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Video Formats Explained - Understanding the Different Video Formats

written by: Bobby Freidin•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/16/2010

WMV, 3GP, MOV, MP4... there are so many different video formats. What do they all have in common and how are they different? The various types of video file formats are explained here.

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    Video Formats Explained

    As we navigate around the web we often find ourselves intrigued with a video clip or movie file of some sort. Instead of a streamlined experience, we also find that it seems as if no two clips are alike and never is a video even guaranteed to play on our computer. Let’s take a look at the different types of video formats on the web and how to go about playing them.

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    Background

    The different types of formats are technically referred to as “container formats." The differences between them lie in whether or not they compress the video and audio data they contain, and if so, how they go about compression. Some containers are more sophisticated than others and allow for storing extraneous data such as subtitles, metadata (information describing the file), and even multiple audio and video streams (useful for having a multi-language file).

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    Different Types of Video Formats

    Each container has its own specific set of compatibility. For instance, some containers were developed by Microsoft with Windows users in mind. Likewise, Apple has its own proprietary containers for use on its Macintosh Operating Systems. Let’s list some of the common formats and their associations:

    • AVI - "Audio Video Interlace" - Introduced in 1992 by Microsoft, supports multiple steaming audio and video feeds.
    • MOV - QuickTime Movie File - Released in 1991, popular Apple format that supports live streaming.
    • RM - "RealMedia" - Multimedia format by RealNetworks which is mostly used to watch streaming content over the web.
    • 3GP - Mobile Phone Format - Developed by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), it is a format used for recording and viewing on most modern cell phones.
    • WMV - "Windows Media Video" - Approved in 2006, WMV is a codec that has seen wide-scale adoption in not only streaming web content, but physical media such as HD DVD and Blu-ray discs as well.
    • MPG/MPEG - Developed by the "Moving Pictures Experts Group," this format has gone through several revisions - the first of which being MPEG-1, a compression standard that is the most widely used in the world.
    • MP4 - "MPEG-4 Part 14" - Based on Apple's MOV container, this format allows for subtitles as well as some MPEG features.

    The list of video formats that have been created is much longer than this, but the most common types have been listed above. Most video players can play all of these formats, or can have the compatibility added through plug-ins or codecs. Put simply, a quick additional install can add support for a specific type of format.

    Since all formats are widely used and must be standardized in order to maintain compatibility, documentation is widely available. If you ever have an issue playing a certain type of file, it's definitely worth it to try searching on Google to see if anyone has had a similar problem. Chances are more than likely that they have!