File Formats You Use Daily, Their Purpose and Meaning

File Formats You Use Daily, Their Purpose and Meaning

Average PC users frequently encounter various file extensions and sometimes they aren’t sure what they actually stand for. This article covers the most widely used file formats and gives you a few hints about which one will best fit your needs. Even people who aren’t into computers and software have surely heard of MP3, AVI, JPG, PDF or RAR and even if you’re a newbie you most definitely use those file formats on a daily basis. We’re going to discuss text, audio, video, archive and image file formats in order to systematize them thus helping you realize how to put them to good use.

Document File Formats

Microsoft Word is among the most frequently used rich text document file formats, and it has undergone numerous changes and facelifts

When we’re talking about document file formats, we actually think about programs that help you create and edit text documents, better known as word processing software. The first difference that we’re going to make is rich text vs plain text documents. Plain text documents, as their name suggests, consist of plain text that isn’t formatted, and you’ll recognize them by a .txt file extension. For example, Microsoft’s Notepad is used for .txt files and this program is definitely not something that you’d use when you want to write your CV or an essay. On the other hand, rich text documents are those that can be edited and formatted, meaning that you can choose font styles or colors, paragraph styles, or insert non-text formats such as images or charts. Microsoft Word is among the most frequently used rich text document file formats, and it has undergone numerous changes and facelifts, in order to become one of the most popular word processing programs by offering a wide range of text editing options. Its latest version comes in DOCX file format and there’s the option to save it as an earlier, Word 97-2003 Document, version for compatibility reasons. When it comes to Mac OS, it can regularly open and save DOCX file format. Pages document file format is a native Mac word processing program and it also offers the possibility to be saved as a PDF, DOCX or plain text document.  Although PDF (Portable Document Format) isn’t exactly similar to other word processing programs, we still believe that it has to be mentioned in this paragraph as it’s also used as a document tool. PDF isn’t easily editable like Word, but on the other hand, it features password protection and it’s also compatible with all kinds of operating systems and configurations, including Mac OS. PDF has its advantages over Word, as this it allows you to combine various different formats into one document. This basically means that you can import Word documents, Vector graphics, Excel spreadsheets and many others and create a single PDF document. It’s in a way more reliable than DOCX in the sense that it can’t be altered without permission, which means that your legal documents are safer when they’re saved as a PDF. Besides that, its compactness makes it easily used and shared. For example, if someone uses a font you don’t have installed, you won’t be able to view that text in a Word document, but PDF captures the document in its entirety including font styles, colors and all other appearance related characteristics, so that the end user doesn’t have to worry about that part and all you’ve got to do is install a PDF reader. Besides readers, there are also PDF editors as well as password removers.

Audio File Formats

audio file formats

MP3 is certainly one of the most popular and widely used audio formats. It stands for a digital audio format that uses data compression. In layman’s terms, this means that MP3 file is what you get when you compress a CD or some other audio file of an advanced quality, thus making it smaller so that it can be easily transferred via the Internet. If we bear in mind that a CD has a bit rate (the value which reflects audio quality) of 1411.2 kbps while an MP3 file has approximately 128kbps, it’s clear that some quality is lost in the process of compressing. Luckily, our hearing isn’t that sophisticated so that we don’t actually detect deterioration in quality. Other available audio file formats are WAV, which is mainly use on Windows OS although some other systems can also read it; FLAC belongs to so-called lossless compressed audio formats, meaning that there’s no loss in quality while it can compress a file up to 60% which is a significant reduction in size, and last but not least, it’s free; WMA is Windows Media Audio and it’s another Microsoft format, but unlike WAV this one is its lossless alternative. To cut the long story short, with FLAC you can both have your cake and eat it, as it offers both high quality audio files that won’t eat up all your storage space, but if you want to listen to some music wile on the go, MP3 will do just fine, but don’t expect earth-shattering audio experience. When it comes to compatibility, both these formats are supported by all major systems and programs.

Video File Formats

video file format

There are several frequently used video file formats such as AVI, WMV, MOV or MP4. AVI is among the most common video file formats and it’s popular because of the fact that it offers an excellent video quality together with a relatively small size. WMV stands for Windows Media Video, and its name is self-explanatory. This file format has been used mainly for web streaming applications, but its small size made it an excellent choice for sharing video files over emails. It should be said that those files can be additionally compressed thus becoming virtually the smallest video files on the market, but unfortunately this significantly affects their quality. Although WMV has been designed for Windows, WMV players compatible with Mac are available. MOV files are also used for sharing and viewing video files, but their quality is excellent and their size is usually big. This format has been designed for Mac computers, but there’s a free player compatible with Windows. MP4 has gained popularity over the past few years, and it can maintain a high standard of video reproduction combined with additional features such as subtitles, 3D graphics and user menus. This format uses separate compression for audio and video tracks. It’s largely compatible with various systems.

Image File Formats

When you take a photo, you can choose whether you want to save it as a lossless or lossy format

As with video and audio file formats, image file formats also revolve around two key factors: size and quality. When you take a photo, you can choose whether you want to save it as a lossless or lossy format. Again, “lossless” compression means that the image is compressed and made smaller but with only minor detriment to quality, while “lossy” means that the image is reduced in size but with significant detriment to quality. For example, RAW, a lossless file format is suitable for those who want to keep all the light data so that they could edit the picture, but this format isn’t suitable for social networks or websites because it can be as large as 20 MB thus taking too much space. That’s why there is a JPEG file format, which is lossy, and by means of various settings you can select whether you want a smaller JPEG of lower quality or a larger one of better quality. Apart from those two, there are other lossless formats such as BMP, PNG or RMG, and lossy formats – GIF. GIF is nowadays used mainly used for small animations uploaded on the websites. This means that JPEG is the best choice, but you should know how to edit it.

Archive File Formats

archive file format

When you want to save some space or send multiple files via email, you’ll have to archive them, that is pack a number of files into one archive. There are several archive formats that are commonly used, and what many PC users first think of is ZIP. It’s very popular since it is fast and doesn’t burden the CPU. One of its main advantages is that it can seamlessly combine large quantities of various data types. It both compresses and archives data, and it’s versatile in terms of system compatibility. RAR is another widely used compressing and archiving file format, but it boasts better compression ratio than ZIP, and it also offers recovery capabilities as well as a very strong encryption. 7Z is an open source format compatible with all major operating systems. Its main advantage is compression ratio although it provides only a basic interface and few additional features.


The bottom line is that there’s no such thing as the best audio, video or document file format, as all of them have a particular purpose. In order to fully enjoy the benefits each file format offers, it’s important to understand what its main uses and advantages are, and in our article we’ve tried to show you the ropes.

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