The difference between file codecs and file containers
As with all technology, understanding video file formats starts with learning a couple of key terms. Those terms are file codecs and containers.
File codecs encode video for compression, storing, and sharing purposes, and then decode or decompress it for viewing. Codecs are essential for handling the large file sizes that are endemic to videos and other image-rich forms of multimedia.
Containers are the extensions that wrap media files into a single bundle. The three or four letters you see at the end of video file names, such as AVI, MP4/MPEG-4, and WMV, represent containers. Different containers can have different compression and data loss levels, which can affect your video's overall quality.
The basic rule of thumb for choosing a file format is to decide what matters most and pick the format that best serves your priorities. Do you want the easiest access or the highest quality video? Depending on your answer, you may choose WMV, which provides more compression and lower playback quality, or MP4, which delivers the opposite. There are plenty of other options. Here’s a “strengths and weaknesses” breakdown of some of the most common and popular formats.
8 of the best video file formats
AVI, or Audio Video Interleave, is a universal video format for iOS and Windows that features a broad range of app compatibility. Microsoft developed AVI in 1992, so Bill Gates could watch British baking shows on his desktop.
AVIs are generally well suited for playing video and sound. Unfortunately, the format is outdated, which creates some troublesome limitations. For example, AVIs are not as reliable as other formats for displaying subtitles.
WMV stands for Windows Media Video; as the name suggests, it’s a Microsoft-compatible file.
WMVs are some of the most compressed file types available. That makes WMV one of the best formats for sharing videos with others quickly. On top of being compatible with all Microsoft devices, they can also be played in Google Drive. Their compatibility with other operating systems can be spotty, however.
3. MOV and QT
MOV and QT are file formats built explicitly for Apple’s QuickTime player. Apple developed both, and not surprisingly, their video quality is super crisp and clear. Another benefit? They can store video, audio, and text. However, file sizes are usually on the larger side.
MKV, or Matroska, is a universal video container. Built on open-source code (meaning it’s publicly available so that anyone can see it or build on it) and great for displaying subtitles, it’s an excellent file format for editing video. The downside: MKV’s complexity can result in larger file sizes.
MP4 is the universal file format because of its cross-compatibility with pretty much all devices and operating systems. With its excellent video quality, high compression rate, and ability to combine text, still images, and sound, MP4 is a solid default choice for many types of video.
Initially developed by Panasonic and Sony for digital camcorders, AVCHD – or Advanced Video Coding High Definition – is a professional file format well-suited for videos. Despite its focus on quality, it has decent data compression, as well.
7. FLV and SWF
FLV and SWF were specifically designed for Adobe Flash Player. For years, they were among the most popular video formats because of their versatility and high data compression.
However, Adobe has since discontinued its Flash Player. Because of this, the list of apps and devices that are compatible with FLV is shrinking fast. For example, FLVs are not compatible with any iOS device.
Finally, webM is built for streaming. Essentially, it’s open-source, supports high-quality content with small file sizes, and works directly in a web browser using HTML5. So if you need a file format that doesn’t require the discontinued Flash Player to work, switch to this.
How To Choose the Best Video Format to Convert To
That’s the basics. Now on to the big question: how should you choose which format will best fit your project requirements?
You can narrow down your choices by asking yourself five questions:
- Are you editing this video?
- Do you need to display subtitles?
- On what sort of device will this video most likely be played? Will it be downloaded, streamed, or both?
- Does your video need to be compatible with a wide range of browsers and devices?
- Depending on your file's final destination and purpose, what do you need to prioritize? Is it quality or size?
After you've answered these questions, you can choose your file format. Here's our basic advice on which one you should go with:
To post your videos online (to social media or a website):
- MP4, WMV, AVI, webM.
To record a video or store it on your device:
- MP4, AVCHD, or MKV.
To edit your videos professionally:
- MP4, WMV, MOV, MKV, or AVI.
Editing and Exporting Video Files
One last word on file formats:
Understanding the differences between file extensions can help cut back on mistakes during the editing process.