Digital Video File Formats Explained

Digital video file formats drive lots of people up the wall.  Including me.  :)

I’ve heard some people complain that confusion over file formats is what prevents them from using video online.

Let’s get over that!

Although they can indeed be a pain in the tush, understanding video file formats on a basic level well enough to use online video is NOT that difficult.

If simple use of online video is your goal, a complete A-Z knowledge of file formats will not be necessary to function.    If you know the common formats, you’ll probably be ok.

There are two main times during the whole process of video making when files formats are an issue.

1.  What format comes out of your camera?  (Or whatever your source video is.)  It needs to be accepted by whatever video editing program you use.   Before you buy a video editing program, check to see what formats it accepts.  Make sure it matches your source video format.

2.  When you are done with your video, you need to convert it into an appropriate sharing format.  There are only a handful of common sharing formats.    If you are up loading to the web, sites generally take the same common formats.

Source video files, used at the beginning of a project, will more likely be uncompressed, large files.

A sharing file on the other hand, is usually compressed quite a bit.

IS THERE ONE “BEST” FORMAT?

Most formats are compatible with multiple players and will work in many situations. Lots of people think there is ONE magic format that works best.  Truth is, all formats have their pros and cons and are used in different situations.

If you want to edit your video, save yourself some headaches and buy a video camera that records in an edit-friendly format like DV, mini-DV.  Mini Dv has been around for a while and is being replaced by newer formats like HVCHD.  Although more and more editing programs accept the newer formats, the pioneers of these formats always experience more headaches.  I hear lots of moaning about that.

Converting from one format to another is no more difficult that doing a “save as” with a word document.    You pick which format you want and the software does the rest.  The trick of course is to have the right software for the job and know what format you want.   Depending on the sophistication of the software you’re using, you might have options in terms of size, resolution, compression type, compression amount, etc.

Simple programs do not give you that many options.  In fact, really simple video editing programs often do not even require you know what format you need.  Those programs just ask how the video is going to be used and then select the right format for you.  If you haven’t a clue what you are doing, trusting that default process usually gets good results.

Any video editing software should be able to convert into multiple formats.   No matter what type of conversion you need to do, there is some conversion software somewhere that will do the job.  (That link will take you to a blog post about two free conversion packages).

It pays to know the most common formats.  There are literally thousands of video formats, but you DO NOT have to know even a fraction of all that in order to use online video with confidence.

This article lists the most common ones and their pros, cons and typical uses.

Here is a list of the most common formats with the pros and cons for each.  This list is by no means a complete list.  It is meant for beginning and intermediate level video producers.

If this list does not contain the information you seek, try this post too.

AVCHD: This is an HD format for high resolution video.   These files are becoming quite common as HD spreads to more consumers.  AVCHD is not a sharing format, it’s for video at the beginning of a project.  Since HD is still a new format, few edit programs handle HVCHD files yet, although the list grows daily.

Lots of cameras today shoot AVCHD and if you just want to watch your home movies without editing, AVCHD is a good format.  If you want to edit, be prepared for some troubles.   Not that you can’t do it, just be warned that it takes a while for editing programs to adjust to any new file format.  Check to see what formats your software accepts before buying an HD camera.   

.avi: AVI is what’s known as a container format.  (Sometimes referred to as a wrapper.)  There are many formats in this category and here’s what it means.  Let’s make an analogy of a “container” for liquid.  The container is the container; it will hold any kind of liquid.  (Or even a solid!)  You can put water or gasoline into the container.  Same with a “container” video format.

Video formats come in  parts, layers and types.  The “container” is part of the video file and it holds other parts.  Any video you watch is made up of a container and numerous interior parts.  For example, the video and audio are actually separate signals bundled together within the container.

Those interior parts can vary and the video still be considered a certain format.  This leads to very confusing compatibility issues!  Just because your format is something common like AVI does not mean it will work within a program that accepts AVI.  Chances are it will not be too hard to make the necessary adjustments once you know what you need to adjust.

AVI is an early form of video file so it has been around forever and is very common.   The fact that it has been around forever means it is highly compatible with most players, even with the rotating insides issues.

AVI is for video in the beginning of a video project. .avi files are usually way too big for a finished video so it is not considered a sharing file.    .avi is better used as a format in the beginning stages of video production, not for the final output.

.wmv: A Microsoft format. .wmv stands for Windows Media Video.  .wmv files are tiny because they are highly compressed.  This is one of the smallest  sharing formats, so it is for the end stages of your video project.

Any video this highly compressed looks a bit ragged, that’s just the nature of the beast.  I think .wmv files look horrible.  The more you compress a video, the more details and info you take out.  This makes your resolution suffers.  Compression is always a balance between file size and image quality.  But tiny video files are a great thing, so sometimes people are willing to put up with the lousy resolution in order to have the convenience of a small video file.

.WMV files are the type of videos you get emailed directly to you.  .wmv are about the only type of file small enough to email so that is a huge advantage.  As bad as I think wmv files look, I don’t care that the video is grainy when my friends send me funny videos attached directly to the email.

Since windows based products are so common, .wmv files will play on just about anything, except a Mac.  No problem!    If you want to play a wmv file on a mac, download some software from microsoft called Flip for Mac. There is a free version.

.mov files: .mov as the file extension means the video is a Quicktime Movie file, which is an Apple software product. Quicktime movie files are very common and one of my personal favorites. MOV functions frequently as both a sharing file but is quality enough to use as source video inside of an editing program.  In fact, if you download stock footage chances are fairly high that it will be an .mov file.

.mov files look great, but unless you compress them an awful lot, they are still a bit big for a sharing file.

I did an experiment where I converted the exact same video into both a .mov and the other into a .wmv, using the standard default compression settings.  The .mov look significantly better but it was 80MB and the .wmv only about 2 MB.  That is a huge difference and it showed but 80 MB is pretty fat.

.flv:
.flv means it is a Flash video format.  This is an extremely common and popular format because it is small but still looks good.  This is the most common sharing format on the web there is.  Flash is slowly being replaced by HTML5 however as the online format of choice.  This happened when Steve Jobs and Apple came out with the iPad and refused to make it flash compatible.  Jobs apparently  hated flash.

.flv is highly compatible with most computers and browsers.   If you are watching a video online, it is probably in .flv format.   About 70% of all internet video is still Flash, although before the iPad, Flash was more like 98% saturation.

If you are uploading to the web, you do not necessarily need your video to be in flv format first.   Internet sharing sites like You Tube will accept multiple format uploads, but before they are actually posted online, You Tube converts it to .flv for you.  You do not have to convert it into flv yourself if you use many of the available online video platforms, they convert it for you.    If you have a video on your own server or in an amazon S3 account,  it used to be recommended that you convert to an flv before loading it onto your server because that way you will get the greatest number of viewers who can potentially see it.  Now however, because of HTML5, MPEG4 is the most universal format.

MPEG2: MPEG 2 is the type of video file the a home DVD player will read.  If you go out and rent a Hollywood Movie from Blockbuster, the DVD will contain an MPEG2 file.

MPEG2 is way too big for the web.  MPEG2 is also incompatible with video editing software. You can not edit an MPEG2 file without converting it first. Use some common and free conversion software called MPEG Streamclip.

Some new video cameras shoot on MPEG2 because camera manufacturers have realized more people care about the ability to pop their home movies into a DVD player to instantly watch than care about editing their video. So if you are buying a video camera, keep this in mind.  Before editing mpeg2 video you have got to convert it first.  That is not difficult once you have the mpeg streamclip which I linked to in the above paragraph.

MPEG4:
MPEG 4 is today’s defacto universal standard for video files on the web.  MPEG4 is a sharing format that produces tiny files that still look pretty good.  Not as good as .MOV, IMHO but they are so much smaller in size the trade off is worth it if you are mostly concerned with size, not high resolution.  A video that is 100MB as a quicktime move might only be about 10 MB as a MPEG2.  (Assuming you use the default compression settings.)

Which file format is “best” for you to use depends on how you are going to use it.  If you want to email a video, it had better be tiny so you need to throw high resolution out the window.  On the other hand, if you are trying to impress some big money investors with a video of your invention,high resolution would be way more important than a tiny file size.  If you are going for the best compatibility online, today the recommendation is for MPEG4.

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT FORMATS FOR VIDEO?

First, a brief explanation about why so many digital video file formats exist and what that really means.

High quality video files (raw footage files) are huge.  The higher the resolution, the bigger the file because it contains more information in order to achieve that high gorgeous resolution.  HD video is difficult to edit with the file sizes are so huge.

To play videos on the web or your computer, they have to be compressed, or made smaller.  This is done by designing ways to take information out of the video signal.  If you take information out, the resulting file is smaller but the loss of information degrades the picture quality. This process is called compression.

Video files can be compressed in a wide variety of ways by different kinds of software.  This results in many different formats.   Which format it is is indicated by the three letters (sometimes 4) that follow the file name.

Example: If a video file name is MyVacation.mov, the .mov means it is a Quicktime Movie file.  Quicktime is an Apple format described in detail above.

If the video file is MyVacation.wmv, the .wmv means it is Windows Media Video, which is a Microsoft format.  That format too is in the above list.

Lots of different companies and organizations have designed programs to compress video.  They each have their own way of doing it, so you have lots of different file formats.  Some were created by Microsoft, some by Apple, some by standardizing agencies like the Motion Picture Experts Group.

Once you compress a video, you have to have a program that “reads” it, or basically uncompresses it to play.  The program that “reads” the video  is called a video player.  Video players are built to read particular video file formats and not others.  This is where the incompatibility comes in.

In a video editing program, the format affects how each command will work.  When they design a program, they build it to work with certain formats only.

Microsoft was never anxious for you to see videos made by Apple computers, so they made their video players incapable of deciphering an Apple-made video and visa versa.

So everybody is competing and the nature of the beast guarantees incompatibility.   Phooey!

The good news is that over the years, more and more compatibility was built into the system in order to satisfy the public, who of course need easy compatibility.  So now, most computers contain multiple players, one of which will handle whatever video you want to play.  Most online video sites can also handle multiple formats.  So in general, if you stick with the most common formats, you will be fine.

Once you understand how easy video formats really are, you can convert and upload with confidence!

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips.

Lorraine Grula

Internet Video Gal

Comments

  1. Joby says:

    Hi again Lorraine,
    Thanks very much for your help. I now have DVD+R 8 x DL discs to use. What is the procedure to get the maximum resolution from VHS tapes to these please.
    Many thanks,
    Joseph

  2. Hi Joby.
    First, make sure you have a high quality VHS machine and set that machine to the fastest running tape speed possible. Most VHS have 3 settings for tape speed. The slower your tape goes the crummier your resolution. Beyond that, precisely what you do depends on what kind of set-up you have for the transfer. The type of disc you use has more to do with storage capacity and/or the ability to record on the disc multiple times. I hope this helps.
    Lorraine

  3. Brian says:

    Hi Lorraine

    I have just read your article above with real interest. I am trying to produce a 30 minute recruitment video to go on my site for business prospects to view and I really want it to play across all platforms and be as small a file as possible.

    Being a complete novice at this, where do I start. I have a video I shot with my pretty new Panasonic camcorder and I want to convert it for the web and all platforms.

    Any advice would be very helpful. I am running a Macbook Pro with both windows 7 and mac hard drives. I have downloaded stuff like MPEG Streamclip and flip for mac, but am so new I don’t know where to start.

    look forward to hearing from you.

    Brian

  4. Hi Brian.
    I certainly understand your confusion! You are not alone. Generally speaking, these days MPEG4 is the most universal format for online. It used to be Flash. Flash is still common online, but of course will not play on many of the new phones or tablets. The best way to ensure that your video is playable on as many devices as possible is to have it hosted in a paid account. Many of those paid hosting accounts are such that it automatically detects what kind of device is requesting the video and automatically presents the correct format. This means your video is stored in the hosting account in multiple formats. All that conversion is done for you automatically once you upload your video file. Of course a paid video hosting account can get pricey so the next best thing is to use Easy Video Player and your own Amazon S3 account. Here is a link to a blog review of that.
    http://videoproductiontips.com/easy-video-player-a-review
    I hope this helps you! Good luck.
    Lorraine

  5. Hi Brian again!
    Here is a P.S. on a slightly different subject. I notice you say you are producing a 30 minute recruitment video. Novices always tend to think videos need to be 30 minutes, like a standard TV show. My guess is that 30 minutes is way longer than you need and way longer than most people would want to watch. I bet 7-10 minutes is a better time frame. Plus, a 30-minute video can create a large file which might have trouble playing online without lots of buffering. You can fit a ton of info into a 7 minute video if your script is well written. Just thought I’d throw this in.
    Lorraine

  6. Morris mano says:

    Hey writer of d article,at one place u wrote that”video players uncompress the compressed video file”. My friend u also said that during compression,some of the information from d video is taken out.
    And by ur decompression concept it wil be that our video player add information back to the compressed video in order to decompress them,which is not true since the iformation once extracted from d video can never come back from a mere player which doesnt know anything about the video.
    Correct m where i m wrong.
    Regards..

  7. Hello Morris.
    You ask a very good question. I believe that the information taken out and is rather generic in nature and some identifying markers are left so therefore the player does not need to “know” anything about the video other than what is left after compression. Now perhaps someone more technical than me could explain it better but that is the basics.
    Lorraine

  8. steve says:

    I am capturing decades of home video on a 4TB external hard drive. I hope to edit some of the video in the future, but also want to just play the unedited video on a TV through a computer. I have been capturing in AVI but started to fill up the HD. So I started capturing in MPEG-2, which is much smaller. However, after reading your excellent article, it appears MPEG-2 will require an uncompression step. My first question, once compressed and then uncompressed for editing, will the video resolution/quality be significantly reduced in a DVD final product. Should I just buy another external HD and capture everything in AVI format?

    My second question, I am seriously considering changing to a Mac video editing system because I haven’t been completely satisfied with my PC system. What are the pros and cons to converting AVI or MPEG-2 to .mov?

    Thank you in advance for any information you can provide!

  9. Hi Steve.
    Decades of home movies are priceless! How fun that you have all of that. Of course converting them is not quite as much fun, let’s see if we can hep you out here. :)
    MPEG2 plays on a standard DVD player and is a good-looking format, but going back and forth between formats will have some negative effects on quality so I would indeed suggest buying another hard drive.

    The .mov format is also a fine looking format, but does tend to be a bit large. IMHO, .mov is one of the better looking formats but files can be huge. I personally love Mac editing, and your AVIs should play on Mac software. .MOVs will play on virtually any computer since quicktime is now so common and that is a good format for master files.

    I hope this helps. Good luck with your transfer! I have a lot of home movies to transfer myself but have not gotten around to it.

    Lorraine

  10. Mandi says:

    I just got a new phone (Droid DNA) and have a few videos on it that I uploaded to my computer. None of the programs on my computer (windows media player, Divx, Quicktme) wont play them (maybe because they are in the mp4 format?) My old phones videos were fine! Help! :)
    -Mandi

  11. Hi Mandl
    Bummer! It is always frustrating to upgrade and then have to deal with incompatibilities. How old is your computer? If the software you mention is up to date, it should play an mpeg4. I have quicktime and play many mpeg4s. Your OS would have to be up to date too. Check on those things. These incompatibilities can sometimes be a tad hard to trace because there can be one small hitch in a system that technically, should actually be compatible. I think your best bet for help is to contact the customer service for Droid. They wiould have the exact technical specs for this and I do not. Good luck! I hope you get it worked out.
    Lorraine

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