Understanding video file formats, with examples

Unlock the world of video file types: Learn about formats, compression, and compatibility to optimize video quality and sharing.
November 9, 2023
Vivian Tejeda
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Video editing is complicated enough before you even start thinking about file formats. There’s an alphabet soup of video file extensions: AVI, FLV, MP4, WMV. Some work in standard video apps like Windows Media Player and Quicktime, some require downloading an app with yet another acronym name like VLC. 

Why’s it all so complicated? 

This guide is here to un-complicate it for you. It explores all types of video file formats and file extensions, ensuring you can produce high-quality video content optimized for playback on any device—be it iOS mobile devices or Linux-based systems. 

What is a video file format?

A video file format is a structure for storing video data on a computer or other device. Think of it like a container that holds both visual and audio elements. These formats come in different types, such as MP4, AVI, and WMV. The choice of format matters significantly. 

If you pick the wrong one, you’re looking at potential issues with compatibility, file size, or video quality. The file format you choose dictates how easy it is to play, edit, and share your videos. It’s for that reason that understanding video file formats is crucial for anyone dealing with digital videos, whether you're a casual user or a total pro in the video content space. 

8 most common video file formats

In this section, we’ll look at the eight most common video file formats and explore what each is best for. 

Format Qualities Use cases
MPEG-4 Part 14 (MP4) Widely supported with balanced quality General, multi-platform streaming
Audio Video Interleave (AVI) Older; larger files at high quality Professional editing, less universal
QuickTime File Format (MOV) High quality with Apple compatibility Apple ecosystem, professional editing
Windows Media Video (WMV) Compressed and variable quality Windows use, small file preference
Matroska Multimedia Container (MKV) Stores multiple tracks as larger files Robust, customizable, playback issues
Flash Video (FLV) Internet delivery, declining relevance Niche, Flash-compatible
Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) Efficient, smaller files Online films, compressed distribution
Third Generation Partnership Project (3GP) Saves space Mobile sharing

1. MP4 (MPEG-4 Part 14)

MP4 video is your go-to format for most use cases. It’s widely supported, which makes it ideal for streaming, playing back on multiple devices, sharing, downloading, and social media uploads. Its balance of file size and quality is excellent, which is the reason it’s used extensively for platforms like YouTube or Vimeo. 

2. AVI (Audio Video Interleave)

AVI is one of the oldest video file formats, developed by Microsoft in the 1990s.  While not the most efficient in terms of file size, it’s known for its high-quality output, and it’s a pretty popular file type that’s supported by just about any computer. Use AVI if you’re working on professional-grade videos that will be edited extensively. However, note that it may not be as universally supported as MP4.

3. MOV (QuickTime File Format)

Developed by Apple, MOV is a staple for Mac users. It was developed to be compatible with Apple’s QuickTime app and it’s great at maintaining high video and audio quality, making it a good choice for professional video editing. But keep in mind that this also means it’ll take up more space on your computer. The MOV file format is especially relevant if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, but less ideal for sharing, due to its larger file size.

4. WMV (Windows Media Video)

WMV is Windows’ native compressed video file format. It’s a series of video codecs and their corresponding video coding formats. What does this mean? It means WMV isn’t just one way of storing video. It’s a family of methods (codecs) used for compressing and decompressing video data. Different codecs within the WMV family offer different balances between file size and video quality.

If you’re using Windows software for your video work, WMV is a solid option. It offers smaller file sizes at the cost of some quality, making it suitable for emailing or usage where storage space is a concern.

5. MKV (Matroska Multimedia Container)

MKV stands out for its ability to store virtually unlimited audio, picture, and subtitle tracks. It helps to think of it as an all-in-one video format that supports a wide variety of video and audio codecs—which means its file size capacity is much larger than other file types. If you need a video file format that’s robust and highly customizable, MKV should be on your shortlist. But be aware that it’s not as widely supported for playback.

6. FLV (Flash Video)

FLV uses the extension “.flv” and is primarily used for delivering video content over the internet. It was developed by Adobe for use with Adobe Flash Player. But Flash isn’t used much anymore, so this file format is becoming less relevant today. Use it only if you have a specific need for Flash-compatible videos.

7. MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group)

MPEG is a family of video codecs, but the most commonly used is MPEG-2 for DVDs and MPEG-4 for streaming. These are highly efficient formats known for producing smaller file sizes with good quality, which makes them an efficient way to publish films online. MPEG is typically an excellent choice for any form of distribution that requires compressed file sizes.

8. 3GP (Third Generation Partnership Project)

3GP is a video container tailored for mobile devices. Use this format if you’re aiming to save storage space on mobile or send videos via messaging apps. Given its lower quality and smaller resolution, it’s not recommended for professional use. However, it’s great for sharing multimedia between devices. 

🧠Learn: How to Easily Convert Videos to Any Format

How to choose a video file format

The file type you choose is crucial for both video quality and functionality, whether you’re watching via Apple’s QuickTime Player, streaming via Windows Media Player, or exporting lots of video files for sharing.

Keep these key aspects in mind:

Compatibility and playback devices

First, identify your target playback devices and platforms. If you aim for broad compatibility across many different operating systems, mobile devices, and web browsers, MP4 is the universally supported format you should lean toward. 

But, for example, if you’re developing content for a niche audience using Apple Mac or iOS devices, MOV files optimized for QuickTime playback are a better fit.

Quality and video compression requirements

Here, you’ll need to balance high-quality video with file sizes that are manageable for your intended use. For video productions requiring the highest quality—think high bitrate files from digital camcorders or files for professional video editing—opt for AVI or MOV. 

These formats create large file sizes but don’t compromise on quality. On the other hand, if your project is headed for social media or web streaming, a more compressed option like MP4 should be enough. MP4 offers a good compromise between video data quality and file size, which is especially helpful when it comes to video streaming. 

Editing and post-production considerations

For extensive video editing, you’ll want a robust format like AVI or MOV. These are less lossy and retain quality even after multiple encoding and decoding cycles. 

If your video doesn’t demand much editing and is bound for social media, there may be more appropriate options, like MP4. 

Keep in mind that web browsers generally support HTML5-based formats like MP4 and WebM, but for universal compatibility, especially across older systems and mobile devices, MP4 still reigns supreme. In terms of playback, VLC is a versatile option for multiple file extensions.

So, when it comes to editing and post-production, consider your end goal, the platform you’re using, and the level of quality you need. 

Best video format by use case

Let’s take a look at what the best video formats are by which platform they’re designed for:

Platform Best Video Format
YouTube MP4
Instagram MP4
Facebook MP4
TV MOV or AVI
Streaming MP4 (H.264 codec)

Best video format for YouTube

For YouTube, MP4 remains the top choice. This format provides excellent quality, while keeping file sizes manageable. It’s also widely supported, making it easier for your audience to view your videos without issues. 

Best video format for Instagram

For Instagram, again, MP4 is your best bet. Its wide compatibility and good quality make it the ideal choice for short clips or long Reels.

Best video format for Facebook

MP4 dominates here as well, due to its versatility and balance between quality and size. It’s the most straightforward option for your Facebook video uploads.

Best video format for TV

For high-definition TV, use MOV or AVI. These formats offer the high-quality output needed for larger screens.

Best video format for streaming

For streaming, go with MP4 in an H.264 codec. It provides smooth playback and is universally compatible, making it a safe bet for most streaming services.

Video file formats FAQ

What are the different video file types?

The common video file types you’ll encounter include MP4, AVI, MOV, WMV, MKV, and FLV. These formats differ in their encoding and decoding mechanisms, compatibility with playback devices, and quality settings. For example, AVI files often yield high-quality video but come with larger file sizes. Meanwhile, MP4 format offers a good balance between quality and small file sizes, making it compatible with most web browsers and mobile devices.

What is the most popular video format?

MP4 is currently the most popular video format. It’s widely supported across several platforms, from iOS and Android to Windows and Mac. MP4 is also great for video compression needs without substantial loss in quality. This makes it a versatile choice for platforms like social media, YouTube, and streaming services.

What file format is best for video?

The best file format for video largely depends on your specific needs. If you’re focusing on highest quality and are using video editing tools, MOV and AVI are strong contenders. Consider file types like AVI for lossless video compression and WMV for more lossy compression with smaller file sizes. For a more balanced profile between quality and file size, MP4 is often the go-to option. 

What video format is better than MP4?

If you’re seeking a video format that offers higher quality than MP4, you might look into MOV for Apple’s QuickTime Player or AVI for Windows Media Player. Additionally, MKV provides robust features like multiple audio tracks and subtitles. For professional cameras and camcorders, AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition) delivers high-quality video suited for TV broadcasts and high-definition displays.

Vivian Tejeda
Vivian is a content marketer who loves writing, creativity, and is obsessed with the art of storytelling. Her free time is taken up by learning golf, reading books, and touching grass.
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Understanding video file formats, with examples

Video editing is complicated enough before you even start thinking about file formats. There’s an alphabet soup of video file extensions: AVI, FLV, MP4, WMV. Some work in standard video apps like Windows Media Player and Quicktime, some require downloading an app with yet another acronym name like VLC. 

Why’s it all so complicated? 

This guide is here to un-complicate it for you. It explores all types of video file formats and file extensions, ensuring you can produce high-quality video content optimized for playback on any device—be it iOS mobile devices or Linux-based systems. 

Our full-featured video editing tool is as powerful as it is easy to use.
Look for our all-in-one audio & video production that’s as easy as editing a doc.

What is a video file format?

A video file format is a structure for storing video data on a computer or other device. Think of it like a container that holds both visual and audio elements. These formats come in different types, such as MP4, AVI, and WMV. The choice of format matters significantly. 

If you pick the wrong one, you’re looking at potential issues with compatibility, file size, or video quality. The file format you choose dictates how easy it is to play, edit, and share your videos. It’s for that reason that understanding video file formats is crucial for anyone dealing with digital videos, whether you're a casual user or a total pro in the video content space. 

8 most common video file formats

In this section, we’ll look at the eight most common video file formats and explore what each is best for. 

Format Qualities Use cases
MPEG-4 Part 14 (MP4) Widely supported with balanced quality General, multi-platform streaming
Audio Video Interleave (AVI) Older; larger files at high quality Professional editing, less universal
QuickTime File Format (MOV) High quality with Apple compatibility Apple ecosystem, professional editing
Windows Media Video (WMV) Compressed and variable quality Windows use, small file preference
Matroska Multimedia Container (MKV) Stores multiple tracks as larger files Robust, customizable, playback issues
Flash Video (FLV) Internet delivery, declining relevance Niche, Flash-compatible
Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) Efficient, smaller files Online films, compressed distribution
Third Generation Partnership Project (3GP) Saves space Mobile sharing

1. MP4 (MPEG-4 Part 14)

MP4 video is your go-to format for most use cases. It’s widely supported, which makes it ideal for streaming, playing back on multiple devices, sharing, downloading, and social media uploads. Its balance of file size and quality is excellent, which is the reason it’s used extensively for platforms like YouTube or Vimeo. 

2. AVI (Audio Video Interleave)

AVI is one of the oldest video file formats, developed by Microsoft in the 1990s.  While not the most efficient in terms of file size, it’s known for its high-quality output, and it’s a pretty popular file type that’s supported by just about any computer. Use AVI if you’re working on professional-grade videos that will be edited extensively. However, note that it may not be as universally supported as MP4.

3. MOV (QuickTime File Format)

Developed by Apple, MOV is a staple for Mac users. It was developed to be compatible with Apple’s QuickTime app and it’s great at maintaining high video and audio quality, making it a good choice for professional video editing. But keep in mind that this also means it’ll take up more space on your computer. The MOV file format is especially relevant if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, but less ideal for sharing, due to its larger file size.

4. WMV (Windows Media Video)

WMV is Windows’ native compressed video file format. It’s a series of video codecs and their corresponding video coding formats. What does this mean? It means WMV isn’t just one way of storing video. It’s a family of methods (codecs) used for compressing and decompressing video data. Different codecs within the WMV family offer different balances between file size and video quality.

If you’re using Windows software for your video work, WMV is a solid option. It offers smaller file sizes at the cost of some quality, making it suitable for emailing or usage where storage space is a concern.

5. MKV (Matroska Multimedia Container)

MKV stands out for its ability to store virtually unlimited audio, picture, and subtitle tracks. It helps to think of it as an all-in-one video format that supports a wide variety of video and audio codecs—which means its file size capacity is much larger than other file types. If you need a video file format that’s robust and highly customizable, MKV should be on your shortlist. But be aware that it’s not as widely supported for playback.

6. FLV (Flash Video)

FLV uses the extension “.flv” and is primarily used for delivering video content over the internet. It was developed by Adobe for use with Adobe Flash Player. But Flash isn’t used much anymore, so this file format is becoming less relevant today. Use it only if you have a specific need for Flash-compatible videos.

7. MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group)

MPEG is a family of video codecs, but the most commonly used is MPEG-2 for DVDs and MPEG-4 for streaming. These are highly efficient formats known for producing smaller file sizes with good quality, which makes them an efficient way to publish films online. MPEG is typically an excellent choice for any form of distribution that requires compressed file sizes.

8. 3GP (Third Generation Partnership Project)

3GP is a video container tailored for mobile devices. Use this format if you’re aiming to save storage space on mobile or send videos via messaging apps. Given its lower quality and smaller resolution, it’s not recommended for professional use. However, it’s great for sharing multimedia between devices. 

🧠Learn: How to Easily Convert Videos to Any Format

How to choose a video file format

The file type you choose is crucial for both video quality and functionality, whether you’re watching via Apple’s QuickTime Player, streaming via Windows Media Player, or exporting lots of video files for sharing.

Keep these key aspects in mind:

Compatibility and playback devices

First, identify your target playback devices and platforms. If you aim for broad compatibility across many different operating systems, mobile devices, and web browsers, MP4 is the universally supported format you should lean toward. 

But, for example, if you’re developing content for a niche audience using Apple Mac or iOS devices, MOV files optimized for QuickTime playback are a better fit.

Quality and video compression requirements

Here, you’ll need to balance high-quality video with file sizes that are manageable for your intended use. For video productions requiring the highest quality—think high bitrate files from digital camcorders or files for professional video editing—opt for AVI or MOV. 

These formats create large file sizes but don’t compromise on quality. On the other hand, if your project is headed for social media or web streaming, a more compressed option like MP4 should be enough. MP4 offers a good compromise between video data quality and file size, which is especially helpful when it comes to video streaming. 

Editing and post-production considerations

For extensive video editing, you’ll want a robust format like AVI or MOV. These are less lossy and retain quality even after multiple encoding and decoding cycles. 

If your video doesn’t demand much editing and is bound for social media, there may be more appropriate options, like MP4. 

Keep in mind that web browsers generally support HTML5-based formats like MP4 and WebM, but for universal compatibility, especially across older systems and mobile devices, MP4 still reigns supreme. In terms of playback, VLC is a versatile option for multiple file extensions.

So, when it comes to editing and post-production, consider your end goal, the platform you’re using, and the level of quality you need. 

Best video format by use case

Let’s take a look at what the best video formats are by which platform they’re designed for:

Platform Best Video Format
YouTube MP4
Instagram MP4
Facebook MP4
TV MOV or AVI
Streaming MP4 (H.264 codec)

Best video format for YouTube

For YouTube, MP4 remains the top choice. This format provides excellent quality, while keeping file sizes manageable. It’s also widely supported, making it easier for your audience to view your videos without issues. 

Best video format for Instagram

For Instagram, again, MP4 is your best bet. Its wide compatibility and good quality make it the ideal choice for short clips or long Reels.

Best video format for Facebook

MP4 dominates here as well, due to its versatility and balance between quality and size. It’s the most straightforward option for your Facebook video uploads.

Best video format for TV

For high-definition TV, use MOV or AVI. These formats offer the high-quality output needed for larger screens.

Best video format for streaming

For streaming, go with MP4 in an H.264 codec. It provides smooth playback and is universally compatible, making it a safe bet for most streaming services.

Video file formats FAQ

What are the different video file types?

The common video file types you’ll encounter include MP4, AVI, MOV, WMV, MKV, and FLV. These formats differ in their encoding and decoding mechanisms, compatibility with playback devices, and quality settings. For example, AVI files often yield high-quality video but come with larger file sizes. Meanwhile, MP4 format offers a good balance between quality and small file sizes, making it compatible with most web browsers and mobile devices.

What is the most popular video format?

MP4 is currently the most popular video format. It’s widely supported across several platforms, from iOS and Android to Windows and Mac. MP4 is also great for video compression needs without substantial loss in quality. This makes it a versatile choice for platforms like social media, YouTube, and streaming services.

What file format is best for video?

The best file format for video largely depends on your specific needs. If you’re focusing on highest quality and are using video editing tools, MOV and AVI are strong contenders. Consider file types like AVI for lossless video compression and WMV for more lossy compression with smaller file sizes. For a more balanced profile between quality and file size, MP4 is often the go-to option. 

What video format is better than MP4?

If you’re seeking a video format that offers higher quality than MP4, you might look into MOV for Apple’s QuickTime Player or AVI for Windows Media Player. Additionally, MKV provides robust features like multiple audio tracks and subtitles. For professional cameras and camcorders, AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition) delivers high-quality video suited for TV broadcasts and high-definition displays.

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