March 27, 2008


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Your video choices
Because movies are made of ideas and pictures and words
By John “jaQ” Andrews

Last week, we took a rip-roaring tour through just a few of the audio formats available for your portable media player. This week we delve into the murkier, less standardized world of video formats.

As anyone browsing the Web can tell you, just watching video on different sites can be a harrowing experience. One site requires Flash; another, QuickTime; yet another, Windows Media Player. If your computer isn’t fully updated with the latest version of everything, you can spend precious time downloading plugins before you’re able to watch anything.

But at least on an Internet-connected PC, compatibility is usually just a few clicks away. On a portable device, you’d better have the right file format or you’re hosed. And sending that video you took with your cell phone to a friend with a different cell phone? Prayer time.

The closest thing there is to a video format standard is the MPEG. It works on just about any computer and doesn’t require much processing power to decode, but the files are big. Huge. Like, megabytes upon megabytes for just a few seconds of video at standard TV resolution. For that reason alone, it’s rarely used on cell phones or portable media players.

Step up to MPEG-2 and you have the format used on DVDs and digital broadcast television. Again, though, it’s really too bandwidth- and space-intensive for use on small devices.

Now, MPEG-4 ... there’s some good compression. Problem is, it’s still split into a bunch of different formats and compression/decompression algorithms, or codecs. Most video file formats designed for small file size are some variety of MPEG-4, but the container format (often denoted by a three-character extension after a period in a file name, like .avi or .mov) and the codec are somewhat independent of each other. In short, a device or software program that plays some AVI files might not play all AVI files.

Hence the confusion.

Adding to the confusion is colloquial use of “MP4” to refer to video for mobile devices. After all, MP3 is portable audio, so one higher is video, right? Makes perfect sense. Only one type of video actually uses the .mp4 extension, though: MPEG-4 Part 14, which is very closely related to Apple’s MOV format. MP4 files can also, sometimes, be purely audio.

Among cell phones, a format called 3GP is approaching the status of a defacto standard, but even it is split into two standards: those with .3gp extensions and those with .3g2 extensions. In either case, a separate player or plugin for an existing player is required to view the video on a computer. Media players can often detect when a new codec is required and download it automatically, but it varies depending on the program you use and the codec needed.

So, uh ... if you were hoping for a simple “for this kind of file, use this program” type article, sorry, no can do. Windows Media Player and Apple QuickTime will do all right for you in most instances, and in a pinch, a free program called VLC Media Player ( can usually figure things out.

Barring that, and only as a last resort, get RealPlayer. Then uninstall the bloated, naggy thing as soon as you’re done.