My favourite formats

Daniel’s favourite file formats for distributing multimedia to friends, on the web, that kind of thing. I know a lot of hardcore geeks will know all this stuff (and disagree with some of it), but I was asked recently about it, so here goes.

For pictures containing large blocks of colour, including most screendumps out of Windows… PNG. GIF used to do the job for this, but PNG supports more than 256 colours, and is now in widespread use. Even Windows XP Paint manages to handle it, though older versions don’t.

For pictures with lots of variance in colour, such as most photos, it’s gotta be… JPEG. Try out the various compression settings to see what works. You can often shrink files down a surprising amount with little in the way of visible detail loss. Of course, keep a pristine copy if it’s a picture you’ll need to work on in the future. Windows XP Paint can do JPEGs… uhh, kind of… no control over compression.

For sound, the cross-platform standard now is MP3. A nice balance of quality and file size. Playback software is standard on any computer of the last 5 years or so (and if not already installed ‘cos it’s some ancient beast, is freely available), and unlike WMA it’s supported on pretty much every portable digital music player ever made. (I’m with Cameron – Microsoft should retire WMA. They won’t, of course.)

Movies? MPEG-1. Don’t get me wrong, I love DivX. DivX good. And in comparison, MPEG-1 is not the most efficient of formats, but even ancient creaking Windows NT Media Player supports it. No mucking about with making people download extra codecs or special players – any setup can handle it. No RealPlayer or Quicktime nagware. No Windows-only WMV that the poor Mac and Linux people can’t handle.

And if you use a decent encoder such as TmpGenC (free!), you can do a fair bit of tweaking so you get a watchable movie that’s not too humungous. Fiddle the bitrates, try a variable bitrate, reduce the frames per second, crop unused parts of frame, use a efficient sound compression. Takes a bit of practice, but worthwhile in my opinion. Hopefully in the near future, more efficient versions such as MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 will become standard on all computers. But in the meantime, I’m sticking with MPEG-1.

Agree? Disagree? Comment?