Video Formats: Understanding Video File Formats and Use Cases

by | January 17, 2023

What is the best file format for videos? How do you decide which one to choose for your project? MP4 and MOV are safe bets but the video format you choose for your projects will depend on your specific needs and how you’d like to balance video quality and size.

For example, if you’re doing commercial videography, large video files at a high-resolution would probably be your best option. If you’re shooting video content for social media, you’re going to value playback quality across mobile devices, which means higher compression.

Let’s dive into video formats in more detail and how to choose the best one for your needs.

Table of Contents

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What is a Video Format?

The video file format is the format for digital video data that are stored on an electronic device or computer system. It’s the container for metadata such as music, video, camera, date, name of creator, subtitles, and more. Your video file extension tells you what format it’s in (e.g. .MP4 and .AVI).

The format (or container) of a video is different from its codec.

What is a Video Codec?

A video codec is a program or protocol that:

  1. Encodes and decodes the video
  2. Compresses the video

The codec determines the output. The format wraps it in a container.

It’s tough to say which is the best codec for video but common ones you’re probably familiar with are H.264, MPEG-4, and DNxHD.

A well-engineered codec has high efficiency, or the ability to preserve quality while reducing file size. Video professionals and content creators use codecs to shrink videos into a streamable size.

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Common Video File Formats

There are many video file formats to choose from, but here are the most common types of video files that you’ve come across before:

graphic that displays the best video file formats

1. MP4

All browsers and most devices support MP4 which makes it the most common video file format. You’ve probably worked with MP4 at some point in your life. The most common codec behind the MP4 container is H.264.

MP4 videos are perfect for posting video content online and on social media platforms but it also allows for high-quality video. Furthermore, MP4 can also store video files, audio files, text, and still images. It can retain high video quality while maintaining relatively small file sizes, making it perfect for everyday users and video professionals.

2. MOV (for QuickTime Player)

MOV files (ProRes container) were developed by Apple to be used specifically by its QuickTime Player. This video file format is supported by Facebook and YouTube but has poor compatibility with other types of players. These video files are high quality but large in size.

MOV is also an ideal format for video editing. ProRes was designed to allow for smooth playback and low processing power by computers when streaming video in non-linear editing tools like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve.

3. WMV (Windows Media Video)

Created by Microsoft for Windows operating systems, the WMV video file format optimizes quality for small videos on Windows computers. You can play WMV videos on other operating systems, like MacOS for Apple devices, but you’d have to download Windows Media Player for that specific system.

4. WebM

WebM is a royalty free video file format for VP9 and AV1 codecs. WebM is rising in popularity given that it’s specifically designed as a digital video format — AKA streaming video content over the internet. It has a smaller file size than MP4 while maintaining a good level of quality for playback across all internet-connected devices.

5. MXF (Material Exchange Format)

MXF is a container for broadcast-quality video and audio, developed by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). It is considered a digital alternative to physical tapes used by TV studios because it contains metadata and timecode information. It is also the container for Digital Cinema Packages (DCP) — a digital distribution model for cinema screenings.

6. AVI (Audio Video Interleave)

If you’re looking for a file format that offers very high-quality video and audio as well as compatibility with many video players, AVI is a great option for your video projects. It’s lossless compression earned it the official container title for media archiving by the National Archives and Records Administration.

7. AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition)

AVCHD is a high-definition video format that was originally created for Panasonic and Sony digital camcorders and saving HD videos to DVDs, hard disk drives, and memory cards. They compress files to allow for convenient storage without sacrificing quality. AVCHD videos can also be recorded onto Blu-ray discs.

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Best Video File Format for TV Broadcasting

Given it’s backing by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, MXF is the best video format for cable TV broadcasting. However, it tends to vary depending on the company, distributor, and network.

Best Video File Format for Streaming and Internet Delivery

WebM is considered one of the best file formats for video to be deliver over-the-top (OTT), on-demand, or for other online purposes. It’s free and easily accessible. As mentioned, it’s the container for AV1 — a codec formed by major tech corporations like Amazon and Netflix under The Alliance for Open Media banner.

That being said, MP4 is still the standard for now given the popularity of H.264.

For major video-on-demand (VOD) platforms, ProRes is the most widely supported digital video format.

The Best Video Formats for Sharing on Social Media

YouTube

As the biggest video-sharing website in the world, YouTube gives creators the ability to upload videos of all lengths (up to 12 hours) and quality (up to 2160p). The video format you choose will depend on your goals as a creator and what kind of content you produce. YouTube supports MOV, MPEG4, MP4, AVI, WMV, MPEGPS, FLV, 3GPP, and WebM video file formats.

TikTok

TikTok has quickly come into its own as a social media giant and far surpassed its former reputation of being the go-to platform for viral dances. You can find all kinds of content on the 6th biggest social media platform. TikTok currently supports MOV and MP4 video formats.

Facebook

Facebook recommends using MOV or MP4 file formats but the platform supports many more, such as AVI, DIVX, and WMV.

Instagram

It’s also recommended that you upload MOV and MP4 video files on Instagram. In addition to in-feed photos and videos on Instagram, creators can upload Stories and Reels. It also supports the same number of video file formats as Facebook (the platform is owned by Meta which also owns Facebook).

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Best Video File Formats for DVD and Blu-Ray

All DVD files use the MPEG-2 codec, which is an older format and codec. They are only capable of SD resolutions. On the other hand, Blu-rays, being a newer format, can carry HD and UHD video. Codecs on Blu-ray can be MPEG-2, but can also be H.264, which is more common.

MPEG-2 is not as efficient as the H.264 or H.265 which are the two video compression standards used widely for disc, digital media, and digital television nowadays.

How to Choose The Best Video File Format

There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to video production and editing. Choosing the best video file format will depend on a few different factors:

  • Where will the video be shared? For example, if you’re sharing your videos on the web, you should choose a format that’s supported by most browsers to reach as many people as possible. Or maybe just want to play a video on your Apple device for a few friends, MOV for QuickTime would suffice.
  • What quality should the video be? Consider what the audience wants or expects in terms of quality. For example, a travel documentary on National Geographic or a major feature film will likely need to be of the highest quality you can reasonably achieve.
  • Which device(s) are you (and your team, clients, and partners) using? Different devices and platforms support different video formats. As the most universal file format, MP4 is a good choice if your videos will be viewed on a variety of devices and browsers.

How to Send Your Video Files

Now that you understand which video file format is best for your project, it’s time to send it off. MASV is the fastest, most secure, and easiest way to share large videos to anyone, anywhere.

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