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The Codec code



A few weeks ago I ran a rundown on all the digital music formats out there and what they mean in terms of sound quality and hard-drive space.

The obvious thing would have been to follow up the next week with a rundown on the different video formats available, but it turns out I'm not that on the ball because it didn't occur to me until almost two weeks later.

Digital video formats matter because honestly it's a witch's brew out there when it comes to formats, compression, resolutions, frame rates, players and special features like the ability to watch a digital video rip in a different language or with subtitles or with chapter markers that let you skip around your videos like watching a DVD.

No device, media player or web browser seems to play every format, and there are some that are wholly incompatible. For example, you can't watch Adobe Flash encoded videos on most smart phones and gadgets, but H.264 videos — an open standard — do just fine. Different cameras also encode video differently.

It can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you own multiple devices and they all have different screen resolutions and ratios (e.g. 4:3 vs. 16:9).

Some devices can't show HD movies, others can — but you can't really watch standard definition movies that take up a quarter as much storage because they look bad when you stretch them out to fit your screen.

There are a few things everyone should have to watch videos. One is VLC (www.videolan.org) a free video player that can play almost any type of video file or video stream, and that is widely available as an app as well as a program. It also does a lot more than that.

You can rip videos, alter videos from one video codec to another, download and save YouTube videos and more. PotPlayer (http://potplayer.en.softonic.com) is another solid option that improves all the time.

If you watch videos on your computer, then you should probably have a few different browsers as they all handle video files a little differently.

If you have a lot of DVDs/Blu rays you'd like to rip (and while I'm against piracy I'm all for ripping media that you own to back it up because we all know that one small scratch can kill a disk) you'll need Handbrake (www.handbrake.fr).

And every gadget, phone and tablet, has different video apps you might want to get in addition to the native player: VLC, MX Player, etc.

My advice for organizing your digital video files is to keep things consistent — if you're ripping DVDs you should rip them to the same format, whatever format you choose. You should rip to a consistent definition that works for all your media players so you don't have to do it over and over and own five versions of the same movie.

If you use your digital camera, digital video camera, GoPro, gadgets, computer, etc. to record video, then chances are you get to pick between a few different formats and options. Try to make that consistent as well, although that might not be possible.

One thing you can do is to make a grid of the various tech specs of all your gadgets so you'll know what your maximum and minimum specs are. Generally, televisions and HD computer screens are able to upscale or downscale video to fit the screen, although the quality will vary at less than the maximum optimum settings. Some gadgets can be a little trickier.

For example, an iPad 3 has a native screen resolution of 2048x1586 pixels, and records video in 1080p high definition at 30 frames per second — that's a 16:9 aspect ratio and a native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels.

For video playback, an iPad 3 is capable of playing back H.264 video up to 1080p at 30 frames per second, .m4v, .mp4 and .mov formats, MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps at 640x480 resolution and 30 frames per second, and so on.

Samsung's Galaxy Note, of which five million units have been shipped as of last week, ships with a 1280x800 screen, records video at 1080p @24 to 30 frames per second, can play back 1080p@30fps, and supports a few additional compressed formats — named DivX, WMV and VC-1.

Apple TV, Google TV, Xbox 360, PS3, Rokku, etc. all support a variety of different formats as well. Make sure you know what's what.

Once you figure out the best resolution and frame rate for your video files, the next thing to do is to pick a format. The best advice here is to go with a universal standard that's supported by everybody rather than an alternative codec that might offer better compression or other features. You can't go wrong with H.264, which is generally high quality, or MPEG-4, which is a little more compressed but looks good at a high bitrate.

MKV stacks up well for quality and features but it's not well-supported unless you can run VLC, PotPlayer, Xbox Media Centre, Boxee, etc. on all your gadgets and systems.

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