What is the difference between video containers and codecs

Last updated on September 21, 2022 by , Posted to convert video

codec vs container

Progress in the development of modern technology has made many things that used to be the privilege of professionals available to ordinary people. Just two decades ago you would need a well-equipped studio to work with video, but now the average smartphone replaces it all. People now devote a lot of time to multimedia content, which makes everyday life more vivid. These days, people also have more choices for different devices. Some prefer to use a professional camera to record their daily life. Some like Apple products, others prefer Samsung cell phones and others. In order not to run into problems when sharing video recordings, you need to know the basics.

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Key features of Video Converter Plus

  • Supports UHD/4K Format
  • Supports AVC/HEVC/AV1 Formats
  • Supports MKV/MP4 Containers
  • Keeps metadata, subtitles, closed captions
  • Optimized for multi-core x64 CPUs

1 Definitions of Video Container formats and Codecs

Beginners often stumble when trying to understand the difference between codecs and containers. They may think of video files as "MPEG4 files. In fact, the file extension "MP4" has nothing to do with the MPEG4 compression format. It is just a container format containing multimedia data (not necessarily video).

Container is a bundle of audio codec, video codec, and metadata organized into a single package. All containers have their own specifications describing which audio and video compression formats they can contain. They can also store pictures and subtitles. One of the first containers was the Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF), which was the basis for the familiar AVI and WAV.

Codec is an acronym that stands for compressor/decompressor or coder/decoder. It is a compression format that processes video and stores it as a stream of bytes. Codecs use algorithms to efficiently compress the size of an audio or video file and then decompress it when needed. There are dozens of different types of codecs, and each uses different techniques to encode and compress a video file according to its purpose.

2 Difference Between Video Containers and Codecs

Containers came about for one simple reason: codecs can only handle one type of data. If you want to create a movie, you need three different codecs - for video, audio, and subtitles. If you consider that audio and subtitles can be in different languages, you get a bunch of files that need to be stored together.

But don't think that containers are analogous to a regular ZIP archive. A container is much more complex because it keeps all the data streams in sync during playback.

In simple terms, a codec is the actual software that performs video file compression, and a container is the packaging in which the final project is delivered for playback.

3 Popular Video Containers

We have already mentioned the AVI (Audio Video Interleaved) format introduced by Microsoft. AVI files can contain both audio and video data in a file container that allows synchronous audio and video playback. AVI supports multi-streaming audio and video, although these features are rarely used. Since AVI was designed for Windows, it lacks some of the features that newer containers such as MP4 have. With the adoption of mobile devices, this format has lost its relevance.

MP4 is a newer format developed by the Motion Pictures Expert Group. Unlike AVI, it allows streaming video over the Internet. It is the recommended format for online video, and services such as Vimeo and YouTube specify it as the preferred format. The MP4 container uses MPEG-4 or H.264 encoding, and uses AAC or AC3 for audio. It is widely supported by most consumer devices.

Finally, the most modern MKV format (also known as Matroska), which is designed with the future in mind. The container supports virtually any audio or video format, making it adaptable and efficient. It is considered one of the best ways to store audio and video files. Its unique ability to play damaged video files, support for multiple subtitle tracks, menus and DVD chapters allows it to quickly gain support in both software and hardware.

4 Popular Video Codecs

AVC (H.264) is the standard codec for all available platforms. It can use both lossy and lossless compression depending on the settings you choose when encoding, such as frame rate, quality, and target file size. H.264 almost always uses hardware acceleration to encode video, and audio is often encoded using AAC or MP3 audio codecs, depending on the size and quality you are targeting.

HEVC, also known as H.265, is a video compression standard designed as part of the MPEG-H project as a successor to the widely used AVC(H.264). In comparison to AVC, HEVC offers from 25% to 50% better data compression at the same level of video quality, or substantially improved video quality at the same bit rate. Unfortunately, high licensing fees prevent its widespread use.

AV1 is a video codec that was released four years ago, in March 2018. It was created to surpass the previous generation codecs - HEVC, VP9, H.264 and VP8. Due to new optimizations, AV1 compresses video 30-50% better than H.264 or VP8, and up to 30% better than HEVC. Widespread support among streaming services quickly resolved the low performance issues and made it usable in production.

5 Which Codec and File Format You Should Choose?

If you are looking for advice on what to use, the most common codec is AVC/H.264, and its native container is MP4. Things get a bit more complicated if you are working with high-definition video and the size of the output file matters. In that case I would prefer the AV1 format, which is likely to become the standard for years to come. For storing video on your computer, the MKV container is by far the favorite. If you are not afraid of having to install third-party players on your mobile devices, you will not regret your choice.


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