MOV vs MP4 Formats Comparison: Stop Being in Two Minds


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Video makes for powerful content that is in demand by social media influencers, regular users, and businesses alike. For recording and streaming, the video file has to be compact enough and have a bit rate that can be handled by the viewer’s network or channel bandwidth. For editing and post-production, the video has to maintain a high level of quality. The digital container you use has an influence over all of these aspects, and this article will cover the differences between two common container file extensions: MOV and MP4.

MOV in a nutshell…

MOV, short for ‘movie’, was developed by Apple in 1991 as a container to go with their trademark multimedia framework - QuickTime movie player. At first, both the program and the format were only available for macOS. Later, support for Windows PC was included for several years, yet discontinued again in 2016. The .mov extension is equivalent to .qtff or .qt, which stands for QuickTime File Format. MOV supports multiple codecs and is considered to be one of the leading video formats to this day.

MOV is based on the concept of tracks, where every data stream of different types and origins is recorded, digitally encoded, and stored separately. Tracks are used for video, audio, and text (for, say, subtitles) and are grouped following a specific order scheme. The smallest object in the file is called an atom, and it can either contain data itself or represent a parent directory to other atoms. This structure makes for faster editing since you can access, change, and rewrite parts of the video without having to update the whole file each time. As for file size, it will vary based on the length of the video and the codec used.

When would MOV be appropriate?

Given the file hierarchy described in the paragraph above, MOV is a solid choice for post-production, especially for video professionals. It would also be suitable if you primarily work with Apple devices that run on macOS or iOS. Just keep in mind that similar to other Apple products, the company often discontinues support for legacy models and older versions, so make sure you have the latest possible hardware and firmware for the format to be fully compatible. To work with MOV on Windows, a third-party application might be required.

… And a little about MP4

MP4 is a video file format defined by MPEG in MPEG-4 Part 14 specification, initially released by ISO in 2004. Historically speaking, it was a superior installment in the MPEG series that followed versions one (released in 2001) and two and was meant to be on par with QuickTime. MP4 is highly similar to MOV: it follows the atomic syntax, has the same structure, and can work with most of the codecs used for QuickTime. However, there are also some advancements, such as additional tracks for object and scene descriptors.

MP4 enjoys wide compatibility and can hold a video encoded with either a MPEG or an H.264 codec, along with an ACC or MP3 audio stream. Even though the standard extension is .mp4, there is an entire branch of other extensions that fall under the same definition and are used to further indicate the type of file content. For example, a .m4v is a version of MP4 with DRM enabled, a .m4a file suggests it is carrying audio, while a .m4b is used for e-books. Besides the audio and video streams, an MP4 file can hold other metadata like still images, chapter marks, and hyperlinks.

When would MP4 be appropriate?

MP4 is a universally supported format that is considered a standard in the video world, so it is highly compatible with all operating systems and devices. That means that almost any kind of equipment you have would be suitable for this format. MP4 is also great for mobile devices - for example, if you film, edit, and share videos on a social media platform - due to low bandwidth compatibility and a higher degree of compression. Both YouTube and Instagram recommend the MP4 container as the primary one for streaming.

The differences between MOV and MP4: storage, editing, and sharing

Given the brief history of both container formats outlined above, we can see that they represent two versions of the MPEG series, so there are bound to be similarities between them. As for the differences, first, there is device and software compatibility. MP4 is supported by more media players, programs, and OSes than MOV is, and it is better suited for mobile phones. However, if your primary device is a PC that runs on macOS, MOV support is natively provided with QuickTime. As for post-production and editing, MOV will let you make changes faster since it allows for working with each track separately without having to update and rewrite the whole file.

MP4 gives a high-quality output, equal to that of a DVD. Yet, since MOV files are often recorded and stored with codecs that have low compression, they are very high quality but are substantial in file size. MOV can also work with completely lossless codecs. MP4, in turn, offers a higher degree of compression to make files smaller while still maintaining quality. You would have to find a balance between optimizing your storage and keeping as many details as possible. That said, unless you have a hard drive or a cloud disk to keep the extra videos on, MP4 would let you save more memory since MOVs are generally larger.

Visual comparison: MOV vs MP4

Now that we have covered the differences between MOV and MP4 containers, let’s look at the common criteria that could be used for their visual comparison and see which extensions, metadata, devices, and codecs they support. To choose the right format, consider these technical specifications as well as the nuances of your specific use case.

 

MOV

MP4

Brief history

Developed by Apple in 1991 as a native format for QuickTime media player.

Released by ISO in 2001 with a second edition in 2003 as a better version of the QuickTime File Format.

Extension

Files in the QuickTime File Format go by .mov or .qt.

Files in the MPEG-4 Part 14 format go by .mp4, but can also come in the form of .m4v and .m4a, .m4b, .m4p for audio-only content.

Metadata

Creation and editing date, codec information, duration, tags, annotations, copyright info, etc.

Title, artist, video synopsis, file description, subtitles, grouping, encoder information, etc. + XMP metadata.

Device compatibility

Mainly macOS-based native device support.

Almost universal out-of-the-box support.

Codec support

ProRES/DNxHD/DNxHR/H.264/H.265 video.

H.264/H.265/MPEG video + ACC/MP3 audio.

Would I lose quality if I convert MOV to MP4?

At some point in working with a MOV file, you might need to convert it to MP4: if, say, you were editing it on your MacBook and now want to submit it to a video sharing site. As mentioned above, MOV and MP4 are only container formats that can have streams within them encoded with different codecs. If the original MOV file contains a video track with an MP4-compatible codec, then it would simply be copied during conversion with no loss to quality. The same goes for the audio codec used in the digital container file.

However, you might not always know which codecs are used in your MOV. All codecs supported by MP4 are lossy, and MOV does indeed work with lossless ones. So in that case, you would see an insignificant drop in quality during conversion. You also have to make sure the input and output files have the same bit rate. Opt for an online converter that has advanced settings and lets you choose the resolution and codecs for the final video.

To cherry-pick: what is your ultimate goal?

While container formats do have their differences, keep in mind that the quality and size of the video will also depend on the codec you use, not just the MOV vs MP4 choice. The most common ones are H.264 and HEVC codecs that split frames into blocks and try to predict what each next frame will look like by measuring the residual difference and discarding higher-frequency patterns.

Once you decide on the right codecs for the audio and video streams in your video, you can choose between MOV and MP4 based on your ultimate goal. Are you a professional video editor for businesses and brands, or do you mainly work with social media platforms? If you work with videos as a contractor, what are the specifications of the target medium? And, if you are a regular user that makes videos for yourself, which device do you usually use for editing and post-production? To make a more educated choice, you can use this table as a reference:

Goal

Format

Comment

Optimizing file storage

MP4

MP4 generally uses codecs with higher levels of compression, which makes for files that are smaller in size.

Editing videos with high attention to detail

MOV

MOV files support faster and more precise editing since it isolates audio and video elements during playback.

Editing videos on your mobile phone

MP4

MP4 files are lighter in size and are compatible with all mobile OSes and any third-party applications for video editing.

Maintaining the highest quality possible

MOV

MOV files support lossless codecs, keeping as much original data from the source as possible.

Streaming or posting on social media platforms

MP4

Video-centered platforms like YouTube and Instagram have MP4 specified as the preferred format.

Summary

Digital video can be produced with a wide range of codecs and containers, which, in turn, create an array of potential formats. Deciding on their combination to shoot, deliver, edit, and archive files might be tricky. The most commonly used containers - MOV and MP4 - take root from a similar source of MPEG but have acquired some differences in the development process. For one, MOV would better work with macOS models while MP4 is supported by all other OSes and versions.

Ultimately, the choice between containers is defined by the goals you need to meet. For optimizing smartphone storage and producing large volumes of content for maintaining social media, MP4 would be a better option. For professional video making, detailed post-production, and projects with a focus on video quality, MOV is suggested. Either way, if a video is filmed with the same codecs, there would be virtually no differences between its .mov and .mp4 source versions.

FAQ

What are the main differences between MOV and MP4 files?

MOV files are larger and less compressed, which makes for slightly higher quality. They are primarily compatible with macOS and are better for post-production. MP4 enjoys universal support, is lighter for storage, and allows for faster streaming with lower bandwidth.

Which format is better for post-production, MP4 or MOV?

Editing and post-production are essential stages in the video content creation cycle. MOV would be the better choice here since it allows you to edit different streams separately and bring them together without having to wait for the whole file to be compiled again.

Why does YouTube take so long to process .mov files?

MOV files are generally heavier than MP4 ones since they are made with codecs that support lossless or slightly lossy compression. The larger the file size is, the longer the processing will take. It can also depend on your network bandwidth.

Which format is best for YouTube: MOV or MP4?

The recommended YouTube file format is MP4 with an H.264 codec. You can, however, perform the editing of the video on a macOS computer in the MOV format, and later convert it to MP4 before uploading it to YouTube.

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