Video Format Comparison

In determining which format to use for my videos I evaluated the pros and cons of several formats to compare quality, compatibility, and file size.

(If you want to see what settings I use to convert videos, check out the Handbrake page.)

More current information can be found on Wikipedia.

Individual Video Format Comparison Chart

When comparing video formats, you have to start with the container and then dive into the supported audio and video formats that are allowed in that container.

From a compatibility perspective, a device or player needs to not only support the container format, but also the codec for the stuff inside.

It makes for quite a compatibility matrix issue. I have a lot of sympathy for device hardware and player software manufacturers, trying to be compatible with all of the various cross-connected containers and content formats.

I picked these formats as the initial set to compare given my own personal familiarity with the media I already had and the devices I was trying to use.

Criteria Windows Media Video MPEG MP4 MKV
Reference Link ASF MPG MP4 MKV
File Extension .wmv .mpg .mp4, .m4v .mkv
Audio Formats Windows Media Audio MPEG-1 Layers I, II, III (MP3) MPEG-2/4 (HE)-AAC, MPEG-1/2 Layers I, II, III (MP3), AC-3, Apple Lossless, ALS, SLS Anything
Video Formats Windows Media Video MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 Part 2, VC-1, H.264 MPEG-2 Part 2, MPEG-4 ASP, H.264, H.263, VC-1, Dirac Anything
Allows Multiple Tracks Yes Yes Yes Yes
Native iPod/iPad Compatible No Yes Yes No
Native Android Compatible No Yes Yes No
Plex Compatible Yes Yes Yes Yes

Despite MKV being a superior container, MP4 is far more compatible with the devices I’m using and it supports everything I need.

You can see where I landed on the video formats page: MP4 container / H.264 video / AAC + AC3 Passthrough audio.

The Handbrake page goes into more detail about my specific encoding settings.

Audio in the Video Files

While technically the MP4 spec only allows AAC sound you can set the AAC track as the primary and embed additional tracks in the video file.

AAC has a surround sound (multichannel) spec but it’s not very well supported, so going with a stereo AAC track as primary is better for compatibility. At 320kbps, AAC is considered transparent.

Handbrake has a surround sound guide that explains in more detail how to properly handle multiple tracks.

Subtitles

Subtitles are an area where MKV as a container is far and away superior to MP4. In MKV, you can have multiple subtitle tracks (different languages) that can optionally be displayed by the player as needed, just like with a Blu-ray or DVD player. The challenge, of course, is finding a player on your various devices that will handle it.

With MP4, you get one subtitle track and it gets permanently “turned on” by being “burned” into the video image directly. No special player needed, but far less flexibility.

I talk about how I handle subtitles during conversion on the Handbrake page.

Full Disc Images - ISO vs. VIDEO_TS

My original requirements around media center stuff for discs was to try and keep the disc contents stock/unmodified so I could always burn a new copy if my disc went bad. I also wanted to keep the menus, extras, and so on when watching the movie.

ISO is the most faithful disc image format, but it has a lot more compatibility challenges.

Assuming you’re using Windows Media Center, both MediaPortal and My Movies for Media Center will support ISO playback using Daemon Tools. However, ISO doesn’t work for Media Center Extenders like the Xbox 360.

Ideally you’d just store one copy of the movie, but with ISO not working, saving ISO would mean having to save two versions of it - the ISO and a MCE-compatible version. That’s way too much space to use up for a single movie.

My Movies has a document talking about which format to store movies in in which they recommend VIDEO_TS over ISO. You can also use things like Transcode360 to transcode the VIDEO_TS content for media center extenders.

If you go with VIDEO_TS, you can also use XBMC for your front end without a special transcoder. VIDEO_TS opens a lot of doors over ISO.

However, from an overall compatibility perspective, full disc images lose out over individual movie file formats, so when my goals changed, I moved away from both ISO and VIDEO_TS.