Practical Technology

for practical people.

Five Important Video Formats You Must Know


There are hundreds of Internet video formats, but fortunately for you, you can ignore most of them.

It’s all too easy to get tangled up in the seemingly endless number of video formats on the Web. Fortunately for all of us, there are only a handful that you’re likely to need to view or use.

There are several reasons why there are so darn many of them. Number one on my list is the sheer number of possible displays and the standards that come with them. To take just one example you might think that all standard definition TVs are the same. You’d be wrong.

Even something as simple as frame rate, the number of images per second, comes with four different standards. These are PAL (Phase Alternate Line), which is used in the UK and most of Europe, Asia, and Australia and SECAM (Séquentiel couleur à mémoire) is used in France and Francophone Africa ) both of which require 25 frames per second. Then, there is NTSC (National Television System Committee, which is used in most of the Americas and Japan), which demands 29.97 frames. But at the same time, film is shot at the slower still frame rate of 24 images per second.

On top of that, video displays can also be interlaced or progressive. With interlacing, which is used in ordinary OTA (over the air) U.S. television, the horizontal scan lines of every frame are split into a pair of fields and a broadcast alternative refreshes one set of lines after another. With progressive, all the scan lines are updated every time. The advantage of interlaced is that you can squeeze video into a narrow frequency while with progressive you get a sharper picture with fewer artifacts.

Oh, and did I mention that the number of those horizontal scan lines varies from standard. Your old analog TV in the U.S. displays 480 lines of interfaced video, or 480i. A television of the same vintage in the UK would show the same episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 576i.

But enough of that. I’m not even going to touch on resolution, data compression, and all the other things that makes working with video across platforms and devices such a complicated mess. For practical purposes, if you want to do more with them, look to FFmpeg for those of you who are technically minded. If all you want to do though is to translate one common video format to another then what you want is HandBrake.

That said, let’s say you want to view videos, what are the formats you’re going to need to deal with?

More >

Leave a Reply