28 Apr 2020
As fun as it is to create videos, there are some “boring” technical aspects you inevitably come across on the way to mastering your craft. One of these is figuring out what video format to use for storing your videos or uploading them to the web.
To make this process less daunting for you, we’ve compiled a list of the most common video file formats, together with short commentaries on when to use them. But, before jumping to our list, let’s first get some terminology out of the way.
The word “codec” is an acronym that stands for “compressor/decompressor.” It’s a piece of software that shrinks the size of a video file so that it doesn’t take up too much space. Then, during playback, the file is decompressed with the same codec to restore the quality of the original video.
Codecs can be lossy or lossless. Lossy codecs, like HEVC, H.264, ProRes, compress video files by removing data. This is done, for example, by merging similar pixels and reducing the resolution, or decreasing the number of colors in a video with approximations. Files in lossy formats lose their quality with every edit or reproduction.
Lossless compression, on the other hand, is a method of data encoding that preserves all the information of the original file. With lossless codecs, like FastCodec, Alparysoft, and HuffYUV, you can make as many adjustments as you wish to your files without quality degradation. However, this comes at the cost of larger file sizes.
Recently, the codec H.265 (HEVC) has been rising in popularity thanks to its novel method of compressing video with no perceptible quality loss. Among other things, the codec offers a higher dynamic range, wider color gamut, better resolution, and smoother gradients than its predecessors.
Limited support for H.265 is still a problem to be addressed before it can successfully replace H.264. Nevertheless, it's gradually being adopted by many video-streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.
A container is what’s actually referred to when talking about video formats. Containers are similar to boxes that store all the elements of a file together: video, audio, text, etc.; and enable their synchronized playback.
Among other factors, containers differ in terms of the elements they support aside from video and audio — some can store video subtitles, metadata, ratings, and other information, while others do not.
Okay, now that you have an idea what codecs and containers are, let’s get straight to our list!
MP4 is one of the most common and widely supported video formats out there. Developed by Motion Picture Experts Group, it was based on Apple’s QuickTime File Format. MP4 is currently recognized as an international standard. Besides video, the MP4 container can store audio, subtitles, and still images.
Files in this format are rather small in size compared to many other video formats, which is why it’s considered portable and web-friendly. Thanks to its ability to compress files without much quality loss, it’s a very versatile format as well, suitable both for the storing and streaming of videos.
Another advantage of MP4 is its compatibility with narrow bandwidth, which makes it possible to stream videos in lower quality when necessary.
When to Use MP4
If your videos are meant to be watched on the web, MP4 is one of the best formats to choose, as it’s widely supported by web browsers. It’s also suitable for storing high-quality videos without sacrificing too much storage space.
AVI is one of the oldest video formats and used to be quite common, though recently it’s popularity has given way to other formats. It was created by Microsoft and is therefore supported by Windows Media Player and other players by Microsoft.
The AVI format uses less compression, which means it’s suitable for storing high-resolution videos, but they will take up more space than those in MP4 or WMV formats, for example.
This format is very effective for preserving video quality over time due to its lossless compression. Videos in AVI format do not deteriorate in quality even if you edit and save them many times over.
AVI videos can be opened by many common video players. If the format is not supported by the native player on your device, you’ll have to download third-party software. VLC Player is one of your options. It’s free and open source.
When to Use AVI
If storage space is not a problem, AVI is a suitable format for archiving videos and preserving them in high quality. However, if you are going to upload your videos to the web, or send them over the internet and have them downloaded, this format is not your best choice due to its large file size.
MOV is a video format developed by Apple. It uses tracks to store and stream different multimedia elements, like video, audio, VR, timecode, and text. It’s supported by Apple QuickTime, Windows Media Player, Real Player, Elmedia Player, and a number of other popular players.
Similar to MP4, MOV uses lossy compression to reduce file size without sacrificing much quality. In fact, the two formats are very similar, as MP4 was based on the MOV container.
MOV can be rather convenient in professional contexts due to its independent tracks. Each track stores a particular type of data, like video, audio, or text. All the tracks are stored together in the container but can be easily separated while editing, which is one of the benefits of this format.
When to Use MOV
If you’re a Mac user, you can store, edit, and export high-quality videos in MOV format with no problem. For non-Apple devices, though, you might want to consider a different option.
WebM is a video format developed by Google for the web. It was based on the Matroska (MKV) container, which we’ll discuss shortly. WebM files are comparatively light and suitable for online streaming. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this format is often used by video-sharing platforms, such as YouTube.
WebM is a free and open-source format, that can be used both for commercial and non-commercial purposes. In contrast, closed-source formats require license fees from developers who choose to work with them, even though they are free for the end-users who watch the videos.
When to Use WebM
Like MP4, WebM is widely compatible with browsers. It can be used for videos you’re going to upload to the web, and particularly, to video-streaming platforms. The small file size will ensure a smooth watching experience for your audience.
FLV, or Flash Video, is a video format created by Adobe. It used to be the standard format for streaming videos on the web, but many video-streaming services have gradually abandoned FLV for HTML5.
The format is supported by Adobe Flash Player. FLV files can also be played by VLC, Winamp, MPC-HC, and AnvSoft Web FLV Player. If you’re playing FLV videos on a tablet or smartphone, PlayerXtreme Media Player is a viable option.
As Flash was widely criticized for its security and performance drawbacks, Adobe made the decision to stop supporting and distributing it by the end of 2020. This means FLV will become an even less common video format moving forward.
When to Use FLV
As the main player for FLV will soon no longer be supported, it’s better not to store your videos in this format as you might not be able to play them later on. If you still have videos in FLV, consider converting them to a more widely supported format.
WMV or Windows Media Video was developed by Microsoft for Windows devices. It’s one of the densest file formats and can contain a lot of data in small file sizes.
WMV compresses video files twice as much as MP4. It is, therefore, one of the best choices when storage space is limited or when you need to send video files over the internet. For this reason, it’s commonly used in emails.
Most Blue-rays and DVDs have their files in WMV. The format is naturally supported by Windows devices. Besides Windows Media Player, WMV files can be played by VLC, KMPlayer, and DivX Player. Mac users will have to download one of these to stream videos in WMV.
Another benefit of WMV format is its copyright protection system, named DRM, which prevents unlawful distribution of copyrighted material.
When to Use WMV
WMV is quite a suitable format if you’re using a Windows device and don’t plan on switching. It also comes in handy if you want compact files and better protection against piracy. Do note, however, that these files have a somewhat lower quality than those in MP4 or AVI.
MKV derives its name from the Russian doll Matryoshka. It’s an extremely versatile, open-source format that supports a large number of different codecs. MKV containers can include descriptions, covers, chapters, and even ratings.
Videos in this format can be played with VLC, MPV, MPC-HC, KMPlayer, DivX Player, or MKV File Player. The main downside is that MKV is not as widely supported as other common formats.
When to Use MKV
Open-source formats, like MKV and WebM, are generally a good choice for archiving videos. There’s a higher chance that they will be supported in the future than formats developed by commercial companies.
SWF is another video format made for Flash Player. Originally, it was developed by Macromedia and stood for Shockwave Flash, but in 2005 the format was acquired by Adobe. It was later renamed into Small Web Format, retaining its abbreviation.
SWF files can include audio, video, as well as vector animations. They were commonly used on the web for streaming videos and online video games. Recently, however, their popularity has dropped like that of FLV.
The format is mainly supported by Adobe Flash Player. To play SWF video files on the web, a browser with a Flash plug-in is required.
When to Use SWF
As mentioned, Adobe will stop distributing its Flash Player at the end of 2020, and this will reflect on the supportability of SWF as well. Hence, this format should not be your priority for storing, sending, or uploading videos to the web.
Online video format converters are a perfect choice for one-time use. However, if you’re going to convert large video files frequently, consider downloading a software program.
The reason is simple. With online converters, you have to wait until your file is uploaded, converted, and downloaded back to your device. Software converters save your time by removing the first and third steps of this process.
When it comes to video file formats, there’s no single best choice for everyone. It all depends on your specific needs, the software you use, and a number of other factors. Hopefully, this article has helped you make a more informed decision.
Of course, technicalities like this are not as exciting as the creative process itself. But, being informed about them ultimately helps you become more professional at what you do.
Now, if you feel like getting creative again, feel free to explore our large collection of video templates. Your next masterpiece is awaiting you here!
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