What Are Digital Media File Formats?

Be sure your media playback device can play your digital media files

The use of digital media files for encoding audio and video for distribution to PCs and home entertainment devices has exploded in recent years. However, along with that explosion is a lot of complexity.

Digital Media File Confusion

The proliferation of a multitude of different audio, video, and still image digital file formats has caused a lot of confusion as not all formats will play on all devices.

To put it bluntly, you may have connected a PC or media server to your network media player (or media streamer or smart TV with a media player app) via your home network, but you find that you can't play some of your stored audio or video files, or worse yet, some of your files don't even appear in your available music, video, or still image list. The reason they may not appear that those media files are in a format that your digital media playback device can't play. It simply cannot understand that type of file.

What Are Digital Media File Formats?

When you save a digital file, it is encoded so that computer programs or apps can read and work with it. For example, document formats can be read and edited in word-processing programs such as Microsoft Word. Photo formats can be read by photo-editing applications like Photoshop, and by such photo-organizing programs like Windows Photo Viewer and Photos For MAC. Many video formats — including camcorder and DVD files, Quicktime files, Windows videos, and numerous high-definition formats — must be converted to be played by programs other than the software for which they were originally created or saved. These file formats are also called "codecs," short for “coder-decoder.”

Converting a file so that it can be played by another program, or by a previously incompatible device, is called "transcoding". Some computer media server programs can be set to automatically transcode media files that are otherwise incompatible with your digital media playback device or software.

What Is the Difference Between File Formats?

Photos, music, and movies are naturally different formats. But within those categories, since there is no standardization, there is further variation. 

For example, photos are frequently saved in RAW, JPEG, or TIFF formats. Saving a photo in the TIFF format preserves the best quality of the photo but it’s a huge file. This means that if you use TIFFs you will fill up your hard drive with fewer photos than if you use another format like JPEG. JPEG formats compress the file — they squeeze it down and make it smaller — so you can fit a lot more JPEG photos on your hard drive.

Video files may be encoded in standard or high-definition formats. Not only are they created in different formats, but they may also need to be converted in order to play on different devices, from TVs to smartphones.

Likewise, digital audio files may be encoded in either low-res or hi-res formats, which will affect their play-ability via streaming or require downloading first, and if the playback device is compatible with them.

Identifying Digital Media File Formats

Your network media player (or media streamer/Smart TV with compatible apps) must be able to read a file type before it can show it or play it. Some players will not even display the file names of files that are in formats they are incapable of playing.

Clearly, it is essential that the network media player, media streamer, Smart TV you choose is capable of reading and playing the files you have stored on your computer and home network. This becomes particularly obvious when you have iTunes and a Mac but your network media player can’t understand those file types.

If you want to see what types of files you have in your media library, go to the folder view of Windows Explorer (PC) or Finder (Mac). Here you can navigate to see a list of all the files in your media folders. Right-click on a highlighted file and choose "properties" (PC)' or “get info" (MAC). The file type or "kind" of file will be listed here.

Sometimes you can identify the file format by its extension: the letters to the right of the “.” You’ll see something like a Beatles song in the MPEG 3 audio-file format “mp3” (i.e., "HeyJude.mp3"). You may have heard of an MP3 portable music player. Video formats can be a WMV for PC videos or MOV for Quicktime videos. The file “StarTrek.m4v" is a high-definition MPEG-4 video file. 

If your digital media playback device is unable to play a particular file even though it is capable of playing the format, it may be a copyright-protected file. However, in some cases, it possible to share (stream) legally acquired, protected media within your home.

Commonly Used Digital Media File Formats

  • Photo File Formats: JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIFF, BMP
  • Music File Formats: AAC, MP3, WAV, WMA, DOLBY® DIGITAL, DTS
  • Other music file formats you may have access to: AIFF, ASF, FLAC, ADPCM, DSD, LPCM, OGG
  • For iTunes Users: If you save your music in iTunes, be sure that network media player or media streamer can play AAC Audio. iTunes audio files may be listed as m4a or Apple Lossless. Files with the m4p extension are protected AAC files. You can now buy music from the iTunes store that is unprotected (DRM-free), so you can play this music freely on all of your devices. 
  • Video File FormatsMPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, AVI, MOV, AVCHD, H.264, and H.265.
  • Other video formats you may have access to: DivX and DivX HD, Xvid HD, MKV, RMVB, WMV9, TS/TP/M2T

Digital Media Playback Solutions

If all of this talk of file formats and transcoding has you feeling like a deer in headlights, here are some ways you can access some, or all, of the above file formats.

When buying a network media player, or other digital media playback device, look for one that can play most file formats.

For media streamers and Smart TVs, check for any available apps that allow access to audio, video, and photo files on your home network, such as Airplay DLNA Receiver, AllConnect, DG UPNP Player, Plex, Roku Media Player, Twonky, and VLC.

Many Forms of Media Mean Many File Formats

With physical media on the wane, digital media is quickly becoming the dominant way we listen to music, watch video, and view still images. Unfortunately, there is no single digital file format that takes care of it all, so you will always encounter at least some instances where you want to listen, watch, or view something on other, or multiple, devices but you can't. However, as discussed above, there are solutions that may help.

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