Understanding Codecs

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According to Wikipedia, "A codec is a device or program capable of performing encoding and decoding on a digital data stream or signal."  In plain English I'd put it this way: a codec allows one to read and save audio and video files, often for the purposes of saving space.

The best known example of a codec is MP3. It compresses bulky audio files such as WAV to much smaller MP3 files.

All codecs involve a trade off between the amount of compression and the resultant quality. If you compress too much the quality loss may become intolerable.  Information scientists are always coming up with smarter ways to get more compression with less quality loss. That's one of the reasons why there are so many codecs and it's also why newer ones will keep popping up.

So why is this important to you as a computer user?  Because to play an audio or video file that has been compressed by a particular codec you need the corresponding codec on your PC in order to decompress the file and play it.

Out of the box, a brand new PC will be capable of playing certain kinds of media. By default it will be able to play audio CD's, WAV files, certain kinds of AVI files, and Windows WMV files. However, there are a lot of other file formats which it will not be able to play, so additional codecs are needed for the computer to be able to decode those files and play them.

In fact, most computer users have encountered the situation of trying to play a video file only to be frustrated to find they don't have the codec. As a result the video won't play.

There are tools available to help overcome this problem, such as VideoInspector, a freeware program that identifies the codecs used in a particular video and helps you find a download location.

While you can install individual codecs in order to play a particular media file, it's more common to install a whole collection: a codec pack. The idea is to give end users a "one stop" installation of a lot of codecs so they don't have to hunt down particular codecs when they come across a file they cannot play.  On top of that, to add to all of the confusion, if you have a 64 bit operating system like Windows XP 64 or Vista x64, you will require 64 bit versions of these codecs.

That sounds handy but there's a catch. Some codec packs contain proprietary codecs of doubtful legality.  Typically this involves the use of codecs that are altered versions of existing codecs developed by other companies. Often this is done to avoid copyright issues, but it's sometimes done to extend functionality so the PC can play more file types. However, since almost all codecs are released under a license agreement which prohibit alteration, these altered versions are still likely to be illegal.

It's not only the law you have to be concerned about. Using an altered codec may cause problems on your PC. It all depends on how professionally the alterations were made. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing this in advance.

The following codecs and codec packs are considered to have legality issues hanging over them:

  • DivX 3.xx codec - This version and the many varieties of it are altered versions of the Microsoft MPEG-4 V3 codec. It is considered old by today's standards.  The current version of the DivX codec is now considered legal.
  • Asus Video codec - Another variation of Microsoft's MPEG-4 codec.

So where can you find free, legal codec packs that will let you view the media you need to view?  The following is a list of codec packs that are legal and free to download and install on your PC:

Be aware that you may have an illegal codec pack installed on your PC even if you didn't download it. That's because a number of media players come with codec packs as part of the installation package.  Often these codec packs show up in the Windows Control Panel Add/Remove programs applet, so you can uninstall them there if you wish. If they are not shown in Add/Remove programs, they will still be visible from the Windows Device Manager.

To see the codecs installed on your PC, right click on the My Computer icon, and select Properties/Hardware/Device manager/Sound Video Game Controllers. You can then select either of the Audio Codecs or Video Codecs items. For each items the codecs are listed under the properties tag. If you want to, you can also uninstall any unwanted codecs from the same location.

Sources:

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Comments

Thanks for this informative article, which is the rule on techsupportalert.com

A couple of comments: VideoInspector.exe when run on my system reached out to the internet early on and was blocked by my ESET. VideoInspector_lite.exe did not, however i canceled out at the screen that claimed to install a small program for its partners. The .zip file downloaded from their website was able to be extracted and run without installation.

BUT VideoInspector only reads certain file types (from their website: AVI, Matroska, MPEG I, MPEG II, (ie .mpg .mpeg files) QuickTime (ie .mov files)). It did not read .mp4 files, eg. That's of limited usefulness.

GSpot is currently (7/31/2013) available only as a .zip file. So users will have to extract it somewhere manually (which can be a challenge for non-technical users). It has not been updated since 2007.

Also note that you are literally downloading from a site that sells headbands. This threw me at first.

MediaInfo (mentioned elsewhere, eg "Free Tool Deciphers Video and Audio Encoding Methods" at http://www.techsupportalert.com/content/free-tool-deciphers-video-and-au...) comes with Open Candy which many consider spyware. Gizmo explains it all on this site.

Meaning...none of these choices is a slam dunk. I prefer GSpot until it doesnt recognize some new format. I have not tried, WebM, eg.

It appears it can be easier to install an alternative player, like VLC, which comes with the codes built-in, rather than identify and install missing codecs. The article "Best Free Media Player" at www.techsupportalert.com/best-free-windows-media-player-replacement.htm discusses this.

Edit: typos.