MOV vs. MP4 featured image

Back in the good old days of video production, the biggest decision you had to make was what camera to use and what videotape format will you shoot on. With the introduction of digital video formats, those decisions are more complicated. Formats, containers and CODECS are part of the new video production lingo, and they can be really confusing. Thankfully, there are two containers that are getting the most use today: MOV and MP4. So, what’s the difference between the MOV format and the MP4 format? Let’s wade through the digital landscape to find which of these is best for you and your productions.

Digital video recording basics

The analog world of video from the past took the electronic video signal and attached it to videotape in the same way a cassette recorded audio. Today, video signals are created digitally and recorded digitally. Digital recording has a huge advantage over analog recording in that your videos will be perfectly recreated and not suffer from all the issues that plagued the analog format. That’s the good news. However, the bad news is that there is a vast number of digital formats that you can use to record your video projects.

Containers and CODECS

All digital files that you open on your computer are coded in a way that tells the computer how to handle them. For example, your PC or Mac needs to know the difference between your Microsoft Word files and your video files. This allows your computer to know what programs or apps to use so you can work on them. In the video space, containers are a way to tell a computer that this is a video file and not a Word document. That’s great, but what is a container, and how does it work? Let’s say you are writing a book and have many pages written. You would probably put them into a binder to organize them in order and ensure they’re easy to find. At the most basic level, the binder represents a container, and the pages are the CODECS. The container tells the computer how to handle the CODECS inside it. Let’s discuss the two most used containers in video production today: MOV and MP4.

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MOV vs. MP4

What is MOV?

Created by Apple, the MOV format has been in use for a long time. When you export your edited video from Apple Final Cut, your movie file is in the MOV format. MOV format is the highest quality format that you can export from Final Cut and has many ways to set up the export for your particular needs. As a baseline, MOV will take the highest resolution of your project and export that in a MOV file. These files are usually very large and unsuitable for the web or other uses where small file size is essential.

What is MP4?

If you need to use a video file on the web on YouTube, Vimeo or TikTok, you’ll need to compress that video file. That’s where the MP4 format comes in. MP4 has become the Swiss Army Knife of video formats. Here at our company, we send out MP4 files almost exclusively to our clients. It has been this way for the past several years, and currently, we don’t see any changes coming to the use of MP4 files. MP4 is a highly compressed format, but its beauty is that you can choose your compression to get the best quality in the smallest file size. MP4’s flexibility has made it the defacto standard for many video producers distributing video.

CODECS

There are tons of CODECS out there, but let’s just focus on the most widely used ones. 

H.264 – This is easily the most used CODEC because it’s what YouTube and Vimeo prefer for their streaming sites. H.264 hits a good balance between compression and picture quality. Files that use H.264 are a fraction of the size of the original MOV files that they spawn from.

ProRes – Apple ProRes allows a lot of flexibility when exporting your videos. You can adjust ProRes video exports can from lossless to more compressed based on your particular needs. ProRes is widely used in the video industry and is compatible with both PC and Mac editing systems.

DNxHD – DNxHD is Avid’s intermediate CODEC. Optimized for Avid edit systems, DVxHD is quickly becoming compatible with many other edit systems in the market today.

Blackmagic RAW – Blackmagic RAW was created to support Blackmagic Cinema Cameras. To use it, you would also be using their .r3d container. 

How to use these files — MOV vs. MP4

So, you’re wondering whether you should use the MOV or MP4 file format, the answer begins with: How are you distributing your video? If you’re sending your video to YouTube or Vimeo, you’ll go in one direction; if you’re broadcasting your video, you’ll go in another direction. First, decide how your finished video will be used and distributed. Then you can decide on the best way to encode for that particular use.

When do you use a MOV vs. an MP4 file?

Since the MOV has the highest quality and the larger of the containers mentioned here, you should use the MOV format when you need a high-quality, lossless video. For instance, MOV files would be preferable if you’re sending your video to an agency for edits or to an outlet for broadcast. These files are huge and are almost always over the file size limit of most online transfer websites. So if you need to send a MOV, you’ll need to put it on an external hard drive and mail it.

Almost any other scenario will have you using an MP4 file. MP4 files are much smaller, and the quality is very good. If you are going to YouTube or Vimeo, then MP4 should be your first choice. MP4 files are easily sent using online transfer services and instantly get to your clients. If speed is a critical component, then MP4 is the solution to pick. Here at our agency, we send out MP4s almost exclusively.

How do you create these files?

All of the current editing platforms today can export a slew of different formats. But sometimes this isn’t the best or the most efficient way to create these files. We have found that exporting a high-quality MOV file directly from the editor and then using a different piece of software created specifically for compression works really well. The two programs we use the most are HandBrake and Adobe Media Encoder. HandBrake is a free program and is good at doing one thing: compressing video files. Adobe Media Encoder is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud and is also great at encoding. Which one you choose will likely depend on your needs and your budget.

MOV vs. MP4: Use what’s right for your needs

The current world of video production has a dizzying array of formats, and there is no reason to believe that more aren’t on the way. Choosing the ones that are right for you and your video projects is an important consideration when producing your content. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer number of formats. Certain ones always bubble to the top. Armed with a steady hand and a good encoding program, you can fill all of the needs of both you and your clients.

John Cassinari is the Executive Producer of Imagination Unlimited, a video production and marketing communications firm headquartered in Orlando, Florida.