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The Ultimate Guide to Digital Video Formats

We break down seven of the most frequently-encountered digital video formats available today.

Digital video is becoming a more important player for custom installers.

The growth of media centers, movie downloads and other digital media make it a necessity for integrators to understand the various types of digital video formats available today.

In this primer from TechLore, we take a look at seven of the most frequently-encountered video formats circulating the web and the digital home entertainment circuit: MPG, AVI, MOV, ASF, WMV, RM and FLV.


MPG stands for Moving Picture Experts Group (driven by Microsoft's early need to force every file into a three-letter extension box, MPEG has evolved by dropping the "E" to become MPG).

So, technically, MPG is more of a title than a file format. Even so, it has shifted in meaning as the file extension standards created by that group as well.

MPG is very popular in the video world. And there are a number of MPG formats that you should consider -- all with different purposes.

MPG video pioneered digital distribution of video on the Internet and disc. Thus, it works with everything. With MPEG-1 you get poor video quality, in some situations, no better than VHS.

The next generation of MPEG technology is MPEG-2, which is used by most TV stations. MPEG-2 technology is also the compression format behind DVD, as well as the ATSC standard for broadcast HDTV. So, don't think MPEG-2 is going away anytime soon.

However, it's best to focus on the most recent evolution of the format: MPEG-4 (commonly known as MP4 or m4v). This format deals with a much better picture quality.

Think Blu-ray or HD-DVD quality high-definition video, with an even better compression ratio.

MPEG-4 absorbs many of the features of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 and other related standards, and adds new features such as (extended) VRML support for 3D rendering, object-oriented composite files (including audio, video and VRML objects), support for externally-specified Digital Rights Management and various types of interactivity.

It is also streamable and supports most multimedia content. It is used by iTunes and with the iPod, as well as often being the most commonly used file format for sharing videos over the Internet.

MPEG-4 is still a developing standard and is divided into a number of parts. Unfortunately, the companies promoting MPEG-4 compatibility do not always clearly state which "part" level compatibility.

The key parts to be aware of are MPEG-4 part 2 (MPEG-4 SP/ASP, used by codecs such as DivX, Xvid, Nero Digital and 3ivx and by Quicktime 6) and MPEG-4 part 10 (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, used by the x264 codec, by Nero Digital AVC, by Quicktime 7, and by next-gen DVD formats like HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc).

Another version of MPEG-4 is 3GP. A growing number of mobile and smart phones have a video recording option. Most store the files as a 3GP file (from the creators, 3rd Generation Partnership Project).

They can then be transferred from phone to phone or over the Internet. 3GP files can be played on QuickTime Player and RealPlayer, but not on WMP (oddly enough).


The acronym AVI comes from Audio Video Interleave. AVI is not complex in its storage or operations, making it the "go to" video format, with the ability to be played on most any media player.

It is often used as a container video format by compression codecs such as Xvid and Divx. AVI is so versatile, that it can be a container for practically any video file. It was created by Microsoft.

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Article Topics

News · Digital Media · All topics

8 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by Watcher  on  02/07  at  10:53 AM

You should do more research.

Look up media player classic on sourceforge.

Plays all those things as long as no DRM is used and the codecs are installed.

Posted by Chris  on  02/07  at  01:25 PM

Poor article.  This doesn’t make note of parts, profiles, or levels of these different codecs and instead just tries to use a personal opinion about general technologies.

A perfect example is MPEG-4.  MP4 is the container, but MPEG-4 as a video codec has several different parts, levels, and profiles.  The most common are MPEG-4 ASP and MPEG-4 AVC.

Blanket statements like MPEG-4 is better than WMV (or the other way around) is a common misconception and uneducated response.

Posted by Jason Unger  on  02/07  at  01:34 PM

@Chris: Thanks for the constructive criticism.

The piece is a more of a “primer” on the digital video formats, since some custom installers are finding that more and more products that their customers want rely on different types of digital video.

But you’re absolutely right—there is a deeper level to each of the formats, and perhaps that’s something to get into in another article.


Posted by Juice  on  02/07  at  02:12 PM

Whoever wrote this article forgot to mention the best video format out there right now. MKV.

Posted by Plasma TV Installation  on  02/07  at  03:20 PM

Good overview. I would have liked to see DivX covered too.

Posted by Charles Lewis  on  02/07  at  06:27 PM

This is overall a decent primer article.  When one delves into the universe of playing Digital video; many times the end user experience is not always that great whether you don’t have sound, video, or even if the system is dropping frames adn offering poor playback.

@Plasma TV installation:  DIVX was covered it’s part of the MPEG 4 video standard…Part 2 same as XVID which is a free alternative.

@Juice:  While MKV is by far teh most versatile (container) format, it is not necessarily the best format for professional A/V company use.  MKV requires alot of resources to run for high quality endcodes and there is no “easy” program that you can use with the format to rip onto DVD or blu-ray with 100% sucess.

Educational for CEPros/businesses:  I personally use 2 codecs/packs for my Media Center.  They play every format mentioned above and several that are not included.  Also they enable work with Windows Media Center which is ultimately the easiest Media Program I have found that can be used by “non-technical” clients.

I use the Combined Community Codec Pack, (google it), and quicktime lite alternative.  Both of these programs are free and have been updated for nearly 2 years.

If you/your company/ or CEPro is interested on specific setup guides or recommended programs for ease of use/burning, please email me.  I’m not charging for basic knowledge.

General education:

AVI is a contasiner format that can hold 1 video stream and 1 audio stream.  Video can be in MPEG2, WMV (non-DRM), DIVX, or XVID.  Resolutions go up to 720 x 392ish for widescreen and 640 x 480 for Standard playback (DVD quality).  AVI is popular because it is easy to burn or redistribute and also many models of DVD players include DIVX/XVID support so you could load up 3 or more movies on 1 DVD with no quality loss.  AVI audio supports M2A, MP3, WAV, 5.1 AC-3.

MKV is another continer format.  MKV allows for multiple streams similiar to the MPEG-2 used on DVDs.  MKV also suports H.264/AVC (used in Blu-ray and HD-DVD).  MKV also supports advanced subtitling options.  An example of an mkv could be an entire movie encoded in 1920 x 1080, with (3) 7.1 AC-3 Tracks, (1) 7.1 DTS, and 5 different subtitles for various languages.  more on extra subtitling.  MKV supports SSA and ASS extensions of subtitles.  These allow things such as multiple subtitles on the screen at once.  Different fonts/colors for a single subtitle file, and the ability to do high quality karaoke
MKV is used mainly by fansub groups for anime.

Sorry for the legnth any more specific questions again pleae email me by clicking the blue part by my name.

Posted by Charles Lewis  on  02/07  at  06:29 PM

wow I’m not in their database anymore if you want more specific information leave a comment.

Posted by twilo123  on  02/08  at  12:43 AM

for real hd i would add mkv as has been stated.  for regular dvd’s you could pass on just about any of the formats listed in the article.

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