Understanding Video File Types: Codecs, Containers, and Outputs

While there are a plethora of video file types, which consist of codecs and containers, choosing the right one doesn’t have to be complicated — but it certainly can be.

Let’s dig into this and try to simplify things by the end of this post!

Codecs (for compression)

You may have heard the phrase video codec when referring to video files. 

A codec is simply the software that compresses your video so it can be stored and played back. It can digitize and compress an audio or video signal for transmission and convert an incoming signal to audio or video for reception.  

While the word “compression” can conjure images of pixelated video, the process is both necessary and efficient with modern digital cameras. It gives you much smaller file sizes with minimal quality loss. Compression is your friend! In order to compress a video, your file must also have a corresponding codec. 

The codec of your original video file is often determined by your camera or screen recorder, which you may or may not have control over in your camera settings. 

The most common codec includes h.264, which is often used for high-definition digital video and distribution of video content. It is also important to note the bit rate, which refers to the amount of data stored for each second of media that is played. 

The higher the bit rate, the less compression, which results in higher quality overall. Be aware that the higher the bit rate, the larger the file size. Larger files on their own may be no problem, but when multiplied by the size of the audience, it can cause bandwidth problems that affect internet service providers and users.

Containers (file extensions)

When talking about video file types, most people are referring to file containers. A container is the file that contains your video, audio streams, and any closed caption files as well. 

It’s common for a container to be called a file extension since they are often seen at the end of file names (e.g. filename.mp4). Popular video (visuals only) containers include .mp4, .mov, or .avi, but there are many more. 

Audio actually uses its own codecs. Oftentimes, your video camera will determine the container for your original video file as well. Our Canon DSLRs record .mov to the memory card, however, our Canon camcorders can do AVCHD or MP4, which can be changed in the camera settings menu. 

Modern video editors will be happy to accept all kinds of containers, especially from well-known camera brands.

Choosing a container for exporting

When it’s time to export your video after editing, you’ll most likely be tasked with choosing a file type (container). When exporting a video for the web, MP4 will be your best bet!

Occasionally, you may need to use a different container depending on where you plan to host your video. If you’re creating a video for a client, always check to see if they have any specific file type needs. If you’re unsure, an MP4 will work for just about any platform. 

Preset outputs

To make things simple and eliminate the guesswork, many video editors have presets for exporting with ideal settings. 

Camtasia, for example, has multiple MP4 outputs. All you need to do is pick a preset for the resolution of your video and a folder in which to save it. Or, cut out the middleman and skip having to determine an output all together by sending your video directly to a cloud platform like Google Drive or YouTube. Your file will be encoded at the best settings for the chosen platform, so there are even fewer settings to worry about.

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What are the different types of video formats?

There are many different types of video formats you can use. Here are some of the most popular options:

MP4 (MPEG-4 Part 14) is the most common type of video file format. It is often used to store video and audio, but can be used to store other data like subtitles and still images. MP4 works well for videos posted on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

MOV (QuickTime Movie) stores high-quality video, audio, and effects. These files tend to be on the larger side. MOV files use Apple’s proprietary compression algorithm.

WMV (Windows Media Viewer) files offer good video quality and large file size like MOV. This format file was developed by Microsoft for the Windows Media Player. YouTube supports WMV, and Apple users can view these videos, but they must download Windows Media Player for Apple. 

AVI (Audio Video Interleave) works with nearly every web browser on Windows, Mac, and Linux machines. AVI offers the highest quality but also the largest file sizes. It is supported by YouTube and works well for TV viewing.

FLV, F4V, and SWF are flash video formats designed for Flash Player, but they’re commonly used to stream video on YouTube. Flash is not supported by iOS devices. 

WEBM or HTML5 formats are best for embedded videos on your business or personal website. These are smaller files that will load quickly and stream easily. 

How do I know the format of a video file?

As we discussed, there are several different types of video formats. But how do you know the extension name of a video file if you are downloading it from a webpage?

It all depends on where you are downloading a video. If you are downloading from YouTube, the format should be a .flv (flash video). If you are downloading from the same site, the formats will be consistent. 

If you still cannot determine the format, click the webpage, view the source, and find where the video was embedded on the page. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the standard video format?

MP4 is the most common type of video file format. It can store video files, audio files, text, and still images.

Is it better to use MP4 or AVI?

The first thing to consider is output video quality. Both AVI and MP4 are video wrapper formats. AVI is associated with DivX codec, while MP4 uses MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 codec. This means that AVI would have better quality than MP4. 

What video format has the lowest size?

MP4 maintains the smallest video size while also delivering the best quality.

How can I reduce my video file size?

Start uploading your video and then compress the file. Once these steps are complete, save your video to your desktop.

Clearly, there are a lot of options when it comes to video file types. It might seem complicated at first, but there are simple options you can use to get started! 

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