Overview of Digital Video File Formats

Overview of Digital Video File Formats

The wonderful world of digital video is drowning in a sea of alphabet soup. Do you get frustrated not knowing an .avi from an .flv?

To help you master the world of Internet and digital video, I have compiled a comprehensive, yet easy to understand list of all the different digital video file formats. This special series of user-friendly guides includes definitions of all the technical jargon you need to understand digital and Internet video.

Why so many different formats?

If you want to know why there are so many confusing formats, blame the fact that everybody feels the need to have their own. Each development or manufacturing company, each standardizing organization, and every combination hereof, all have to come up with their own proprietary software codes and methods.

On one hand, that gives you lots of choices. On the other hand, it makes things confusing and sometimes prevents stuff from just working!

Fortunately, much of this stuff actually works together. There are lots of friendly alliances and most folks work with a goal of compatibility and universal platforms in mind. The geeks really are trying to make it easy on us folks!

Another thing that helps it all work without you needing to become a geek yourself is the fact that most computers today are loaded with multiple media player software, so just about any format will play if you click somewhere.

You often don't really need to know exactly what you're doing…trial and error gets you to the right place relatively quickly. But if you're like me, I want to know what's going on so I don't waste any time.

Another word of caution about freaking out over file formats….although the technicians love to argue about specifics, most of these file formats, especially real video, quick time and windows media files are all similar in size and quality when they are looked at by humans. Some people swear one or the other is better, but their eye sight must be better than mine. The differences are small.

Also keep in mind that not all formats are suitable for Internet Video, where file sizes need to be small. New HD formats are great for home entertainment, but are way too big for the web.


Advanced Video Codec High Definition (AVCHD):This is a high end consumer home electronics format developed by Sony and Panasonic for HD home theater systems. It's not a web format.

AVCHD is in its infancy as a format and will someday be much more common. Since it's new, compatibility is still an issue. Video editing software applications are slowly adding this format to their repertoire.

AVCHD uses MPEG-4 H.264 encoding which is standard for many video formats. Blu-ray players will eventually play this format too and it will become a standard in home theater systems.


Audio Video Interleaved (AVI):This is a format for motion picture files developed by Microsoft that conforms to standards set by Microsoft Windows Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF). .AVI stands for Audio Video Interleaved and works with applications that capture, edit and playback audio and video, like Windows Movie Maker. Because it is windows-based, .avi format is virtually universal. AVI contains multiple streams of different type data, including a control track and separate video and audio streams.

As with all Microsoft products, this format is extremely common. .AVI is known for good video quality and commonality. AVI creates relatively large compressed files that retain high quality.


DivX:A popular video compression software known for being able to squeeze an entire movie onto one CD. DivX has the reputation of being powerful and stable, providing excellent quality and high compression. This software has been developed jointly by the DivX Networks and the open source community, which many people feel is the best method of software development. Lots of brains with one goal. The hot new thing in DVD players is that some now play DivX files in addition to MPEG-2 files.

You can download a free trial of the DivX compression software at http://www.divx.com/ The site claims its been downloaded over 220 million times. According to their mission, DivX is more than compression software. It's a global community informed by creativity and passion for all that is possible with digital media, and that community is growing in strength and number every day.

Some say DivX become the Internet's de facto distribution standard, and it has the advantage of allowing viewers to skip around while watching. Some buffering is to be expected, but it works just like a video on your hard drive – you can forward, rewind and pause whenever you want to instead of being restricted to watching it from start-to-finish as it downloads.

Another popular feature about DivX is the open platform. Anyone can design plug-ins for DivX Connected using its open source SDK. It uses the Gecko rendering engine; the framework behind Firefox.


Adobe Flash Video Format (FLV):Flash video, which is given the file extention .flv is perhaps the most common format on the web today. You'll see the .FLV file extension on videos encoded by Adobe Flash software to play on Adobe Flash Player. Virtually everyone has these since they're free downloads. Flash delivers more video over the Internet than any other file format.

Flash was originally a Macromedia product but is now Adobe.

Notable users of the Flash Video format include YouTube, Google Video, Reuters.com, Yahoo! Video, and MySpace. Many television news operations are also using Flash Video on their websites.

FLV is probably the single most common format on the internet. .FLV gives one of the smallest file sizes after compression.

Flash Video is viewable on most operating systems, via the widely available Adobe Flash Player and web browser plug-in. Flash video also plays on several third-party programs such as MPlayer, VLC media player, Quicktime, or any player which uses DirectShow filters such as Media Player Classic, Windows Media Player, and Windows Media Center. Did we leave anybody out?

You can trust the fact that Flash is virtually universal.


Google Video File Format (GVI):.GVI is the file extension for Google Video File, a video format developed by Google and used as their proprietary video format.

Developed to solve compatibility issues, Google Video Player was another way to view Google videos and it runs smoothly on both Windows and Mac OS X. The Google Video Player rendered files in Google's own Google Video File (.gvi) media format and supported playlists in "Google Video Pointer" (.gvp) format. (More on that confusing duo in a second)

Why two Google video formats? Size. When users downloaded to their computers, the resulting file used to be a small .gvp pointer file rather than the full sized .gvi video file. Much like a link, the pointer file, when run, would point to and then download the actually video file to the user's default directory. Seems like the long way around, but what do I know?

As of August 17, 2007, Google Video Player has been discontinued and is no longer available for download from Google Video website. I don't miss it. The option to download videos in GVI format has also been removed, the only download option remaining for iPod/PSP (MP4 format). Guess it all just got too confusing for words.


The H26L Series of Codecs:Internet video intimidates lots of folks because there's so much technical jargon it's like an alien language. Fear not video enthusiasts!

I have compiled this helpful guide to help you wade through it all. This is the third in a multi part series that explains all the technical mumbo-jumbo you need to know in order to enjoy producing, sharing and watching Internet video files.

In this article, we're going to talk about the H.26L series of codecs developed jointly in a partnership of the Video Coding Experts Group, (VCEG) and MPEG, the Motion Picture Experts Group. MPEG) Those two groups based the H.26L series on earlier developmental work from the International Telecommunications Union based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The current version of the series, H.264, is an important element of many software applications. It is not a file format unto itself.

H.261 was the first version designed for transmission of video over Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines on which data rates are multiples of 64 kbit/s.

H.261 was considered a break-through technology. The basic processing unit of the design is called a macroblock, and H.261 was the first standard in which the macroblock concept appeared.

One advantage of H.261 was an effective post-processing technique that became a key element called the de-blocking filtering. This reduced the appearance of annoying block-shaped artifacts caused when motion is compressed. Such block-like pixilations are probably familiar to almost everyone who has watched digital video.

Deblocking filtering has since become an integral part of the most recent standard, H.264 (although even when using H.264, additional post-processing is still allowed and can enhance visual quality if performed well).

H.261 has become essentially obsolete, although it is still used as a backward-compatibility mode in some video conferencing systems and for some types of internet video.

H.263 is the second in this series designed by the ITU-T. H.263 came in 1996 as a low-bitrate compressed format for video conferencing and internet transmission.

The next enhanced codec developed by this consortium is the H.264 standard, also known as AVC and MPEG-4 part 10. It was completed in May 2003. This version is the most up-to-date and H.264 provides a significant improvement beyond H.263. Most new videoconferencing products now include H.264 but remain compatible with H.263 and H.261.


Guest Author: Lorraine Grula has been a well-respected award winning video professional for over twenty-five years. (Yeah, that makes her kind of old.) Lorraine has done virtually every kind of video production imaginable and now shares her expertise on the web. Her blog, http://www.VideoProductionTips.com is full of free information and video tutorials.


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What do you think? ▼
  • dman

    :-( I was hoping for some insight here, but can't understand how you can give an overview of video file formats without mentioning EITHER .mov or .mpg files.

    "Because it is windows-based, .avi format is virtually universal." … …EXCEPT among the design community that actually creates videos and animations – those pesky Mac Users. They too can read avis most of the time, but they seldom choose to produce them ;-)

    Ah well, good effort anyway.

  • http://www.besthometheater.net Roger Thomas

    Well researched site! Can you recommend any forums I could join to learn more? Thanks

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