Understanding Video File Formats, Codecs and Containers

Video file formats are so plentiful these days.

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Video file formats are so plentiful these days. It can be overwhelming to choose which file format is best suited to your project.

This quick, down and dirty guide will help you gain a core understanding of how video files differ from one another and what formats you should be using in various stages of your workflow.

What is a video format?

Let’s start with the basics – what does “video format” even mean? 

Video formats refer to the way in which the video’s information is stored on digital devices or servers. 

There are two main components to each video format; the Codec and the Container.  


Codec is actually an acronym; it stands for compressor/decompressor. Think about all of the information contained in a video file – there are combinations of data related to images, audio, video, and meta data among others. 

The amount of data held in a video file takes up a lot of space and the codec helps to reduce the amount of storage required to house each file. While in storage, the video codec will reduce the file size by merging like data, minimizing the number of colors in a video and reducing the resolution. 

When the video is opened for viewing or editing the same codec will decompress the data.  

It is important to explain that Codecs can be “lossy” or “lossless” in their compression methods. If the codec’s method of compression involves removing or merging files, this is what would be described as lossy. It can result in the quality of your file diminishing after each edit.

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Lossless Codecs will store your data in a way that preserves all of the information from the original file, which is great, but there is a tradeoff for that benefit – a larger file size.  


Now we’ve explained a video Codec, one of the two components of a video format, but you may still be wondering what a video container is.  

Funny enough, the image that came to mind when you first read the word “container” is probably pretty close to what it is!  A video container is used to keep all the elements of a file together so that they can be played back synchonously. So if you pictured a box or jar when you first read the word “container” in this article – you weren’t far off! 

All video containers can hold data related to audio and video but they can differ from one another in their abilities to hold elements outside of those.  

Some video containers can hold metadata and subtitles among other things, but some can only hold audio and video elements.

Video containers can be identified by their file extension. Some common video file extensions are .mp4, .mov, and .avi, among others.     

Formats vs. codecs, what’s the difference?

Container vs Codec is a consistent point of confusion  – they do both play important roles in video file creation and management so it’s not unreasonable that people sometimes believe them to be synonymous.  

Containers and Codecs, though, are very different from one another and serve two important and unique purposes. 

The Codec encodes and compresses, then decodes and decompresses the data that makes up your video. It is about what comes out of the camera; the filming and recording process. 

An example of a Codec is H.264

The Format or Container, stores the audio, video, subtitles, and other elements that make up your video.  It’s about the end product.   MP4 and MOV are examples of video formats.  

The most common video formats

There are many different types of video file formats. We’ve gathered the details on some of the most common to help you better understand when to use which one. 

Video format 1: MP4

What is it? 

MP4 is the most common and most popular video format. It is the most universally compatible and is capable of storing audio, video, subtitles, text and still images. It is the best option for use on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and twitter. 


This file format is universally supported by most digital devices and media players. It is compatible with both Windows and iOs and can be used on popular devices like Xbox 360, television sets and DVD players. MP4 files are relatively small in size but the video quality is high. Compression of these files only causes a very slight loss of quality.   


The MP4 file format is still being developed but its popularity and ease of access has resulted in an ease of piracy that could be concerning to some creators. This video format can be challenging to edit. Though it is uncommon, MP4s can experience issues with audio syncing due to Codec issues.  

Video format 1: MOV

What is it?

The MOV file format is quite similar to the MP4 format but was developed specifically by Apple for use with Quicktime Player. It is the best video format for use on Apple devices. 


This video format holds audio, text, and video effects and is highly regarded in the film industry because of the ability to be separated into multiple tracks. MOV files are very high quality and easy to edit. They are playable on Apple devices as well as programs in Windows and most usb-compatible televisions. MOV files are the professional standard in video editing. 


This video file format is not widely playable across devices, and the tradeoff for the high quality is a very large file size. The compression of this video file format causes some data loss which reduces the video quality. 

Video format 1: AVI

What is it?

The AVI video file format was Microsoft’s answer to the MOV. Developed in 1995, it is the one of the oldest video file formats in existence. It is an ideal format for short videos and television but is less suited to streaming and sharing because of the large file size.


AVI files are compatible with most major operating systems and web browsers in addition to being adaptable and versatile in terms of working with other video file formats as well. This video file format creates excellent audio and video quality and is even suitable for DVD recording. 


The AVI video file format is somewhat outdated and is not ideal for streaming or sharing, making it less than practical for many modern video uses. Its very large file size is coupled with some quality loss during compression. This video file format does not hold the data required to generate subtitles which, with today’s focus on accessibility, is not helping its case.

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Video format 1: WMV

What is it?

As AVI’s successor, WMV files are supported across Windows devices and on Apple as well, as long as Windows Media Player has been downloaded. The WMW is one of the only video file types that beats the MP4 in terms of compression capability.


WMV video files have a licensing and copyright function that makes them ideal for the sale of digital video products. They also have 1080p video support and a file size so small that it can serve many different purposes – even holding the capability to be played via Google Drive. 


The WMV is one of the least accepted video file formats by video players. Video files saved in this format can lose image quality during the compression process and there is also a lack of ability to manually select compression proportions for them.  

Video format 1: MKV

What is it?

The MKV video file format is becoming increasingly popular. It uses open-source code and holds multiple Codecs simultaneously.


This video file type supports the inclusion of audio, video, subtitles, metadata and menus. Multiple Codecs can be supported within this one file type, and there is no loss of data during compression. These video files result in an excellent quality end product.    


The tradeoff for the excellent quality is a large file size, so this video file format requires more storage than some others. MKV files also use a more complicated compression process than most video file types so there is not support across all devices, though compatibility does seem to be increasing.

Video format 1: AVCHD

What is it?

This video file type was co-created by Sony and Panasonic and was designed for use with Camcorders.  It is the highest quality video format for those shooting high end video footage. 


The H.264/MPEG-4 compression technology used by this video file format results in very small file sizes without a loss in data quality. The AVCHD can store audio, video, subtitles, menu navigation, and even a slideshow! Its newest format also supports 3D video.  


The AVCHD video file format is very limited in compatibility, having been specifically developed for use with Panasonic and Sony products.  

Video format 1: WEBM

What is it?

Another open source video file type, WEBM was developed by Google for HTML5.  It plays directly in the browser, without the need for Flash Player or another plugin. 


Because it plays in the browser itself, this video format takes less time to load than others. It is supported by the major browsers, like Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Opera. The WEBM video file type easly compresses and decompresses data, resulting in high quality video playback with a very small file size. Videos using this file type can also be embedded directly into the background of a website.


This video file format’s requirement for HTML to enable playback means that its compatibility with mobile devices is quite weak.

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How to Choose a Video File Format?

The video file format you choose should be based heavily on the video quality requirements for your specific project. Some other things to consider include the length of your video, how you want to share it and how you plan to edit your work. 

For online videos

When creating a video for online playback, make sure you choose a file format that will be supported by most web browsers. This way, your video will be played natively on the browser. MP4 and WEBM are the best choices for videos that need to be web compatible. .

For home video recordings

If you are making home videos, chances are pretty good that you want them to stand the test of time. Because of that, it’s best to choose a format with high video quality and a good chance of being usable in the future. Open-source file formats would be the best bet for this, as they are more future-proof than formats that are owned by or specific to one platform. MP4 or AVI formats are good choices for this.

For Windows applications

Of course if your video needs to be compatible with a Windows application you need to choose a format that is compatible with Windows. If this is your goal, WMV is a good choice for your project.

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Best video formats for Youtube

While many video formats can be used effectively with Youtube, it’s important to consider details like time required to upload, process and play the video – this is tightly tied to the file size associated with your video. To maximize effectiveness, Youtube itself recommends the MP4 video file format with AAC-LC audio Codec and H.264 video Codec.   

Best video formats for Instagram

There are two formats that are accepted by Instagram, MP4 and MOV, however, due to the smaller file size and lower data loss during compression the MP4 file format is preferable.  The MP4 format should be paired with an H.264 Codec for optimal results on this platform.

Best video formats for Facebook

While many video file formats will work for Facebook, MP4 and MOV are the most highly recommended, with MP4 coming out on top once again due to its smaller file size and fewer losses during compression.

Video formats FAQs

How to change a video format?

There are specialized video converters that can change videos from one format to another. Some examples are Wondershare Uniconverter, and Any Video Converter.

What format are iPhone videos?

iPhone videos are usually recorded in the MOV video file format. 

What format are Tiktok videos?

The MP4 file format is best for Tiktok.

What is the best video format for Youtube?

For Youtube, the best choice for video file type is the MP4 video file format with AAC-LC audio Codec and H.264 video Codec.

What’s the difference between an MP3 and an MP4?

The MP3 file type is a single media supporting file – it hold audio exclusively. The MP4 file type can hold both audio and video files. 

What’s the difference between a MOV and an MP4?

The MP4 is the most universally compatible video file format and can store audio, video, subtitles, text and still images.  It is the best option for use on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and twitter. The MOV file format is very similar to the MP4 format but was developed specifically by Apple for use with Quicktime Player. It is the best video format for use on Apple devices.