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TECH TALK: Communication Part 3—Those pesky file formats

For anyone who has to send content files—images, movies, sounds, and links—to collaborators, this column is a muist-read.

Editor’s note: Besides following developments in tech, our author is also a musical composer (Juilliard-trained). He has provided a musical composition for you to listen to while reading this column. This piece is called “Mason Hamlin Revival.”

Last week’s column, Communication—part 2, concluded by highlighting the diverse ways people prefer to communicate. When it comes to sharing rich media content—formerly referred to as multimedia and now often termed hypermedia, especially if it’s interactive—we deal with images, movies, sounds, and links. Column 2 stated:

“In terms of words, there is always text, Word, Pages, HTML, and PDF. In terms of images, there are jpg, png, bmp, tiff, gif, and PDF again. For movies, we have MOV, AVI, mp4, and AVCHD and for sound files, MP3s, WAV, and AIFF are the leading contenders. There are differences in sizes, resolution, sample rate, bit depth, and more.”

The different types of rich media files need to be separated and dealt with individually. Even if batch-processed, the components of the batch should be the same media type.

Let’s start with sound files because I am a music guy. There are two basic types of audio files: compressed and uncompressed. Compressed audio is easier to handle, while uncompressed audio offers higher quality. This is why the most prevalent audio file format is MP3—because it’s compressed, it’s small enough to email and stream.

This image was created by Howard Lieberman with the assistance of DALL-E-2, an AI software program.

Professionals use uncompressed audio for collaboration, but the files are more than ten times larger, making them easier to edit but harder to share and store.

In technology, there are always trade-offs between convenience and quality. The current music world often equates quality with convenience. Most of today’s music is
low-fidelity but convenient. A typical song, stored as an MP3, takes up only 3-4 megabytes, making it easy to email. An audio CD can hold up to 700 MB or the equivalent of 200 songs, but it usually has less than ten. This means that 95% of the information has been discarded, and you can tell the difference. As we know, CDs are becoming obsolete. If you want someone to listen to or publish for streaming, send an MP3. For collaboration, send a WAV or an AIFF.

There are multiple types of compressed and uncompressed audio files. MP3 files, for example, come in a range of compressions. Most people don’t need to be aware of this, but it’s worth knowing. I’ll spare you the math.

Uncompressed files can be mono, stereo, or multichannel and are usually WAV files, though the Mac world also uses AIFF (audio interchange file format). Microsoft created WAV files as a poorer imitation of the Apple AIFF format, which many audio professionals still use. This is analogous to Microsoft Windows, an imitation of the Apple operating system, which itself became an imitation of the Next Computer operating system when Steve Jobs was re-hired by Apple and brought Next Computer with him. I know because I was part of the effort to create the AIFF over thirty years ago when I worked at Bose. When musicians collaborate on professional-sounding, uncompressed results, they exchange files using means other than email. An audio CD can hold up to 700 MB—still too large to email. Musicians and recording engineers use uncompressed audio files and agree on the sampling frequency, usually 48 kHz, and the bit depth, usually 24 bits.

If you want someone to listen to or publish for streaming, send an MP3. For collaboration, send a WAV file. You can specify the bit rate for an MP3, which can reach high quality, but it is usually only 128 kbps, and the bit depth (usually 16 bits) does not need to be worried about.

This image was created by Howard Lieberman with the assistance of DALL-E-2, an AI software program.

A DVD can hold up to 4.7 GB for a single-layer version or 8.5 GB for a double-layer version. Even the lowest-resolution movies, standard definition (SD), are between one and two gigabytes. They are too large to email but can be streamed. MP4 (MPEG-4 Part 14) is the most common video file format as it is more compressed and smaller, while MOV files are often higher quality and larger. Many resolutions go beyond SD to 2K, 4K, and 8K video. It all depends on monitor resolution, collaborator preferences, and if streaming is the goal.

Unsurprisingly, there are formatting wars between Apple, Microsoft, and Google. As an ex-Apple engineer, I may be biased, but historically, Apple formats have generally been higher quality due to an integrated shared ecosystem.

The most accessible video format to send is MP4, and for audio, send MP3. All major systems can read and play these files. It has taken decades for consumers and companies to converge on this.

For written content, there are many proprietary file formats due to the numerous word- and note-processing applications. However, you can mostly ignore them and focus on three. If you care about formatting, send a PDF; everyone can read it. A text file works in a simple, editable forma and is much smaller and universally readable. For business, use Microsoft Word files. The creative world doesn’t have a single standard.

Microsoft PowerPoint is the standard for business presentations, while Apple’s Keynote is preferred by many academics, artists, and scientists. I often convert presentations to PDF to ensure compatibility and preserve formatting, though this sacrifices transitions.

File formats are tricky. There are many types for different situations. From my perspective, if you stick to MP3 for audio, MP4 for video, and PDF for everything else, you’ll be confident others can handle your files. However, as a courtesy, always ask what format is preferred since you can’t assume everyone is comfortable with the same formats in this varied media landscape.

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