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What Are Digital Media Formats and Why Do You Need to Know About Them?

Be Sure Your Network Media Player Can Play All Your Digital Media Files


File Format Logos

File Format Logos

Barb Gonzalez

Youve connected your PC to your network media player but you cant play a video.  Or some of your files dont even appear in your list of music.  The culprit is probably that those media files are in a format that your network media player cant play.  It simply cannot understand that type of file.

What Are File Formats?

When you save a file, it is encoded so that computer programs can read and work with it.  For example, document formats can be read and edited in word-processing programs such as Microsoft Word.  Photo formats can be read by photo-editing applications like Photoshop, and by such photo-organizing programs as Windows Photo Viewer and iPhoto.  Many video formatsincluding camcorder and DVD files, Quicktime files, Windows videos, and numerous high-definition formatsmust be converted to be played by programs other than the software for which they were originally created or saved. These file formats are also called codecs, short for coder decoder.

Converting a file so that it can be played by another program, or by a previously incompatible device, is called "transcoding". Some computer media server programs can be set to automatically transcode media files that are otherwise incompatible with your network media player.

What Is the Difference Between File Formats?

Photos, music and movies are naturally different formats. But within those categories, formats also vary. 

For example, photos are frequently saved in RAW, TIFF, or JPEG formats.  Saving a photo in the TIFF format preserves the best quality of the photo but its a huge file.  This means that if you use TIFFs you will fill up your hard drive with fewer photos than if you use another format like JPEG.  JPEG formats compress the filethey squeeze it down and make it smallerso you can fit a lot more JPEG photos on your hard drive.

Video files are in standard or high-definition formats.  Not only are they created in different formats, they can be converted to play on different devices, from TVs to smart phones.

Network Media Players File Format Capabilities

Your network media player (or networked TV or other component) must be able to read a file type before it can show it or play it.  Some players will not even display the file names of files that are in formats they are incapable of playing.  

Clearly, it is essential that the network media player you choose is capable of reading and playing the files you have stored on your computer and home network.  This becomes particularly obvious when you have iTunes and a Mac but your network media player cant understand those file types.

If you want to see what types of files you have in your media library, go to the folder view of Windows Explorer (PC) or Finder (Mac). Here you can navigate to see a list of all the files in your media folders. Right click on a highlighted file and choose "properties" (PC)' or get info" (MAC). The file type or "kind" of file will be listed here. 

Sometimes you can identify the file format by its extension: the letters to the right of the .  Youll see something like a Beatles song in the mpeg 3 audio-file format mp3 (i.e., "HeyJude.mp3"). You may have heard of an MP3 portable music player. Video formats can be a WMV for PC videos or MOV for Quicktime videos. The file StarTrek.m4v" is a high definition MPEG-4 video file. 

Note: If your network media player is unable to play a particular file even though it is capable of playing the format, it may be a copyright-protected file.  Manufacturers are working on making it possible to share (stream) legally acquired, protected media within your home

If all of this talk of file formats and transcoding has you feeling like a deer in headlights, heres the bottom line:

When buying a network media player, look for one that can play most file formats.

Here is a list of the most popular file formats:

For photos:  JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIFF, BMP


Other formats you may have: ASF, FLAC, LPCM, ADPCM, OGG

For videoMPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, AVI, MOV, AVCHD, H.264, MTS, 

Other formats you may have: DivX and DivX HD, Xvid HD, MKV, RMVB, WMV9,  TS/TP/M2T

If you save your music in iTunes, be sure that your network media player can play AAC Audio. iTunes audio files may be listed as m4a or Apple Lossless. Files with the m4p extension are protected AAC files.  You can now buy music from the iTunes store that is unprotected (DRM-free), so you can play this music freely on all of your devices. 


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