Video formats | your complete 2023 guide

Phil Henken
Phil Henken
Updated December 26 2022
Video Formats
Phil Henken
Phil Henken
Updated December 26 2022

Content creators, developers, broadcasters, and virtually anyone else on the present-day internet are likely to be uploading, downloading, streaming, or otherwise working with videos and video formats at some point in their day to day! There are many file formats one can expect to come across handling audio/video content for online, applications, and elsewhere.


You also might or might not be aware that some formats are better suited to some purposes. In this post we’re going to lay out common video formats, codecs, and file formats, some technical aspects of online video, and a few tips for understanding which will work the best for you.


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What are video formats?

Video formats are containers for storing audio, video, and other data. Video files can be very large; once video was moving from “traditional” broadcasting and analog/physical media like films and tapes to digital and online media, it needed to be formatted to be stored and shared in a different type of medium–that is to say, “digital files.”

We’ll explain further as we go but as the video format is a “container,” what it has inside of it aside from data is a video codec, which manages the data.




Most popular video file formats overview


MP4 (MPEG-4) is the most common video file format at the present time. It uses the MPEG-4 algorithm to store video, audio, and other data files. It’s Apple’s preferred format but can also play on most non-Apple devices; it’s popular for being universally compatible. MP4 also can offer lower file sizes, although it can sometimes come at a cost of sharpness and color depth. It’s a good choice for posting video online for media players and works well for videos posted to social media sites.



MOV (QuickTime Movie) is almost an opposite to MP4 (although it includes MPEG-4 encoding technology): it stores high quality video, audio, graphics and effects, but file size can be quite large. This is another Apple-preferred format as it was developed for Apple’s QuickTime Player.



WMV is known in full as Windows Media Viewer and as you might guess, was developed by Microsoft for Windows Media Player. It offers high video quality but also large file size, similar to MOV. Many social media and consumer video sites like YouTube can support WMV, as can Apple devices, although they need to use Windows Media Player for Apple for playback.



Audio Video Interleave, or AVI, works with nearly every web browser on Windows, Mac, and even Linux OS. It tends to be a good TV viewing format, as it offers the highest quality video but also high file size.



AVCHD–Advanced Video Coding High Definition–was created for Panasonic and Sony digital camcorders and is intended specifically for high-definition video. AVCHD files compress for easy storage without sacrificing high definition.


FLV (including F4V, SWF)

These are Flash video formats, and as many people are aware, Adobe Flash Player reached its “end of life” in late 2020. However, some Flash technologies have lived on as part of streaming workflows. But increasingly these are obsolete video formats, and if you come across these types of videos, you’ll probably need to convert them to a different format you can use.



MKV is a free, open-source video format developed in Russia. Its full name is Matroska Media Container, and it supports nearly every codec–however it’s not supported by many applications. It’s an excellent choice for videos that will be viewed on TVs or computers using open-source players like VLC.



HTML5 has surpassed, one could even say buried, Adobe Flash as the standard for showing videos on the web–it’s the only widely supported video playback format in modern browsers. HTML5 or WEBM video formats are great for videos embedded in a website; they’re small files that load quickly and stream easily.


MPEG-2 is an older video format; however, it was created as a standard and is still widely used in “over-the-air” television broadcasting and as a DVD video standard. If you need to create a DVD to play back your video, MPEG-2 using H.262 codec will still do the job.


Video formats


How to select the most suitable video file format for you

The best video file format for you is going to depend on your use case. The above breakdown of video formats suggests some best uses for particular types. When selecting a video format make sure to do your research (including the contents of this article!) and checklist your needs. Larger or smaller file size? Higher or lower resolution? What kind of endpoint player will be used? Continue for some additional details!



What are the most important parameters of video files?

There isn’t really such a thing as “unimportant” parameters when discussing a video format–however some key factors to be conscious of are Video Bitrate & Resolution, in other words the quality of the video, and the audio and video codec. These parameters of video formats will best help you zero in on whether a format will be useful for your purposes.




What does video encoding mean?

We’ve covered topics in video encoding and compression as well as transcoding on this blog before, but we’ll give you a review of the basics right here.


Video encoding is part of the process of putting data (including images, audio, etc.) into a digital video format. It’s the initial conversion of your video into a digital format that is usable by hardware and software. Often it also means the video’s file size is reduced through compression (more below) to make the file easier to store and share.


A major feature of encoding is your codec. Generally speaking, a codec, which we’ll discuss next, is used to encode, compress and convert files.




What does video codec mean?

A video codec is short for “encoder-decoder” and is a tool for video compression. These two components work together to make video sizes easier to share and manage. The encoder does the compression of the file; the decoder prepares the video for viewing after it’s been through compression. The video is decompressed or decoded, into the video container specified (i.e., the video format). You can check out our article for an even deeper dive.


Video compression


What is video compression?

As mentioned above, uncompressed video represents an enormous amount of data. Compression is used to reduce the total bits used for your video, reducing its file size. A codec works as part of compression by using an algorithm to determine the optimal way to shrink the size of your file while keeping all the content intact–preserving video quality. Ideally, your video won’t be altered in any way.




How to export a video and convert video file formats

This is a topic worthy of its own blog post, but we’ll give you the fast and dirty run-through:


There are both paid and free online video converters available to use. Which one you choose can depend on your workflow–if you’re using a professional video editing application like Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere, often a media encoder app or functionality is built into the software.


  • Create or download your video–this could be as simple as using your phone or webcam to record a clip or exporting a video in an AVCHD or RAW format from a higher-end camera to your computer.


  • Edit the video if you care to! Note that in the modern-day specialized editing software like the programs mentioned above is not always necessary. There are also free online options, or perhaps you’re using a high quality video portal like ours that includes editing functionality. But make sure the “cut” is what you want before converting to a new format.


  • Select a new file format in your editing or video converting tool of choice. This will be the container for your video data. Make sure it’s appropriate to the way you need to use the video.


  • Select a file size for your newly formatted video.


  • Export the clip! …in whatever format you’ve chosen (MP4, MOV, etc.) Specifics will vary depending on the tools you use but most apps use a fairly straightforward video in-video out type of format and a clearly marked “EXPORT” button or menu pulldown. Many editing apps and media encoders have presets to export with ideal settings.





In short, the decisions you make about video format are likely to depend on the balance you want to strike between content quality and ease of use, or the type of use case planned for your final video (for example burning to DVD and posting to a social media site require very different types of formats). Video tools, day to day use of online video, and the video content creation industry all appear to be continually changing so it’s in your best interest to keep up with changes. We hope this post has expanded your knowledge of video formats, codecs, and containers so you can produce quality video in a format compatible with the way your audience will want to watch it!

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