Understanding Video Formats And What They Do


How much do you know about video formats? Are you aware of what they are, and more importantly what they do?

Don’t worry if you’re unsure how to answer these questions, as the fact of the matter is most people have a passing understanding of video formats – at best.

In fact people often tend to (incorrectly) assume that all video formats do is determine the extension of the video file.

What is a Video Format?

To put it simply a video format is a type of file format that is used to store digital video data. Odds are you knew that already, but what you may not know is that the video format actually consists of two main parts:

  • The container is the ‘wrapping’ that holds the video and audio data together – along with any other data associated with the video. It is reflected in the extension of the file and determines the features that are supported such as menus, titles, captions, metadata, and so on.
  • The codec processes the video data and arranges it using algorithms, so that it is compressed and does not take up as much storage space. It determines the compression rate of the video, and whether the compression is ‘lossy’ or ‘lossless’.

As you can see each of these parts of the video format have a specific role, and based on that you may already be starting to understand what video formats do.

What Does the Video Format Affect?

Overall the video format has several effects that you need to know about, each of which will have a part to play in deciding which format to use:

  • Compatibility: Different devices and platforms support a different range of video formats, so the video format you use will affect whether or not your video can be viewed on a certain device or platform. The codec in particular is often the part of the video format that some devices may have trouble with, as older devices tend to not support newer codecs.
  • Quality: The video format directly affects the quality insofar as to whether it uses ‘lossy’ or ‘lossless’ compression. Leaving aside other factors that have a part to play in the video quality as well, a ‘lossy’ format’s quality will always be less than that of a raw or ‘lossless’ format.
  • File size: Because the video format determines its compression, it has a big part to play in the file size of the video. Newer codecs that have better compression rates are able to reduce the file size of videos by a significant margin, while maintaining the same overall quality.
  • Features: As mentioned previously the features supported by the format largely depends on the container that it uses. Most modern containers support the more common features, such as variable bitrates and framerates, streaming, metadata, captions, and hardware acceleration. Features such as chapters, menus, or 3D support may be more limited.

If you’re in a position where you need to select a video format, it is important that you are aware and take into account each of these areas. It can also help to know about them if you need to compress your videos, reduce their file size, or require certain features to be present.

Final words on video formats

At this point you should have a good understanding of what video formats are and what they do.

If for any reason you want to change (i.e. transcode) your video formats, you’ll need a converter. For example you could try Movavi Video Converter.

As a rule, it is best to choose a video format based on how the video itself will be used. Some video formats are more popular and widely-supported than others, and the ‘go to’ format nowadays is often MP4 with H.264.

However, newer formats such as MKV with H.265 are likely to supplant it at some point, as support for them gradually grows.

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