Even if you’ve never edited video, you probably know a little about video formats – for instance, that the format of a movie or clip can be easily determined from the stored recording’s filename extension. You’ve likely also heard that video recordings are sometimes converted from one format to another. Want to know more? You’re in the right place! In this article, we’re going to tell you about various popular video file types and the differences between them. We’ll also give you some practical advice on how to choose the appropriate format in which to store your videos.
A video file format is the structure in which a video recording is stored in a computer’s memory, on disc, or on other digital media. A format consists of two parts: a container in which the recording is stored and a codec used to process the sound and image for viewing. Confused? Let’s clear things up!
To answer this, let’s take a look at the process of recording a video on a digital device (video camera, mobile phone, or any other digital device). These devices record audio and video as different streams, encoding each of them using a special program called a codec. Both streams are then compressed into a special file – the container – where they are given a description. This description enables media players to correctly synchronize the audio and video when replaying the recording.
A codec is a program that handles the coding of large amounts of data and renders them uncompressed during playback. There are specific codecs for each data type: audio, video, etc. You can learn more about codecs here.
Let’s take a look at a few popular video file extensions and learn more about their uses from how their differences are examined and explained.
This is one of the first successful formats developed by Apple and is native to the company’s QuickTime Player. MOV supports a wide range of codecs for compressing movies and other video files. It is also compatible with both Mac and Windows PCs as well as iOS-based devices like iPhone and iPad.
Short for “Audio Video Interleave”, AVI is one of the oldest and most popular multimedia formats, in which the data in a video file is stored in tagged “chunks.” It was originally introduced by Microsoft as part of its Video for Windows technology. Thanks to its simplicity, AVI is supported by all Windows-based devices as well as many Android-based devices, game consoles like Xbox and PSP, and most personal computer operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
Derived from the QuickTime file format, MP4 has quickly become almost a universal standard for sharing videos on the Internet and elsewhere. MP4 provides a nearly lossless compression algorithm and a higher quality than most other formats. It is also accepted by almost all computers, phones, TVs, and DVD players from Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Lenovo, and many other manufacturers.
The FLV, or Flash Video, format is mainly used to play online video content via Adobe’s Flash Player. FLV video files maintain high quality even after being compressed to much smaller sizes, which enables users to load online videos faster. Since the player is preinstalled in almost all browsers, FLV is supported by popular video-hosting websites like YouTube, Hulu, VEVO, and many others.
Another format developed by Microsoft, WMV was originally positioned as a competitor to RealVideo. WMV files are among the smallest video files on the Internet, though their quality is often lower because of the significant decrease in size after lossy compression. The key app for playing WMV is Windows Media Player, available on all Windows-based platforms as well as Mac OS X.
While conceptually similar to other containers like MP4 and AVI, the Matroska Video (MKV) format differs in that it’s entirely open source. MKV can include an unlimited number of video and audio tracks as well as features like multilingual subtitles in one file, so it’s now become the preferred format for HD video on the Web.
Video formats differ a lot in the contents of their container file. Some, AVI for instance, can include multiple audio tracks and subtitles; others, like MKV, let you pack in everything you need: video and audio tracks, animated and text subtitles, fonts, and more. Formats also differ in that each of them works only with a specific list of audio and video codecs.
These two fundamental differences can of course lead to many other variations: file size, video resolution, support for online videos, etc. Certain formats yield superior picture and sound quality, while others provide only the basics. However, there’s no definitive answer to the question “which video format is the best?” The answer depends on the specific device on which you’re going to watch a clip or movie; the best format might be the most readily available, the most compressed, or the one with the highest quality.
Choosing the format in which to save videos for viewing on your device depends on what you want to do, do here are a few illustrations:
For YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, use MP4 with H.264 and AAC codecs. This configuration will ensure maximum quality and minimum file size. Most other websites are compatible with MP4, FLV, and AVI, so you can pick any of these.
If you’re interested in HD quality, go with MKV or M2TS and you’ll enjoy the best possible pro level picture and sound quality. For regular-quality videos, we recommend MP4, AVI, or WMV if you’re using a Windows PC or laptop; pick MOV or MP4 if you’re using a Mac.
Depending on the resolution of your phone or tablet and which formats it’s compatible with, choose MP4 or 3GP.