While this codec encodes AVIs, it is actually the ancestor of Microsoft’s current Windows Media codecs. After version three (which was not an AVI codec), the codec was renamed to Windows Media 7. Despite the fact that it is obsolete from a technical standpoint, the MS MPEG-4 v2 codec is still widely used because it encodes to AVIs, which are generally more convenient than Windows Media files (see the Windows Media section for more info). MS MPEG-4 v2 still gives very good quality and at very small sizes.
Quality: Very Good. While subsequent Windows Media codecs give better quality, the differences can be rather subtle, so the quality given by MS MPEG-4 v2 is usually more than adequate for most video sources. At very low bit rates (under 500 kbps) blockiness becomes very noticeable.
Size: Excellent. The file sizes are usually quite small, and are among the smallest of all the delivery codecs I tested.
Compatibility: Good. Compatible with most machines running Windows 2000 and XP. The codec is available as a free download from Microsoft if needed.
Usability: Excellent. The codec provides adequate control with only three parameters to adjust. Most videos are quite acceptable in terms of quality using just the default settings (although file sizes may be larger than they need be). Encoding is rather fast as well. One downside is that it can be tough to estimate what your resultant file size will be, since it is a variable bite rate codec and the data rate that is specified is a maximum rate (you can’t specify an average rate).
Note: One weird thing is that Microsoft’s MPEG-4 is NOT actually MPEG-4! The codecs were developed before the MPEG-4 standard was agreed upon, and Microsoft assumed that the MPEG-4 that they developed would be become the standard MPEG-4. Well, it didn’t, which is the main reason why the codec’s name was changed to Windows Media in later versions.
What does this mean to you? Right now, pretty much nothing, since there are very, very few applications that use standardized MPEG-4 at this time. For download and web distribution, it doesn’t matter if the codec is MPEG-4 compliant or not. However, in the rare occasion that you are compressed a video for something that requires compliant MPEG-4 video, do NOT use Microsoft’s “MPEG-4” codecs.
Ah, the infamous DivX codec; by far the most notorious and controversial video codec. A large subculture of hackers and pirates (Arr!) have formed around it, and it is the source of the large amount of misinformation and nonsense about its powers.
DivX 3, the most widely used DivX codec, is actually just a hacked version of Microsoft’s MPEG-4 v3 codec. MS MPEG-4 v3 let you only encode to ASF files, yet DivX 3 lets you encode to AVI, and adds the ability to compress the audio to MP3. Since this codec was obviously hacked without Microsoft’s permission, the codec is technically illegal, although still widely used.
DivX 3 is actually two codecs: DivX Fast-Motion and DivX Low-Motion, which are based on two separate builds of the MS MPEG-4 v3 codec. The Low-Motion is the more widely used codec.
People often make the claim that DivX 3 is a vast leap in video quality over MS MPEG-4 v2. From a technical standpoint, it is indeed a newer revision of the MS MPEG-4 codec, so it seems natural that it would be better than v2. Yet in practice, when the same file is encoded in both DivX 3 and MS MPEG-4 v2 using the same settings, in many cases it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between the two, in both image quality and file size. In fact, I had to encode many different files before I could create artifacts in one video that did not appear in the other, and in each case the artifacts were in the supposedly technically superior DivX 3 file (the person who hacked the codec did not know what was different between the two builds of the MPEG-4 v3 codec he hacked, so its possible they were early builds that differ from the released version).
DivX 3 Low-Motion
This codec is usually agreed to be the better of the two DivX 3 codecs, and it was so named because it appears to do better in scenes with not a lot of motion, although it is also a better performer overall.
Quality: Very Good. A bit better than to MS MPEG-4 v2.
Size: Excellent. Again, comparable to MS MPEG-4 v2.
Compatibility: Fair. DivX’s weakness is the fact that one has to manually install the codec to view content encoded in DivX (obviously, no Windows machine is going to come pre-installed with a hacked codec!)
Usability: Excellent.Same as MS MPEG-4 v2.
DivX 3 Fast-Motion:
This codec usually gives better performance than its low-motion brother with video that has a lot of action and movement. However, on the majority of videos, Low-Motion will give better results. If you wish to use DivX 3, use the Low-Motion codec, unless your video contains a lot of explosions and car chases.
Why I Don’t Recommend You Use DivX.
Since DivX is so widely known, I often hear from people wanting to use it. I do not recommend you use DivX 3 with any video work that relates to your research or professional work, for several reasons:
1. It’s illegal. This is pretty much a no-brainer. While you may not think twice about installing a hacked codec, people in your audience might. If you want people to view your video, it’s a good rule of thumb to not require that they do anything illegal before they can see it. Also, it looks very unprofessional to use hacked software. If you are applying for industry jobs, you don’t want to direct them to a web site filed with DivX files (especially if you’re applying to Microsoft!)
2. Stigma. This is related to point one. In addition to being illegal, DivX is associated with pirated movies and porn, so there is a stigma that is attached to even the later legal versions of DivX. How your audience views DivX depends on who there are. I know that in the video community DivX is looked down upon, and a good way to paint yourself as an amateur is to use DivX. This may differ among mainly computer people, but when most people think of DivX, they don’t think of serious research.
3. Instability. DivX and its associated utilities were not written by professionals, and installing them can have unpredictable results. This is especially true with video software, with whom DivX does not always play well with. In just my personal experience, I have seen DivX codecs overwrite other codecs without prompting, cause Premiere to crash immediately upon startup, and even in one case a DivX bundle disabled the Firewire drivers. It doesn’t happen on all machines, but its happened enough to me for me to be very wary. Since by encoding in DivX you are requiring your audience to install the codec, it is possible that the codec will wreck havoc with their machines, after which they will hardly be predisposed to view your video favorably.
All of these reasons have nothing to do with the technical attributes of DivX, but rather how people will view your work if it is encoded in DivX. While you may only care about how good the quality is and how small the file sizes are, other factors besides image quality affect a person’s judgment and reaction to your video. Remember that you are distributing this video so it can be seen by and impress the largest audience possible. The best codec from a technical standpoint may not be the best in accomplishing this goal.
The DivX 4 codec was written entirely from scratch and did not use any code from the illegal, hacked, DivX 3 codec, making the codec entirely legal. However, it also wasn’t as good as DivX 3. DivX 4 (now considered a legacy codec), has been replaced by DivX 5, which is a substantial improvement (although the claim on the DivX website that DivX 5 is “the most advanced video technology in the world” is absolutely ridiculous).
One caveat is that there are multiple versions of DivX 5. There is a “Pro” version (although no video professionals actually use DivX) that costs money and adds some additional features, most of which are rather trivial. There is a free version which is bundled with adware as well as a free version that doesn’t have adware, although sites that offer DivX 5 often place the non-adware version in an inconspicuous spot, so be careful. Also, both DivX 4 and DivX 5 are MPEG-4 compliant, while DivX 3 was not.
Quality: Excellent. While at high bit rates the quality is comparable to previous DivX versions as well as Microsoft’s MPEG-4 codecs, at very low bit rates the quality of DivX 5 is quite a bit better.
Size: Very Good. The downside of DivX 5 is that it is not as efficient as either DivX 3 or Microsoft MPEG-4. Even at moderate bit rates, the file sizes of DivX 5 videos can be as much as four times larger as the other codecs.
Compatibility: Fair. DivX 5 is not as widespread as DivX 3, so its even more likely that users will not have the codec and be required to install it before watching DivX 5 content.
Usability: Very Good. DivX 5 provides much more controls that DivX 3 did, although most of them have little effect and rarely need to be tweaked. Because of these additional controls, it can be a bit confusing to use DivX 5. The most crucial setting (and probably the only one you’ll ever need to change) is the quality setting, for which you can either enter a specific bit rate (up to 10000 kbps) or use a quality-percentage slider.
This much-hyped codec is rapidly gaining in popularity, and while it is a promising codec, sadly it is not quite ready for primetime. XviD is another entry in the family of MPEG-4 codecs, and it and DivX 5 both have their origins in the same project. But while DivX 5 turned commercial, XviD stayed open source. Its open source nature is a big reason for its popularity, yet it also poses some possible problems. Currently there are two XviD codecs available, both of which are very similar (Koeppi’s and Nic’s, apparently Koeppi’s is a little faster but I haven’t tested this). There is a danger that multiple development paths can arise, causing multiple XviD codecs and possible confusion in the future.
But the main downside to XviD is that, in its current state, it’s a bit flaky. It sometimes does not work well with Windows Media Player on some machines, and other players can have other weird problems, such as not playing sound. XviD’s level of compatibility seems to vary with every machine, making it a bit of a risky choice for wide distribution.
XviD provides quality generally comparable to the other MPEG-4 codecs, although the quality can take a significant hit at low bit rates. The quality is worse than DivX 5, yet you can get a much smaller file size with XviD. There are also some weird artifacts at low bit rates that seem endemic to XviD (see below).
Quality: Good/Very Good. At higher bit rates the quality is excellent and pretty much indistinguishable from other MPEG-4 related codecs. However, at very low bit rates (under 500 kbps) there are some quality issues. One issue is that on complex scenes there is often a grainy, almost pixilated, pattern to the image; it’s a bit like you’re watching the video through a screen door. Also, shots with a great deal of motion may not have constant quality throughout the scene. The shot may start out looking fine but the quality will then degrade with time. Strangely, I’ve also seen the opposite happen, with the quality getting better with time. Either way, it is distracting to have the quality noticeably change during the same shot. A plus is it allows for two-pass encoding, which can yield higher quality results.
Size: Excellent. Better than DivX 5, and comparable to MS MPEG-4 and DivX 3.
Compatibility: Fair. The big problem with XviD is its unpredictable playback. I have tested playback on several Windows machines: on some machines XviD files play perfectly in Windows Media Player, other machines gave me problems with the same version of Media Player. I was sometimes forced to download a different player to play back the files, and even then some players worked on some machines and then not on others. XviD seems to be rather finicky, which is not good if you want to distribute your video widely. Also, XviD will require the user to download and install the codec, but a plus is that since the codec is open source, you know that this download will be free of both charge and restrictions.
Usability: Good. XviD gives a bunch of parameters to tweak, but they are laid out in a confusing manner. For example, to do a two-pass VBR encode, one must first select “First Pass,” set the options, then return to the first screen and select “Second Pass,” then pick the options for the second pass. It is a bit non-intuitive. Also, many of the parameters will never have to be tweaked by most people.
Yet another MPEG-4 codec. Not surprisingly, its quality is comparable to the other DivX/MPEG-4 codecs out there, especially at high bit rates. It falls between DivX 5 and XviD in quality, with its quality noticeably better than XviD at lower bit rates. Another strength is that the 3ivx codec is available for a wide array of platforms. However, 3ivx lags far behind in popularity when compared to the other MPEG-4 codecs, and while it is easy to use, it also doesn’t offer many encoding options. It’s really not a bad codec, but it is a bit redundant, which unfortunately limits its use.
Quality: Very Good. Better than XviD, DivX 3, and MS MPEG-4. Not as good as DivX 5.
Size: Excellent. Comparable to MS MPEG-4, XviD, and DivX 3. Smaller file sizes than DivX 5.
Compatibility: Very Good. Since this codec is not widely used, a user who wishes to view a 3ivx file will likely have to download the codec. However, the codec is available for a many platforms, including not only Windows and Mac, but also multiple flavors of Linux, Unix and even Amiga! Also, the 3ivx codec download include both an AVI and a Quicktime codec.
Usability: Good. The options are a bit skimpy (only two parameters you can set), so there’s not much you can do to control the quality. However, this does make the codec very easy to use, and the quality is usually good enough that a novie can get good results pretty easily. Note that the data rate is measured in kilobytes per second, rather than kilobits per second, which is more commonly used by codecs.
Indeo 5.10 is the latest in a long line of codecs that never really became dominant. Indeo 5.10 isn’t too good for web distribution and is mainly of interest for games and CD-ROM distribution. Indeo’s hook is that it supports an Alpha channel, which allows for transparency and compositing. If you don’t need this, then Indeo is of little use. Indeo 5.10 is teetering on the edge of obsolesce, although it is still occasionally used.
Quality: Good. Indeo 5.10’s quality isn’t bad, but it uses an inferior color sampling method that makes it prone to blockiness. Also, a quirk of the codec is that both the height and width must be divisible by 4, or else the video will playback with all kinds of weird and undesirable effects. This means that DV cannot be compressed at its native 720 x 480 resolution.
Size: Fair. Files tend to be pretty large. In fact, its sub-par compression efficiency almost made me classify Indeo 5.10 as a legacy codec.
Compatibility: Good. Indeo 5.10 is pre-installed on a fair number of Windows machine.
Usability: Good. Not a lot of control is given, but it’s not totally incomprehensible either. I’ve rated Indeo 5.10 lower here because it has been known to behave strangely and has its share of quirks, such as the “divisible by four” requirement stated above.
Cinepak was at one time the standard for distribution of video via CD-ROM. It was so successful that virtually every Windows or Mac machine comes with Cinepak preinstalled, giving it near-universal compatibility. However, while the compatibility is great, Cinepak’s compression technology is terribly obsolete. Good-looking video can be had using Cinepak, but only with resulting file sizes that are many times larger than newer delivery codecs. Cinepak only offers a quality slider for control and often takes a long time to encode, although the resultant file does not take much computer resources to play back, so it may be a possibility if you need your video to be played on older machines.
Microsoft Video 1
The fact that this codec was last updated in 1992 should tell you a lot about its quality. You can’t control the data rate, the video looks terrible, and the compression efficiency is so bad that when compressing a DV file, the file that has been “compressed” using Microsoft Video 1 is often larger than the uncompressed DV file!
An authoring codec that is only 8-bit. Pretty much useless.
DV isn’t just a tape format; it’s also a compression method. All DV camcorders and decks record to tape using DV compression. When you capture DV over Firewire, you’re not actually digitizing the video but rather simply performing a file transfer of the DV compressed files. Since everything on a DV tape is compressed using DV compression, there is actually no such thing as “uncompressed DV,” yet the term uncompressed DV is often casually used to refer to video that has not undergone any further compression besides its native DV compression.
If your footage originated on DV and was captured as Firewire, it is best to keep your project entirely in DV until you are finished. Only then should you compress to another format, such as with a delivery codec. By doing this you minimize any compression artifacts. While DV compression is very light, compression artifacts can occur, most commonly “stair-stepping” on diagonal lines and “mosquito noise” near high-contrast boundaries.
There are several DV codecs. Some are better than others, and some have restrictions. Here are some common AVI DV codecs
Canopus DV: Canopus was long considered the best DV codec until the arrival of the Avid DV codec (a Quicktime codec). It is still highly regarded, yet the main drawback is that you can only encode to Canopus DV on a machine that has Canopus hardware installed. There is a software-only codec that can be installed on any machine, but it will only playback Canopus DV files; it will not encode with Canopus DV. Video captured using the DVRaptor or DVStorm will be encoded with the Canopus DV codec.
DVSoft: A rather old DV codec that is pretty good. It’s main strength is that it can be installed on any machine and allows you to both playback and encode using DVSoft. DVSoft is useful if you want to encode DV files yet your machine does not have any video equipment or DV codecs installed.
Microsoft DV: Microsoft was rather late to the DV game, and their DV codec is usually rated rather poorly, although it has gotten better. The main advantage is that the DV codec now ships with Windows, so you should only use Microsoft DV if your movie to play on many machines or if you are not sure if your target machine has any other DV codec installed.
This is a very fast and very nice lossless codec. Huffyuv is an ideal codec to use for capturing of non-DV sources. It is also good to use for video sources that are not destined for DV and thus you avoid any DV artifacts. It works in both YUV and RGB color space. File sizes will be large, but not as large as they would be uncompressed. Huffyuv is not pre-installed anywhere, but it is a free download.
This is an RGB, uncompressed codec. Probably it is only best to use this when Huffyuv is not available.
A rather strange codec, it allows for uncompressed as well as various levels of compressed. Compressed is expressed through ratios rather than percentages or data rates (a common method within Avid products and high-end video, but rarely found elsewhere). I’ve gotten some strange playback errors using uncompressed, and the compressed options are not efficient enough for this codec to be used as a delivery option. Best not to use unless you are transferring material to or from an Avid system, and even then there are better codecs to use.