What's The Difference Between A Codec, Container And Video Format?

Martin Brinkmann
Sep 7, 2011
Updated • Dec 5, 2012
Tutorials, Video

Do you know that video codecs, video containers and video formats are three different things? If not, then this guide might be for you. I'm trying to keep it as simple as possible, which means that this will not be as detailed as it could be. Afterwards you will be able to distinguish between codecs, containers and video formats.

Lets start with the video format. A format consists basically of a set of rules and parameters that define the video. This is the native resolution, color depth, the frames per second among other parameters. Video format examples are the DVD video format, the 3GP video format or 1080p and 1080i formats.

A video codec acts as a interpreter for the video format or formats it supports. Devices and software use codecs to compress and decompress video.

It is used by video players to determine how the video needs to be played correctly on the system. Many video players on a computer system come with their own set of binary codecs that only they can use. Codec packs on the other hand install codecs system wide so that applications like Windows Media Player can make use of them to play specific video formats.

A container more or less bundles multiple files. For videos, this is usually the video and audio track. More advanced container formats can include other data types as well like menus for example. Popular container formats are avi, mkv or mov.

One advantage of using a container for a video is that programs can use different codecs for the tracks of the video. It is therefor possible to use one codec for the video and one for the audio, which is often preferable to using a single codec.

To paraphrase: The video format sets the rules, the codec interprets them and a container format is a meta format that bundles multiple files into one container.


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  1. Aamir said on March 29, 2017 at 7:07 am

    Thank you, It’s helpful.

  2. Rabbit said on February 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    thanks, that was the first an simplest explanation that really helped me!

  3. Tom Streeter said on September 21, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    What a great explanation, Bookmarking this.

  4. nonsoike said on September 7, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Simple and nice.

  5. Justin B. said on September 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    I’ve always found the term “format” to be confusing since some people use it to mean the file container and others use it to mean the codec. I’m even more confused now because you’re telling me that it can also mean pretty much anything pertaining to a video like what medium it is on such as a DVD or the resolution and signal type.

  6. fokka said on September 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    thanks for the heads-up, i never quite understood the difference.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on September 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm

      You are welcome.

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