What’s the Difference Between a Format and a Codec?

Kevin asked a really good question:

Larry, I’m reading your book: Final Cut Pro Power Tips and I’m confused. What’s the difference between a “format” and a “codec?”

In many cases, the two words are used synonymously, but they are, in fact, different.


When we discuss still images and most audio, the codec and format are essentially the same, because there’s only one media element in the file.

In these single element files, the format and codec are the same.


But, when we move to video we are generally talking about “containers” that hold media files. Why? Because audio and video are separate files that use different codecs. So, we use containers to gather all these different files into one package.

Containers include, for example, QuickTime, MXF, or MPEG-4 (MP4). Each of these containers holds one or more video, audio, timecode, or caption (in some cases) files.

NOTE: Even a PSD file is actually a container that holds multiple files stored using potentially different codecs.

The format is the container: QuickTime, MXF, MP4, PSD, while the codec is the compression algorithm used to compress (or decompress) each of the elements in that container.

For example, a single QuickTime container might hold one or more of each of these files.


However, in the real world, you can get away with using format and codec interchangeably most of the time. Because most of us use the two words to mean the same thing: the codec that a file is saved in.

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