Media Formatting: What it is and Why it Should Matter to You

file formats

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all videos and music files were the same. After all, when you pull up a video on YouTube, you’re not thinking about how the video was made. You’re just enjoying the entertainment it offers. Many people can get through life and not once have to worry about the format of their media.

But if you like to download a lot of video, audio, and photo files, then it’s essential that you understand media formatting. If you don’t, you may not be able to enjoy the different media that you like.

The following guide will help you gain a basic understanding of media formatting, and offer you some tips to get the most from each formatting type.

What is Media Formatting?

It is the processing of encoding the data that composes videos, music, photos, and images so that they can be read and interacted with by a media player. Basically, media formatting is about creating a user guide for your files that your media player can understand. There are many different types of media formats across different types of files.

The issues arise when a media player isn’t programmed to understand a certain media format. This is why you may have tried to pull up a video file and your player couldn’t process it. It’s also why you can’t open a music file in Photoshop, for example.

Why the Need for Different Formats?

Because different formats have different strengths and weaknesses. Some are optimized for editing, making it easy for creators to tweak content to their liking, but requiring more storage space. Others are optimized for users, and take up less storage space but are harder to edit.

The Different Types of Formats

There are dozens of different media formats used to encode different file types. In the following, I’ll list a few by media type, and explain what each is optimized for.

Video Formats

  • AVI – Developed by Microsoft, this is a general video format that provides good quality video and is recognized by most players.
  • WMV – Another Microsoft original, WMV was designed to quickly upload and download video files on the web. Their small size means the image quality isn’t great, but they don’t take up much storage space and can usually be sent via email.
  • MOV – This one comes courtesy of Apple. It was designed specifically for use with Quicktime and a Mac but will work with other player and computer types. MOV files are some of the biggest and best-looking you can get.

Audio Formats

  • WAV – The very first audio format ever developed for a computer, WAV was the brainchild of Microsoft and IBM. By far the largest type of audio file, it is also the only one that ensures that audio files are complete. This usually means they have the best sound.
  • MP3 – This is the most widespread audio format you’re going to find in music. MP3s are compressed down to a size of about 8% as large as a WAV. While this saves a lot of space, it can also mean a lot of lost data and sound quality.
  • WMA – Developed by Microsoft in an effort to compete with MP3s, a WMA is compressed even further. It’s only about 3% the size of a WAV, though Microsoft will tell you it sounds every bit as good as an MP3.

Image Formats

Image formats are the most difficult to summarize. Not only are there so many common variants, but many image/photo-editing programs have their own format they save files in.

  • JPEG – The most common image format. JPEG tries to strike a balance between saving space and producing a good image. It’s not the best at either but does both well.
  • GIF – One of the very first digital image formats, GIFs were designed specifically for the web. GIFs are some of the biggest files out there because they don’t lose any data during compression. Perfect for images with text and animations, but not for photos. The limited color palette means they don’t print well.
  • PNG – Developed to avoid paying royalties for using GIF, PNGs are also intended for use exclusively on the web. It’s not as good as JPEG for a photo, but it’s far better for drawings or text because it doesn’t pixelate as much.

Which Media Format to Use

Mostly, the answer to this question will depend on you and what you’re trying to achieve. If all you want to do is view videos and images, and listen to an audio file, any of these formats will work fine so long as you have a media player that recognizes all formats. If you’re planning on creating your own content, then the type and quality you want to achieve will take precedence.

From where I’m sitting, I’d recommend shooting video in MOV format, then uploading in WMV. Use MP3s for music, and JPEG for any pictures you want to take. If you like to draw or paint, digitally or traditionally, stick with PNG.