What Is a Codec and Why Do I Need It?

Keep large video and audio files at manageable sizes

A codec (the term is a mashup of the words code and decode) is a computer program that uses compression to shrink a large movie file or convert between analog and digital sound. You might see the word used when talking about audio codecs or video codecs.

Signals Binary Codes and Codecs in Communication
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Why Codecs Are Necessary

Video and music files are huge, which means they are usually difficult to transfer over the internet. To speed up downloads, algorithms encode, or shrink, a signal for transmission and then decode it for viewing or editing. Without codecs, downloads of video and audio would take three to five times longer than they do now.

How Many Codecs Do I Need?

There are hundreds of codecs in use; you will need combinations that specifically play your files.

Different codecs specialize for audio and video compression, for streaming media over the internet, speech, video conferencing, playing MP3s, and screen capture. If you're a regular downloader, you'll probably need 10 to 12 codecs to play all the different types of music and movies you have.

Some people who share their files on the web choose to use obscure codecs to shrink their files.

Common Codecs

Some common codecs are MP3, WMA, RealVideo, RealAudio, DivX, and XviD, but there are many others.

AVI is a common file extension you see attached to lots of video files, but it is not in itself a codec. Instead, it is a container format that many different codecs can use. Hundreds of codecs are compatible with AVI content.

How Do I Know Which Codec to Download and Install?

Because there are so many codec choices, codec packs are a convenient option. Codec packs are collections of codecs gathered into single files. There is debate over whether it is necessary to have a large group of codec files, but it certainly is the easiest and least frustrating option for new downloaders. 

Here are the codec packs you are the most likely to need:

  • CCCP (Combined Community Codec Pack) is one of the most comprehensive codec packages you can download. CCCP was put together by users who like to share and watch movies online, and the codecs it contains are designed for 99 percent of the video formats you experience as a peer-to-peer downloader. Consider CCCP if you think your computer needs updated codecs.
  • X Codec Pack is a sleek, all-in-one, spyware-free, and adware-free codec collection that isn't a huge size, so it doesn't take long to download. X Codec Pack is one of the most complete assemblies of codecs needed to play all major audio and video formats.
  • K-Lite Codec Pack is well-tested and loaded with goodies. It lets you play all the popular movie formats. K-Lite comes in four flavors: Basic, Standard, Full, and Mega. If all you need to play are DivX and XviD formats, Basic does just fine. Standard pack is the most popular. It has everything an average user needs to play the most common file formats. Full pack, designed for power users, has even more codecs in addition to encoding support.
  • K-Lite Mega Codec Pack is a comprehensive bundle. It has everything but a kitchen sink. Mega even contains Media Player Classic.

If you use Windows Media Player, it often tries to communicate to you the four-character code of the specific codec it needs. Note this code and then visit FOURCC to obtain the missing codec. FOURCC's Samples page offers some FAQs if you need more information on what's offered there.

Another option for getting codecs is to download media players that include them. Sometimes, a video or audio player installs important and common codecs when you first install the application. VLC is a great free media player that can play all sorts of file types.

  • What is a video codec?

    A video codec is a piece of software that compresses and decompresses digital video. The codec takes uncompressed video and converts it to a compressed format, so it takes up less space on your hard drive. Video codecs usually have four characters, such as MPEG, DivX, and HEVC.

  • What is an audio codec?

    An audio codec is a device or program that compresses data so it can be transmitted and then decompresses the received data. Audio codec formats include FLAC, WAV, ALAC, and Ogg Vorbis.

  • What is the Xvid codec?

    The Xvid codec compresses and decompresses XVID files. XVID files compress and decompress video to the MPEG-4 ASP compression standard, saving disk space and making speedier file transfer times.

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