Digital Video Formats…and You.

There are about as many different digital video formats on the market today as there are video cameras, and in the spirit of market competition, nothing ever seems to work well with anything else. What is a would-be video editor to do? This post provides information about the format pitfalls to avoid and recommends some reliable tools for good format conversion.

First, a bit of information about the cause of the problem.

Most high-end video recorders do not suffer from format compatibility problems because their manufacturers stick to a very small number of well-established, high quality formats that are industry standards. The problems appear when we begin working with more affordable video cameras that store video on a memory stick or internal hard drive in digital form, or when we download a video from the internet.

In order to save storage space, consumer video camera recordings and internet videos are compressed. Some video quality is lost in the process, but the videos are small enough to store and download easily–it is a trade-off. If you have seen videos that look “blocky” or blurred, this is often the result of a high compression ratio.  To edit a video that has been compressed, a special compressor/decompressor (orcodec, for short) is needed to translate the video into a format that your editing computer understands. These “codecs” are often highly specialized, developed by a specific hardware or software maker for their own products, and not for a third-party video editing application.

What you can do

When you run into a video format that isn’t working appropriately, there is really only one solution: you need to find an application that can handle the video format in question, and export it to a format that works well with the player or editor that you are using. But, we have some information that will help you out!

Here are some formats that typically work well with most video editors. If you have a video that is not cooperating, try converting to one of these:

Windows Media Video (wmv)
WMV files may look more blurry than your original video–make sure you are exporting to the highest quality wmv you can! These files generally cannot be produced or edited on Apple computers.

H.264 (m4v, mp4,3gp)
A new, high-quality video standard. H.264 is already supported by many editors; if you are editing with Windows Movie Maker, you will need to update to the very latest version (Windows Live Movie Maker)

Quicktime (mov)
Apple’s Quicktime format is a bit deceptive; it is a container for videos compressed with other codecs. Generally, though, mov files are encoded with either the Sorenson 3 codec or with H.264. When exporting to Quicktime, choose either of these encoding formats to ensure compatibility.

Tools you can use

There are many, many video converter programs out there. The process is the same for most–select the video that you wish to convert, select the output format (try to use the ones above), and press Go. If your camcorder does not come with any conversion software, try some of the ones below:

Format Factory (
Accepts most formats, including non-copyrighted DVDs. Beware of converting to AVI–the codec used for this conversion is not supported in most editors. Use the formats suggested above instead for best results.

Zamar ( – Paid options for larger files
A web-based service for converting videos. Accepts most formats, but has a 100Mb file size limit.

Windows Media Encoder FREE
Accepts older wmv formats that need to be reconverted. Accepts live video streams from connected video devices. Accepts very few mpg-format videos, freezes up on most.

Youtube (
Accepts FLV, mov, wmv, mp4, m4v, and some varieties of AVI. Youtube automatically converts videos to the mp4 format when you upload them to your account. You can download up to 2 converted files per day. There is a length restriction of 10 minutes per video.

TMPGenc Movie Style ($40
A professional tool capable of converting MPEG 1/2/4, QuickTime, AVI, WMV, DivX, and AVCHD.

SoThink Video converter ($71 – Free trial
Converts just about everything to just about everything else, but not for free.

Quicktime Pro ($30
Converts anything that opens in Quicktime Player to other formats.

In Conclusion

As the list above demonstrates, video conversion is a large and complex topic, and there is no simple one-stop solution. Our recommendations are not sponsored, and are certainly not a complete list. The converters we have mentioned are all fairly easy to use, export to useful editing formats, and are affordable (or free!).

In general, you may need to try several of these tools in order to find something that works with the specific type of videos that you are using. Best of luck!

Additional advanced resources: