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Whenever you watch a video, whether it’s through your favorite streaming service, YouTube, or even videos you’ve recorded on your phone, they’re all encoded. Devices use something called codecs to interpret and render these videos into something that you can watch. This glossary will explain what codecs are and why they’re important to modern technology.

What Is a Codec?

A codec is a type of technology used to compress or decompress digital video and audio signals for transmission, storage, or recording. Typically this is implemented as a software solution that can compress the video and send it to the user for viewing. The term ‘codec’ is a combination of the words “coder” and “decoder”, as well as “compression” and “decompression”. In essence, a codec can be a device or a software program that serves both of these functions.

They’re also popular for livestreaming services like Twitch, where your chosen codec can dramatically affect your video quality.

Codecs are crucial in applications for creating and playing media files, and they play a vital role in sending media files over a network. They can also be used to convert between analog and digital sound.

Codecs compress by removing information the human eye won’t notice, like color variations between pixels. The more you compress something, the smaller its file size becomes–but this can lead to artifacts such as blockiness in images or choppy audio when played back on low-quality devices like smartphones. For example, a 4K movie might originally equal five terabytes of data per hour, but a codec can compress it into the gigabyte range, making it manageable for storage and transmission. Using the proper codec won’t lose image quality when transmitting data to another source.

The Purpose of Codecs

A codec is used to compress and decompress data. It can reduce the size of files, which is useful for sending files over the internet or storing them on your computer. Typically, a codec consists of two parts: an encoder that compresses the media file and a decoder that decompresses the file. This two-part structure is essential for the efficient processing of multimedia.

Codecs are also responsible for encoding analog video signals into digital form and decoding them back into analog. This process converts images shot by a video camera into pixels that can be displayed on a monitor or other device that uses pixels (like a smartphone).

How Codecs Work

In order to understand how codecs work, let’s look at an example:

Say you want to send some files over email but don’t want them taking up too much space on your recipient’s hard drive (or force them to wait forever to download it). You could just attach the original file as an attachment.Still, they’d have access only after it finished downloading – and if they’re using mobile internet instead of WiFi at home or work, some major delays could be involved.

Instead of attaching the huge original file directly into an email message, what if we could compress it first? That way, we could send a much smaller file, but we also want to retain the quality of the video. Once received by our recipient’s computer system (and after decompressing), each individual frame within each video would appear just like usual – but within seconds rather than minutes!

Why Are Codecs Important?

Hundreds of codecs are available, and the typical user requires multiple codecs to play different types of video and audio. For instance, ACC is currently the best audio codec for professional broadcasting, while AAC is optimal for most situations. Codecs have been around since the early days of computers, but they’ve become more popular recently thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and livestreaming like Twitch.

If you’ve ever watched any kind of media on your computer or phone, you’ve probably come across one type of encoding/decoding process known as H264. This is just one example among many; there are many different types of codecs used today by everything from phones to large broadcast networks.

Codecs examples

Optimizing Your Videos with Cloudinary

Setting up videos on your site or trying to manage your media library can be a hassle. Especially when it comes to trying to figure out the best codecs for your content. Thankfully, Cloudinary is here to help.

With our Media Delivery API, you can take the tedious work of encoding or decoding your videos. Our API will automatically pick and use the best codecs for your needs in a seamless experience, giving you more time to work on things that matter. And the best part? Cloudinary is entirely free! Get started today by signing up here.

Last updated: Jan 8, 2024