apple TV, swipe left to go to the “Local Network” tab, and you’ll see your server there. Just click through to your movies and they should play without effort. What’s great here is that if your server doesn’t support certain file formats, VLC should be able to.

Remote Playback

Use your web browser to get videos over to your Apple TV.
Use your web browser to get videos over to your Apple TV.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

If you’re not keen on running a server off your Mac, then the next best option is to use VLC’s remote playback function. Swipe over to the Remote Playback tab at the top of the VLC screen on your Apple TV, and then you’ll see the screen above. Click on the Enable Remote Playback button and you’ll get two addresses, one with your local IP address (http://10.0.1.107 above) and one with the more easily read local network address (http://Living-Room.local above). Type either into your web browser and you’ll get a web page that lets you drag and drop videos into it to watch on the big screen.

Web page looks like this.
Web page looks like this.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Simply drag your movie files to the web page on your Mac, and — after a quick load — they’ll start playing on your Apple TV via VLC. Exciting!

Network Stream

Stream stuff from Dropbox, web servers, and FTP servers on the internet.
Stream stuff from Dropbox, web servers, and FTP servers on the internet.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

If you’ve got an FTP or web server out there on the internet, you can use VLC to watch any videos you might have stored there. VLC for iOS also lets you connect with Dropbox and Google Drive, though I was unable to get a video I have stored on Dropbox to play on my Apple TV, your mileage may vary, and I’m sure the VideoLan team will have this up and working in no time.

If you know the URL of your video file, swipe over to the “Network Stream” tab in VLC for Apple TV and type it in. It’s tedious if it’s a long URL (I’m looking at you, Dropbox!), but once you’ve typed it in correctly, VLC will keep the last several URLs in there for you, which means you only have to do it once for each specific file.

Now you’ve got three fairly easy ways to get any video you like up on your big TV via the Apple TV and VLC – enjoy, and let us know if you have any problems getting these to work.

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  • MC

    I like VLC on my Mac — who’s kidding, I LOVE IT!
    But, if you have a Plex server already running on your “local network”, why not just load the plex app on the fourth-generation Apple TV? You get the benefit of a slick interface with cover art, descriptions and all the other Plex-y goodness.

    • Robert A. Petersen

      Yeah, I find Plex to be the far better option on ATV4. The UI is infinitely better, the auto metadata downloading works very well, and unlike VLC 1/2 my videos aren’t missing sound.

    • Rob LeFebvre

      Mainly, Plex won’t play some file formats – VLC should.

      • I had this issue as well, but plex has this option to optimize files and that way almost anything will work. It will start transcoding to a playable format, you can start playing after the transcoding is initiated.

      • Rob LeFebvre

        Don’t get me wrong – I love Plex. We had some readers confused on how VLC worked, though – so here’s the option!

  • Diegold

    Does it play video_ts files ?

    • Rob LeFebvre

      good question – I don’t think so, since they’re DVD files, right?

    • finestmarinbeatz

      VLC does play video_ts files as well as m2ts files. I can’t say for certain if the ported version on the new Apple TV does or not. Yeah, I discovered Plex about 2 years ago, and haven’t looked back. I paid the $75 lifetime fee so I’m set FOREVER. This media server has been one of the main reasons I have not invested in an Apple TV. I have a sony 4K tv. The media server app on there runs quicker, requires less buffering, and frankly can handle any size mkv, mp4, avi, etc compared to the PS4 Plex app I have (doesn’t make sense to me). Also, the built in Netflix app to the Sony TV is the only way to utilize 4K and watch Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and more recently Master of None. 2016 will be the year of 4K becoming widespread much like Blu-Ray did in 2006.

  • Leander

    I have been using Plex since Nov on the Apple TV. Loving it. Tried VLC today. No sound (all of my videos have 5.1 surround). Deleted it. Sticking with Plex.

    • finestmarinbeatz

      Yeah been a little bit curious about this one, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I have a wireless 2TB hard drive plugged into my airport extreme, and just copy whatever videos I want to view on my 65″ 4K onto that. The built in media player app that Sony has makes plex super easy to use. Now it isn’t as pretty as my PS4 appearance wise, but it actually runs smoother, and has yet to crash on me in since I started using it over a year ago. @Leander do you find that if there is a larger mkv, mp4, what have you that you are trying to watch through plex it starts to slow down, or won’t even start altogether; you get the ‘your video didn’t start playing in time’ notification? The built-in media server app on my tv never crashes but the ps4 plex app has its ups and downs. Plus it can’t seem to handle any video file over 2-3GBs which is weird, and frankly LAME. Also, one more question. Sound quality, do you feel you get the full 5.1 surround (don’t know your speaker set-up; sound-bar, one center two side, and two rear?) because the only other streaming app I was able to truly get surround sound as if it were the original Blu Ray disk was an old streaming service I used years back on my PS3 called Rivet.

  • Robert Yohannan

    I understand all this but how is it different from importing a movie into iTunes and using My Computer/Home videos on the new ATV4 using my home network. I only watch my movies when I am at home anyway…

    • Rob LeFebvre

      Mostly it’s about having another choice – I think VLC plays more formats than iTunes. If you only have iTunes videos and ones that iTunes will play, then no need for VLC.

    • finestmarinbeatz

      Oooohhh Robert, welcome to the future. Say you get a copy of a screener in MKV format. I can watch it right away, literally right away. Importing anything but a mp4 or m4v into iTunes will not work, so you have to utilize programs like HandBrake or MP4 tools; the former takes sometimes 2-3 hours to convert a 1080p blu ray rip of say Iron Man in mkv format to m4v. Then importing, especially if it is a larger file size (like an Iron Man 1080p blu ray rip would be). You’re looking at a 8-10GB size file and that would take close to 15-20 min just to import into iTunes. At this point Robert, yes this is when you could use your home network to watch a movie. It took 3+ hours (not including download time should you decide to be a Pirate, which most of us are) to just start your movie. Whereas for me, with my 300 speed internet would have the mkv downloaded and dragged onto my 2TB wireless hard-drive connected to my home network and ready to watch using Plex in about 10-12 minutes. Do some research, and stop living in 2006. You’ll thank me one day.

      PS I too watch my movies at home as well…. (why the ….)?!

  • Why always compare it with iTunes or Plex, this app VLC is very poor at supporting AC3 which most movies in MKV / AVI format are using today, also problem with subtitles many times (maybe when .srt is outside the MKV container?), so that is a major disadvantage. What are the good alternatives then to this? Yes, checkout MrMC which is version of Kodi, its fast and takes all important format, no problem with AC3 or DTS and better graphical interface (soon even official Kodi may come as app). We have also apps like OneDrive and Infuse which competes very good with VLC in different aspect, OneDrive and NAStify is the ones which are most close to VLC. But still MrMCtoday is the most superior app today in features, speed, GUI…

    • finestmarinbeatz

      Plex all day, everyday. my 65″ 4k tv, 300 speed internet, 2TB wireless hard-drive reserved for movies (especially amazing during Screener Season right meow), plus the built in media server app on the Sony TV are truly the thing of legends. Pair all of that with PLEX and I have a home theater experience sans plush chairs, a 4K projector, and a popcorn machine. #YOLOTHO

  • Halperin

    When I use VLC with my external airplay speakers there is a lag of around 2 seconds. Can this be fixed?

    • Jason_Adams

      Use the Track Synchronization in the Window tab of VLC and delay the audio track synchronization by -2 seconds. All in sync then.

      • Halperin

        Thanks, but I’m not sure where to find any “track synchronization” options. To clarify, I’m using the new VLC app on AppleTV.

  • Photos & Food

    Hi everyone, there is absolutely no sarcasm in this question. I’m an apple fan and just curious. Why not just AirPlay from the MacBook instead of using Plex or VLC? Is it more because of the menu option? I don’t have that many video files on the macbook, so maybe I just don’t understand. Usually, if I want to watch one of the few files I have, I just AirPlay. Thanks in advance for the insights.

    • djrobsd

      I don’t know about you, but Airplay on the new Apple TV 4th gen from my 2015 Macbook Retina is buggy at best. Maybe its the odd screen resolution of the new MacBooks.. Maybe I’m missing something else.

  • articlee

    You may also try Avdshare Video Converter which can convert MKV to iTunes and make MKV capable to sync
    across iTunes, iphone, ipad, ipod, Apple TV, etc.

  • djrobsd

    Well I was excited until I tried to play all my MKV files I have on my media server. NONE of them have audio. Back to Plex I go.

  • Juan Pablo Resino García

    Hello From Spain,VLC plays in rtp:// format, it’s great, but I don’t understand why this don’t work under its remote player. M3u8 files are allowed to be played, VLC Apple Should allow an url list, or develope apps with url lists.

  • Den Watsons

    Why not to try just the special streaming apps that will work as a controller here between PC/Server and an Apple TV, like ArkMC, for example.A media player and streamer to playback or beam files like photos, music, videos that you have stored on PC, MAC any UPnP/DLNA server wirelessly and transfer to any wireless media players, like TV. I have at home PC with Serviio installed, like a server and stream the media to my device from there wirelessly witjout problems.