Video file formats, explained

By Matic Broz, the editor-in-chief with 10+ years of experience with design, stock media and licensing, and photography.

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Video file formats

Understanding video file formats is important whether your browsing one of the top stock footage sites or editing videos in Premiere Pro.

What are video file formats?

A video file format is a type of file format for storing digital video data on a computer system. Video is almost always stored using lossy compression to reduce the file size. A video file normally consists of a container containing visual (video without audio) data in a video coding format alongside audio data in an audio coding format. The container can also contain synchronization information, subtitles, and metadata such as title.

Video file formats are important because they allow us to store and share digital video files. Different video file formats have different strengths and weaknesses, such as compression efficiency, compatibility, and support for features such as high definition and subtitles.

Type of video file formats

In the landscape of video file formats, each has its own merits and limitations. Whether you’re focused on sharing videos online, engaging in professional video work, or simply storing footage on various devices, making an informed choice is essential. Here’s a breakdown of popular video file types to help guide your decision:


MP4 reigns as today’s most prevalent video file format. Leveraging H.264 compression, it manages to offer high-quality visuals in a relatively compact file size—ideal for online sharing and mobile playback. It’s ubiquitously supported across various devices and software platforms.

Recommendation: Choose MP4 for a balanced mix of quality and compatibility, especially for web distribution or mobile access.


Developed by Apple, the MOV format excels in video editing and production realms. It accommodates a wide array of video and audio codecs and can include metadata like subtitles and chapter markers.

Recommendation: Go for MOV if you’re into professional video editing, but be aware it may not enjoy universal device support like MP4.


Though a bit dated, AVI is still remarkably prevalent. Its main drawback is its inefficiency, often resulting in larger file sizes that are not optimal for online sharing or mobile storage.

Recommendation: Consider AVI for archiving purposes or for compatibility with older software.


Known for its versatility, MKV supports diverse video and audio codecs, as well as subtitles and other metadata. While the file size tends to be hefty, the quality is generally top-notch.

Recommendation: Opt for MKV for storing or archiving high-quality videos, particularly if you’re sharing with users who have varying device and software capabilities.


This open-source video file format is primarily tailored for the web, offering good quality videos at modest file sizes thanks to its VP9 compression.

Recommendation: WEBM is your go-to for web-based video sharing when you wish to steer clear of proprietary formats like MP4 and MOV.


Created by Microsoft, WMV is most compatible with Windows devices and software. It can achieve smaller file sizes, albeit sometimes at the expense of quality.

Recommendation: Choose WMV if your target audience predominantly uses Windows devices or for local storage on a Windows machine.


This family of encoding standards shines in the realm of online streaming. Known for its efficiency, it’s also used in some DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

Recommendation: MPEG-4 is a solid pick for online sharing or mobile storage, given its efficiency and small file size.


Developed by Adobe, FLV is optimized for online streaming and is also the format behind some YouTube videos. However, its compatibility range is more limited compared to other formats.

Recommendation: While excellent for online streaming, FLV’s limited device support might be a bottleneck for broader distribution.


Specifically designed for mobile devices, 3GP files are lightweight and easily shared over mobile networks.

Recommendation: If you’re exclusively targeting mobile users, 3GP is a practical choice.


Tailored for high-definition footage, especially from camcorders, AVCHD offers stunning video quality but often results in large file sizes.

Recommendation: Ideal for archiving HD footage, AVCHD is suited for those who prioritize quality over file size.


A staple in the professional broadcast and film industry, MXF offers superior quality and flexibility but generates large and complex files.

Recommendation: Opt for MXF for professional video production but avoid it for general public sharing due to its complexity and file size.


Another Apple innovation, ProRes is engineered for video editing and offers remarkable quality and performance. The file sizes are large but comparatively efficient.

Recommendation: If you’re in professional video work and operate within an Apple ecosystem, ProRes is a worthwhile investment.

Video file formats compared

Video file formatContainer formatVideo codecAudio codecFile sizeFeatures
MP4MPEG-4 Part 14H.264, HEVCAACSmall to largeHigh definition, subtitles, metadata
MOVQuickTime File FormatH.264, ProRes, MPEG-4AAC, ALAC, Dolby DigitalSmall to largeHigh definition, subtitles, metadata
AVIAudio Video InterleaveH.264, MPEG-4, DivXAAC, MP3, WMASmall to largeHigh definition, subtitles
MKVMatroska VideoH.264, HEVCAAC, FLAC, VorbisLargeHigh definition, subtitles, metadata, multiple video and audio tracks
WebMWebMVP9, AV1OpusSmall to largeHigh definition, subtitles, metadata
WMVWindows Media VideoVC-1, MPEG-4WMA, AC3Small to largeHigh definition, subtitles
MPEG-4MPEG-4 Part 14MPEG-4AACSmall to largeHigh definition, subtitles
FLVFlash VideoSorenson H.263, VP6, H.264MP3, AACSmall to largeFlash-based
3GP3GPP file formatH.263, MPEG-4, H.264AMR-NB, AMR-WBSmallDesigned for mobile phones
AVCHDAdvanced Video Codec HDH.264Dolby Digital (AC-3)Medium to largeHigh definition
MXFMaterial eXchange FormatMPEG-2, AVC-Intra, DNxHDAES3Medium to largeProfessional video and audio
ProResQuickTime File FormatProResLinear PCMMedium to largeHigh-quality video editing
  • MP4: Best for sharing videos online due to its wide support.
  • MOV: Ideal for video editing and high-quality storage.
  • AVI: An older, widely-compatible format, not necessarily optimized for compression.
  • WMV: Optimal for storage on Windows devices.
  • MKV: Suitable for storing large video files like movies with multiple tracks.
  • WebM: Designed for online streaming.
  • MPEG-4: Efficient for both streaming and storage.
  • FLV: Previously popular for online streaming but now outdated.
  • 3GP: Designed for older mobile phones.
  • AVCHD: Ideal for capturing and storing HD content.
  • MXF: Tailored for professional video production and broadcasting.
  • ProRes: A high-quality codec optimal for video editing.

Choosing the right video file format

The task of selecting the perfect video file format might seem daunting, but it needn’t be. Your selection should be guided by several key factors—each of which plays a vital role in how your video will be utilized and viewed. Consider the aspects of compatibility, file size, quality, and the specific requirements of your project or distribution platform.

1. Compatibility: First and foremost, consider the devices and platforms where your video will be viewed. If you’re targeting a wide-ranging audience who may access your video on various operating systems and devices—MP4 often emerges as a jack-of-all-trades. On the other hand, if you’re ensconced in a specific ecosystem, like Apple’s, MOV might be more suitable. Always test your video on multiple platforms to ensure it plays seamlessly.

2. Quality versus file size: If you’ve ever been forced to choose between a video that’s crystal-clear but enormous in size and a grainy but quick-to-download video, you know this struggle well. Formats like MKV offer high quality at the expense of file size, while MPEG-4 strikes a balance between the two. For web distribution, lean towards formats that offer a good quality-to-size ratio, such as MP4 or WEBM. If quality is non-negotiable, and storage or bandwidth are not constraints, opt for MKV or AVCHD.

3. Special features: Certain formats like MKV and MOV support advanced features like subtitles, multiple audio tracks, and metadata. This is particularly useful for professionals who may need to embed additional information or options within the video file. If your video content requires these advanced features, lean toward MKV or MOV but be prepared for larger file sizes.

4. Platform requirements: Some platforms have stringent requirements for video uploads. For instance, YouTube prefers MP4 videos with a standard aspect ratio and H.264 video codec. Ignoring these specifications might lead to conversion issues or a loss in video quality. Always consult the guidelines of the platform you’re uploading to. Tailor your video format to meet these specifications for an optimal upload experience.

5. Future-proofing: Formats like 3GP may be excellent for older mobile phones, but they’re rapidly becoming obsolete. Choosing a newer, more universally supported format can help your video stand the test of time. Formats like MP4 and WEBM are not just popular today but are likely to continue to be widely supported in the foreseeable future. Invest in a format that has longevity to avoid future conversion hassles.


What is the best video file format?

The best video file format depends on your needs. If you need a format that is widely supported and compatible with most devices and software, then MP4 is a good choice. If you need a format that is good for editing videos or storing high-quality video files, then MOV is a good choice. If you need a format that is good for storing large video files, then MKV is a good choice.

How do I convert a video file from one format to another?

There are many different ways to convert a video file from one format to another. You can use a free online converter, such as CloudConvert or Online Video Converter. You can also use a paid video converter software, such as Adobe Premiere Pro or Sony Vegas Pro.

How do I reduce the file size of a video?

There are a few different ways to reduce the file size of a video. You can reduce the resolution, bitrate, or frame rate of the video. You can also use a video compressor to compress the video file.

How do I play a video file on my device?

To play a video file on your device, you will need a video player app. There are many different video player apps available, both free and paid. Some popular video player apps include VLC Media Player, MX Player, and Kodi.

Why can’t I play a video file?

There are a few reasons why you might not be able to play a video file. One reason is that you may not have the correct video player app installed on your device. Another reason is that the video file format may not be supported by your device or software. Finally, the video file may be corrupted.


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