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What is a Container Format?

Jeri Sullivan
Jeri Sullivan

Container format is the way digital information is stored on a computer system. The two main media formats are multimedia container formats and single coding formats. Computer systems use container formats to decode files so users are able to see the data stored in a particular file. This applies to audio and video files. The first generic container format was called interchange file format, or IFF.

Multimedia container formats contain audio codecs which is a coding and decoding software. Codec is used during the formatting process to modify the audio portion of digital data files for the most efficient storage. Audio codec is also programmed to coordinate with video files so they are synchronized when viewed. The most common types of container format are 3GPP, ASF, and AVI.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Third generation partnership project, or 3GPP, is a container format used primarily in mobile phones. 3GPP is a collaborative effort between the European Telecommunications Standard Institute, the China Communications Standards Association, the Telecommunications Technology Association, and the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions. This multi-country collaboration provides global access and consistent format for video playback and recording on mobile phones.

Advanced systems format, or ASF, is a container format used most often with Microsoft based computer systems. The output files are either Windows Media Audio (WMA) or Windows Media Video (WMV). In addition to just the video and audio portion, ASF container format files also contain information such as the artist, title and name of the album. This is especially helpful when playing from a programmed song list because the information is available on screen.

Audio video interweave, or AVI, is another Microsoft based container format. Similar to a DVD, an AVI file plays both audio and video simultaneously. AVI is a subset of resource interchange file format (RIFF). The AVI files are small parts of audio and video file that are formatted in RIFF style. The combined AVI files are strung together to form the audio and video portions of the movie being played.

Single coding container formats include both the storage and coding. Once the file is opened the coding can be modified while the storage remains the same. Examples of a single coding container format include portable network graphics (PNG) and joint photographic experts group (JPG) network graphics (JNG). JPEG is the most common way digital photographs are stored that allows the image to be compressed so it can be saved to a computer system without using a significant amount of storage space.

Discussion Comments


@NathanG - Anytime I upload a video to a video file sharing site it converts it to FLV format.

Upon further research I discovered that FLV is Flash Video format, which is a high quality compression format used for delivering video over the Internet.

I don’t know how it would compare with MPEG or stuff or like that, but it seems to be quite popular. I am seeing Flash videos all over the Internet, so I guess it does the job quite well.


@nony - I don’t know much about video personally, but I can tell you that for still pictures, I love the JPEG format!

It’s a compressed format, and as such, it's much smaller than its uncompressed counterpart, the standard bitmap format. Bitmap files are huge – we’re talking megabytes here. JPEG files are much smaller, and what’s neat is that they retain their image quality despite being compressed. I use JPEG for all of my image editing.


@NathanG - I agree with you about AVI. When nothing else will do, it’s the best format to use for video editing. Of course you pay a price for having video files that are uncompressed. They eat up a lot of your hard drive space. AVI files can get to be pretty huge.

I guess you would need an external hard drive if you were going to do a lot of video editing in this file format. On top of that, nowadays I understand they have high definition camcorders.

These deliver higher resolution video images, so each frame of video would take up even more space on your hard drive, in addition to being a bit more challenging to edit I would think.


I think that the AVI container format is the old standby. I do a lot of video editing and when I download the video from my camcorder, it’s in AVI format.

It makes sense to download it this way when you think about it. AVI video files are uncompressed, and when you’re transferring video from one medium to another you don’t want to do any compressing.

It’s after you’re done editing the video and then outputting it to the final medium that it needs to be compressed. I usually export it to MPEG format, either version 1 or version 2. I don’t know anything about the newer MPEG formats or the 3GPP format that is used in mobile phones.

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